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Clif Cleaveland, MD
18 July 2008
In this season of giving, I am grateful for the intangible gifts
of special relationships, of friends, teachers, and kinsmen who
have defined and refined my view of life. A recent lunch with my
103 year old Aunt Mary prompts these thoughts.
Last year, she voluntarily gave up driving her aged Oldsmobile.
A minor stroke earlier this year led to her decision to give up
independent living in her home for residency in a nearby retirement
home. She has had to substitute bingo for bridge and can no longer
attend the Baptist church to which she has belonged for many
decades. But church members visit regularly. Her recent memory is a
bit impaired. Her energy and sociability are not.
My wife and I alerted her to our November visit, suggesting a
trip to her favorite restaurant, a nearby Golden Corral. She was
dressed in her Sunday attire, purse over her arm, and ready to
travel upon our arrival. Amid the myriad choices at the buffet,
this slender lady chose her usual cup of soup, green salad, small
dessert, and cup of coffee. Waitresses, manager, and customers
welcomed her as one would a matriarch. "How are you doing, Miss
Mary? It's nice to see you."
After reviewing the health of relatives, we turned our attention
to the economy. She had married a farm manager in 1925 when the
economy of the South was already in a swoon. For the first years of
her marriage, she never saw any "cash money." The economy of her
North Georgia neighbors worked on a barter system: so many eggs for
so much corn meal or flour. Her husband was elected to a board that
dealt with rural electrification. After his first year of service,
he received a cash payment of $25, the first money that she
recalled actually holding.
The farm struggled for years, even as I made my first visit as a
five year old. I was sent northward on a Greyhound bus, a note of
instructions and identification pinned to my jacket. I gained my
first sense of worth during that visit, helping to gather and to
grade eggs. I worked with my Uncle and quiet, overall-wearing men.
At the end of a hot summer day, we adjourned to a nearby creek for
a swim. At night we listened to a radio while playing checkers
before an early bedtime. Annual visits followed.
Later years brought prosperity-a new house and a growing egg
business. My Uncle and Aunt continued to work hard and to live
modestly, even gently, upon the land. A bad heart ended his life 40
years ago. A photo of the newly-wed couple, seated on the running
board of a Model T Ford ("It had yellow spokes, and he was so proud
of it.") hangs alongside her mirror.
When asked to name her hero, my Aunt immediately cites Franklin
Roosevelt. "He saved the country." She recalls the hard times of
the Great Depression without bitterness. "We didn't have much, but
we had everything we needed." Limited resources of food and
clothing were shared with those who had less. Workers in nearby
textile mills were hardest hit. Even along country roads men,
sometimes with their families, walked from farm to farm seeking
work. Federal programs gradually returned people to work. The
outbreak of World War II cemented the economic and employment
recovery. Our shared lunch reminded me of some simple truths. We do
not need sophisticated, electronic devices for our entertainment
and well-being. A library book or Scrabble, checkers, or chess
board can provide endless hours of pollution-free engagement of the
mind. Conversation, without interruption of cell-phone sonatas, is
a precious, yet undervalued activity. A walk can refresh the mind,
while toning the muscles. A sense of community dilutes personal
stress or sorrow.
Our lunch completed, we returned to the retirement center. Aunt
Mary summed up her new situation. "I'll stay here as long as the
Lord wants me to."