Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Never Know What Will Come in Handy

I wrote a few days ago about visiting two elderly women in a retirement community. Lilly May was in her mid 90's when I started visiting her back in 1996. I visited her until she passed away at the age of 101.

Lilly May was a very bright lady; smart as a whip, as they say. She had been a teacher of foreign languages. She played the piano beautifully and also taught music. Both of her parents were physicians. Her mother was a physician in the late 1800s, which wasn't so typical! This woman later left her medical practice to become a Christian Scientist.

I didn't learn all this about Lilly May at once. In fact, it took a long time for me to get to know her. Lilly May didn't know what to make of me when I first started visiting her.

"Why are you here?" she asked as she looked at me suspiciously.

"I'm a volunteer with 'Friend to Friend' and I'm here to visit with you and help you in any way I can," I replied with a big, friendly smile.

"Why would you want to do that?" she asked with further suspicion and some surprise.

I tried to explain that I had lost my grandmothers at a very young age and that I had missed being around women from that generation. I talked about how much I enjoy helping people. I let her know that I had recently left my software design career to return to graduate school to study psychology, and that for the first time in many years, I had time to do some of the things I wanted to do.

No matter how I tried to explain my motives, for many months she looked at me a little funny when I would show up, and would often ask, "Are you studying me? Do you think there is something wrong with me or something? Am I the subject of a paper for your graduate work?"

A lot of her comments and questions about me and my motives were amusing! It was also, clear, however, that she had trouble believing that someone could do something just to be nice.

I would go to visit Lilly May every Wednesday. We would sit in her apartment, sometimes have tea and talk about what activities she was doing in the retirement community.

One day, early on, she must have just decided to go on with what she would normally do, whether I was there or not... and let me deal with that. She picked up the New York Times crossword puzzle and went to work.

She would work on it for a minute or two silently, then she would involve me a bit and ask me things like, "OK. 24 Down. A 6 letter word for 'Hope's partner.' Do you know it?"

"Crosby? I think it's Bing Crosby."

"How on earth does someone your age know that?" She would ask in disbelief.

"I watched a lot of old movies as a kid and I still love them!" I would reply.

Most of the time in the early days, she asked me for 'help' with answers she already knew. She was testing me. Little did she know that crosswords were a favorite hobby of mine. Each time I got one of her 'quizzes' correct, she relaxed a bit more in my presence.

One day, she upped the ante. "OK Nola," she said. "I don't know this one. Maybe you can help. 19 down. 12 letters. "Fans are parrot heads." I don't understand that at all. What on EARTH is a parrot head?"

Without hesitation I answered, "They are looking for 'Jimmy Buffett.' He's a musician who sings a lot of songs about leisure, relaxation and tropical places so his fans are called parrot heads. One of my friends is so into him that he goes to his concert every time he's in his area, and he actually has a funny hat that has a fake parrot perched on top."

"Wow," she said. "I've never heard of anything so crazy."

I was right, of course, and this impressed the heck out of her. From that day forward, "we" did the crossword puzzle for most of my visit. She no longer relegated me to answers she already knew. I actually got to help with solving the puzzle.

This is how I won her over: by being really good at crossword puzzles. You never know what is going to come in handy in life. All those hours I spent as a kid doing the newspaper's crossword puzzle helped me forge a relationship with this amazing woman.

Lilly May had traveled the world. She and I had both been to Bali, and had a lot of fun reminiscing about our visits to this magical and special place. She played and taught piano, and I took 11 years of lessons as a kid. She played for me often and every now and then I would play for her. She was much better than me at playing the piano and I preferred to listen to her play.

We did our crossword puzzles and I helped her with things that were getting harder for her to do with her increasing years - like watering her plants and going to the store for things that she needed. One year, she came to my house to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family. She eventually stopped asking if I was 'studying her' for a psychology paper. :) We became friends.

She always had a basket of candy attached to the front of her walker. She wasn't supposed to have it, of course. Lilly May was not someone who responded well to being told what to do. She was truly her own woman.

As she got older, she would repeat stories over and over again. They were usually about her husband. "Isn't he a handsome man?" she would ask as she pointed to his photo. He was. She regaled me with stories of how they met, their courtship, marriage and long life together. "That's my son," she would say as she pointed to his photo on the wall. "He's a pharmacist working for the FDA. He's terribly busy you know and can't come to visit me very much..." her voice would always trail off sadly when she told me about him. He visited as often as he could, but for a mother... it's never enough.

Her hearing was failing when I first started visiting her. Lucky for us, my voice carries extremely well. Sometimes it carries too well. :) One day, she said "You know, I have trouble hearing most people, but I can hear you JUST FINE!" My loud, easily carried voice has sometimes been a challenge for me in life, but it sure came in handy with Lilly May.

Her eyesight began to fade, and that was extremely hard on Lilly May. Eventually she couldn't do crossword puzzles any more. For a while, I would read her the clues and do the writing for her. That seemed to depress her. It wasn't the same as being master of the puzzle. She asked me if I would read to her. I started bringing old copies of my mom's 'Reminiscence' magazines. She loved those, because they told stories about times past, which just happened to be the days of Lilly May's youth and younger adulthood. She loved those stories.

Lilly May was a special woman. We had a sweet bond. Ultimately, it was my crossword puzzle ability that won her over. Especially for the 'old stuff that no one my age ever knows' according to Lilly May. :) That, and the fact that she could hear me well.

We never know what is going to come in handy in life. Sometimes we develop interests or skills that don't seem to make sense. Sometimes those things might be a problem, say a voice that many say is 'too loud' or an addictive hobby like crossword puzzles that can chew up a lot of time.

Sometimes those things are 'the key' to other experiences in life. Coming to know this, in my opinion, involves learning to trust that there is a reason for everything. Sometimes we'll get to see that reason and sometimes we won't. That's where the trust comes in.

My life wouldn't have been the same if I'd missed those precious days with Lilly May. I'm grateful for my love of (and ability with) crossword puzzles, all the hours I spent watching movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s when I was growing up, and the fact that I was given a booming, resonant voice by my creator. Those were the qualities that mad it possible for me to have Lilly May as a companion and a friend as she journeyed through her final years on this earth.

It was, indeed, a blessing and it made me really appreciate these qualities in myself that otherwise might have been dismissed as unimportant.

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