"Per correr migliori acque alza le vele ormai la navicella del mio ingegno che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele."
[Opening lines of Dante's Il Purgatorio]
"For better waters that are heading with the wind, My ship of genius now shakes out her sail, And leaves the ocean of despair behind."
[Dorothy L. Sayers Translation]
Your senility thoughts got me thinking about old age ...
A columnist named Sidney Harris once wrote, “We should be more like a peach on the inside as we become more like a prune on the outside”. I know he's correct. But it can be so difficult at times to feel like a peach.
When I was young, I asked my Grandmother, “Gramma, wouldn't you like to live forever?” She replied, “No honey, you see so many things ruined that one lifetime is enough for anyone.” At 62, I know she's right. One example of many things lost:
When I was a preschooler, we lived in Burlington, Iowa. We never locked our doors. We knew all our neighbors and they knew us. As a preschooler, I remember being invited onto a neighbor's porch (summer) kitchen to talk to her while she was canning pears. The woman had children, but they were older than I was and were at school. She noticed that I was wearing cowboy boots. She took the time to tell me how wonderful I looked in those boots. I was so proud. She then said that she had a treat for a cowboy. She opened her last jar of pears canned the previous year and put them in small bowls for us to share. The pears were so sweet that I could feel my teeth tingling.
While we talked, I noticed that she didn't smile much but I had no idea why. I told her that I had a library card. She said she had seen my mother and I walking to the library together and coming home with books. She told me that reading was wonderful. For a handful of minutes, this lady made me feel like I was the center of the universe.
A week later, I went out to play in my back yard and noticed an odd smell in the air. That odor was coming from the garden of the lady who had treated me to pears. I walked over and noted that the smell was coming from a pile of brown stuff in the corner of her garden. She said it was from horses and that it would help all the plants in her garden grow if she spread it around and mixed it in the soil. She suggested that I might want to help her because it would help make the next year's crop of pears as sweet as the ones I had eaten. Needless to say I would have done anything to help next years pears get sweet. I used a child sized rake and shovel and probably made more of a mess than any help, but I spread the manure in the small area she assigned me.
It was hard work for a 4-year-old, and I remember my sweat felt cool in the late fall air. She told me I had been a big help and that I should come by in the spring to put some seeds in the ground and watch them grow. When we were done she showed me how to clean my rake and shovel. She then walked me home and told my Mom how to clean manure off my boots and clothes. My mom was raised in Chicago and certainly didn't know about cleaning manure off boots, clothes and kids.
The following spring, our neighbor lady let me plant carrot seeds. She referred to them as 'Rick's carrots'. I watched the seed bed like a hawk until the carrots sprouted, at which time I dragged my mom and dad over to see 'my' carrots.
August in Iowa is a hot, humid time but my Dad, Mom and I helped our neighbor and her children weed that garden. At harvest time, my Dad and Mom helped with harvesting and I was shown how to pull up 'my' carrots. We had pulled up what I estimate to be about one bushel of carrots. We took them home, washed them, and discussed how we should divide them up.
We decided we would divide them into 5 piles. One pile for the lady whose garden was where they had grown, one pile for my grandmother, one for the old lady two-doors down who was ill and couldn't put in a garden that year, one for our house, and one last pile. I was assigned the decision on where the last pile of carrots would go.
After much 5-year-old thought, I decided to give them to that lady at the library, the one who let me borrow all those books on airplanes, trucks, boats, and trains. That librarian even read to my friends and I when we visited her library! I certainly wanted her to share in my carrot harvest.
During that harvest season, there was a change at our neighbor's house. I noticed that a man who had recently come home from the Korean war was visiting the lady's home more and more often. I thought he must have been very funny as the woman seemed to smile and laugh an amazing amount when he was visiting her home.
The last I remember of our neighbor was when my parents were helping her move all her belongings into a truck. She was moving to Dallas, Texas, with the funny man she had married the week before. I hope she's still laughing and I suspect she is.
Many years later, my parents were joking about how poor we were then. Turns out, there were weeks when Mom made a big soup on Sunday and it had to last all week. The kind neighbor with the big garden was growing the garden out of necessity, as her first husband had died at the beginning of the Korean war. Of course, I never knew any of these things as a child.
Look at all the lessons I learned. No one told me sharing was important. They demonstrated it. They didn't tell me that hard work would result in good outcomes. They lived it and they let me take part in the result of my own 'hard work'. Even the neighbor lady, who was enduring grief that only someone who has experienced that type of grief would understand, not only found time for me, but found ways to make me feel special. My mom understood her grief. My mother's first marriage was to a man that died at the end of WWII. She had married my Dad a few years after the war. My mom said she would make a pot of tea, go over to our neighbor's house and, according to my mom, “We'd have a good cry.”
Look at all the great memories that neighbor created for me. Consider all the formative lessons she taught me. With all her pain and her own children to raise, she found time for me. I could go on and on about our various neighbors. They were as much a part of my life as my aunts and uncles.
Halloween time meant homemade treats, including popcorn balls that were the size of my head. By the time my children were old enough to go trick and treating, it wasn't even legal to give out homemade treats. I realize that the early 1950's were also a time of polio and whooping cough. But as we progressed over the years, we seem to have lost the importance of neighbors and our relationships with them. My children have few if any experiences like mine. I think that's a true loss.
Richard A. Schwartz
Digital Anvil Technology
27708 246th Ave SE
Maple Valley, Wa. 98038
Co. D, 2/327 Battalion
101st Airborne Division
Phu Bai, RVN
Thank you once again, Richard. Your writings are always welcome here. You have a way of touching hearts and souls ...
“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale