Many years ago, I was visiting an elderly woman in a nursing home. I did not know her well but I knew she was lonely so I’d try to stop in from time to time.
She was approaching her mid-90s and in fairly good shape except that her mind and lively spirit had outlived her body which had grown extremely frail and feeble. Arthritis had crippled her and turned her hands into knotted balls. She spent most of her time in a wheel chair and was usually at the mercy of the attendants – some who were sweet, others who were not.
One afternoon, I found her in the common area with other residents. I looked around for a chair.
“Before you sit down, would you bring me something from my room?” she asked. “I have something I want to show you.”
“Of course,” I replied. “What is it?”
“A photo album.” She brightened considerably. “My cousin’s granddaughter brought it by.”
She took it gently in her hands and patted it lovingly before opening. It was obviously a treasure to her. The album consisted mostly of black and white photos with a smattering of color Kodak snapshots from the 1960s tossed in.
“They found this in my cousin’s belongings when they were cleaning out.” She frowned. “She died three years ago. Our mothers were sisters. Her granddaughter said for me to keep it and enjoy it as long as I wanted.”
She began the telling of the photos, most of which she knew but, from time to time, she would say something like, “I don’t know who that is. It don’t look like none of our people. Must be someone from her husband’s side of the family. They were a rowdy bunch, for the most part. But he was a good man. A fine man. Yes, he was.”
At least 20 years have come and gone since that afternoon that I sat by her side, the sun streaming in from the west facing window, and listened as she recounted stories behind the photos in which she appeared.
“I made that dress. Isn’t it pretty? When I saw that fabric, I knew I had to have it.”
Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is a moment of kindness when we stop and listen to those who are facing, as my daddy would say, the setting of the sun. That afternoon for nigh on two hours, I listened and occasionally asked questions as she talked. And talked. And talked. Halfway through the photo album, I realized that, except for her, everyone pictured had departed this vale of tears and sorrows.
On the last page, she lingered, touching lovingly the face of her baby brother. “He died too young. A heart attack. Never been sick a day in his life.”
“I know you miss them all,” I said quietly.
She nodded. Her voice had a tear-cloaked tone when she spoke. “The saddest thing is that there’s no one left who remembers me when I was young.” She paused then her voice dropped to a whisper. “And pretty.”
I’ve never been much good at saying the right thing in moments like that. I wish I had that gift. This was in the years before death had become too much of a constant in my life but I had already bowed before enough graves that I knew well enough how loss feels. I squeezed her hand.
“You’re still pretty.”
“Pretty old.” She laughed. “You should have seen me back then.” She flipped back to the front of the album and pointed to a young woman in the prime of beauty. She was dressed in a light-colored suit, matching hat and gloves with a purse hanging in the crook of her arm.
“Back then, all the boys wanted to court me.”
And though there was no one else left to remember her youth, she still remembered. Vividly. And fondly.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.