In this time of giving, we are reminded of all of the wonderful gifts that people living with dementia have given to us. Once we took the time to get to know these elders, we found that they had wonderful stories to share with us. These stories are often just snapshots, brief moments remembered from a long life. A wise man once told us,
“When an old person dies, an entire library is lost.”
Here is one of our favorite stories. It was told to us by a 95 year old woman. As a young girl, she lived in a sod house on the prairie. Though out her long life, she spent her days sharing her gifts of music and poetry with her church, her family and her friends. This story that she shared with us is a fine example of courage and grace in desperate times, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. We happily pass this gift forward for you to enjoy this Christmas season.
THE BEST GIFT
The calendar said it was spring, but winter wasn.t quite finished with us yet. This particular Saturday started with a cold rain and as the temperature continued to drop, the rain turned to sleet. The sidewalks were soon covered with ice. As I climbed the steps to the El train downtown after work, a flower vendor’s colorful display caught my eye. It seemed so out of place to see fresh roses in that miserably cold corner. They weren't long stemmed, but they were roses. Suddenly I felt a tremendous urge to buy a dozen and bring them to my friend, Mae. Mae was a soloist in our choir. I was her accompanist, and I admired her tremendously. This was during the depression, so even twenty- five cents was big money for me. The vendor gave me extra wax paper to protect the roses, and I headed for home.
My mom was appalled when I told her of my planned errand as I gulped down a little of her good dinner. Her words,
“In this weather?” showed her concern.
After another two blocks of slipping and sliding, a short ride on the Western Avenue streetcar and longer ride on the Milwaukee Avenue streetcar, plus three more blocks of walking, I reached her address- but no Mae! Her grimly angry mother-in-law told me, “They’ve moved out!” After considerable pleading, she gave me their new address.
Another three block hike brought me back to Milwaukee Avenue and the factory type building indicated. No front entrance, no side entrance. After picking my way
through mud and debris, I found a rickety door at the back of the building. Inside was a long, dark stairway. With my heart in my throat, I inched my way up the stairs and knocked at the door. The door opened and Mae’s husband stood in the doorway with their toddler in his arms. His inability to find employment had led to the quarrel with his parents and their asking him to move. He told me Mae was walking to her mother’s home to ask for money for bread and milk for the baby.
By now, I was feeling that the roses were totally inappropriate, but her husband’s eyes were glistening as he put them in a tall water glass. His voice wasn’t quite steady as he told me,
“When Mae left to go to her mother’s she said, ‘I don.t think there is one person in this whole world who cares whether we live or die!’” They both told me afterward of the healing tears that flowed when Mae returned home to find roses waiting for her. Through the years she has often mentioned that little bunch of roses as the best gift she had ever received!
When we share Esther’s story with various groups, we always ask this question: What color were the roses? Nine out of ten people say that the roses were red. Sadly, we never asked Esther that question, so the color of the roses will forever be a mystery. Esther’s story of this gift of compassion and love during very tough times, gives us an intimate look into the great depression. We learn about the courage and toughness of a young girl as she set out on her mission to bring flowers to her friend. We also ask groups who read this story,
“Would you have had the courage to walk up those dark, rickety stairs on a cold, sleeting, wet night?”