Many years ago, during President Bush’s (senior) presidency, there was a program called the Points of Light Foundation. You could call a 1-800 number and the operator would put you in touch with a volunteer organization that might need your help. As I work with young people every day I thought I might like to try to work with the elderly. The Foundation operator put me in touch with a retirement home and I was able to contact them directly. Upon talking with the director of the retirement home I learned of a lady named Minnie Poppe that would really appreciate visitors as she had been abandoned by family and had no regular visitors.
I went to the retirement home and was struck by the smell in the air. It smelled of sickness and sadness. The nurse on duty walked me over to Minnie’s room and introduced me. “Mrs. Poppie (she pronounced it like Poppy- the flower), there is a young lady here to meet you. “
Minnie was legally blind and bed ridden. Her hair and nails were all a mess from neglect. But then Minnie spoke to me. Her voice had that particular southern drawl that one might find in Charleston, South Carolina. Very gentile and lady like. She said, “My name is pronounced Pop not Poppy.” “Really?, I said. “Oh well how do you do Mrs. Poppe. I’m Kathleen. “
And from this our visits began. Minnie would tell me about her life growing up and I would listen to her stories about her husband (who was younger than she by five years-cheeky monkey she was) and how much they loved each other. I never did hear about her children so I don’t know if she had any. I just remember how sweet and gentle her voice sounded and one time she said to me, “Come closer to the bed darling so I can get a better view of your countenance.” And with that I stepped up to the side of the bed and Minnie took my face in both of her hands and we practically touched noses so she could see me. I couldn’t help but giggle and then she did too.
I tried to think of things I could do for Minnie so one time I brought my nail kit and make up and I did her nails and put make up on her and we laughed and had a ball. Another time I brought her the biggest balloons I could find and tied them to the side of her bed so she could see them.
And one time when I went to visit her I found her bed had been wheeled out into the hallway and she was basically left there like a piece of furniture under the bright florescent lights. I was so mad I asked the rounding nurse about this and was told it was because they had painted her room and were waiting for the paint to dry. I didn’t know what to do so I decided to go out to my car and get my umbrella and open it up and placed it over Minnie so she wouldn’t have to suffer the glare of the lights anymore. We giggled together like school girls when the orderlies walked by and stared at us like we were nuts. We were having fun so who cared?
I remember the last time I spoke to Minnie she was saying that she was afraid to die and I tried my best to cheer her up and to not be afraid because she will be with her husband again and won’t that be wonderful?
Life became crazy busy for me and I didn’t see Minnie for a month. I dutifully marched into the retirement home and froze at the door when I saw another name outside Minnie’s door. I asked the head nurse and she said that Minnie had passed about a month ago. I was devastated but then realized that she had passed away shortly after our last visit. So now she is with her husband.
At that time I vowed that someday, somehow, I would write a story about Minnie. Not the Minnie who was bedridden and abandoned by family. But the Minnie I got to know through our talks and her sweet and wonderfully ladylike voice. Minnie never complained about her lot in life. She never uttered one bitter word ever to me. And I never forgot that.
When I set out to write her (fictionalized) story I had thought it would be sad. About a lady who walks through life alone and nobody sees her anymore because she is old. But Minnie’s spirit just “took me” and out she came in my writing.
You see, when there is another person standing next to you, there is a whole world inside them. A world you can’t see but exists deeply and profoundly inside them. And as Minnie walked through her day she would see things that brought back memories. Like all of us.
So now, at this time of year (and the rest as well), when you see someone who is alone and maybe doesn’t look like they have much to offer: stop and say hello.
Look into that person’s eyes and see the wonder and joy and laughter they have inside them.
To all who have been reading my stories I thank you humbly. I look forward to sharing my next story with you in 2010.