This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on November 28, 1999.
The flowery birthday card for the 83-year-old contained greetings from my fellow staff members. I read the card and remembered, with great fondness, the first time I met her. What a grand old lady, I thought to myself.
The card was being circulated to the staff and then would be mailed in time for her birthday. For a brief moment, I thought of delivering the card in person, but quickly reconsidered; I was simply too busy.
The old lady had been involved in Girl Scouts, an 86-year-old organization, for 70 years. Girl Scouts was her life. She never married or had children. People without charity, or wisdom, would call her an old maid.
I knew better. After meeting her, it was clear that she had been born at a time when women were destined to become wives, and quickly thereafter, mothers. She chose different path.
As I recalled our first meeting, I reconsidered and decided to make the time to visit her on her birthday. When I called to ask if I could come over, she had to pencil me in, late in the day. It dawned on me that she found room in her schedule to spend time with me.
As I entered her tiny apartment I felt a sense of ease. It was a cozy place, immaculate and filled with mementos of a life well lived. On her coffee table were at least two dozen birthday cards, fanned out like a poker hand. I added my little card and a shiny “70-year” Girl Scout membership pin.
She sat on the couch and gave me her undivided attention. Her small television was not on and no radio was in sight. While we talked, the phone rang twice. She answered, immediately said she had company, and promptly hung up. I recalled how often the telephone had pre-empted me - with friends, business associates and store clerks, who seemed to forget that I was there.
She described her relief at being in a retirement community, expressing gratitude for her comfortable apartment, her new friends and the care she would receive, should she need it. She never uttered a negative word, a pathetic gesture or a needy sigh.
After a cursory description of her new digs, she wanted to know about me. She asked how things were going at work. She inquired about my family. This was the second time we had met and I felt I could talk with her about my concerns for my kids, my need for a vacation, my dedication to the cause we shared.
I had prepared an excuse to leave after thirty minutes, yet I soon lost track of time. I felt the tender arms of warm conversation envelope me as we chatted. How rare it is to truly feel someone is listening. He concern was not driven by loneliness or self-indulgence, but a true interest in me.
As we talked, I began to realize how rushed we all are. Our electronically enhanced “communication” really isn’t. How far we have roamed from face-to-face conversation, especially when it is simply for its own sake.
Front porches and backyard fences are long gone. The electronics that replace them are not the same. Who can recall the last time they passed the time of day, talking with a friend or neighbor?
When I finally left, she walked me to her gate. I felt grateful for the previous hour and hoped we would meet again. I silently thanked this wise woman for her time and interest, and vowed to become as graceful and charming as she, when, and if, I am lucky enough to reach 83 years of age.
Kathleen Vallee Stein