(This was posted in September 2011 elsewhere, but I'm re-posting again now here; it does fit in with the holiday season, don't you think?)
There was a older woman at the church in Chicago named Eleanor (not really her name, but I'm going to call her that here). For a long time, we didn't know her name; I think she introduced herself to me the first time we talked, probably, and maybe even the second or third time, but it didn't stick in my head. I knew her mainly as "that really nice old lady who walks a little bit hunched over and is always talking about how wonderful the music was in the service." Or something like that. We asked a friend what her name was, and although that person knew exactly who we meant, she didn't know the woman's name, either. Eventually we found someone who knew. Her name was Eleanor. When she was younger, she had sung in the choir. These days, her voice sounded a little like Edith Bunker.
Eleanor would often approach me and ask me how I was doing. She was full of compliments, sometimes about something I was wearing, but mostly just about me or the kids. She'd tell me I had such a nice smile, or say how beautiful or wonderful Katie was - at first - and then later, how beautiful or wonderful Annabel was, too. If she got a chance to speak with either of the girls close up, she'd tell me how smart she could tell they were. If she only watched them play from a distance, she'd tell me how big they were getting, how she couldn't believe they were so much bigger and so much more beautiful, and how much I must love them. During the time when we had two children, she seemed to always take time to compliment first one child, and then the other. When I was pregnant, she would ask me how I was feeling in what always seemed to be a very solicitous way, expressing sympathy over how difficult she knew pregnancy could be, and excitement and interest about the baby-to-be.
Eventually I found out that Eleanor was almost 90 years old, and I was surprised. I think I was surprised partly because of the way she talked to me; she talked to me the same way the other mothers of young children talked to me, as if we were cohorts or companions, going through life together, and although I knew that she wasn't actually my age, I guess I'd still thought she was maybe not much older than my parents. She never seemed judgmental or condescending. She always seemed kind. She would frequently reach up to pat my shoulder (she was short to begin with, and with her slight stoop, I am sure she was under 5 feet tall), and would always thank me for taking time out of what she knew was my busy morning to chat with her. I always told her she was welcome, and that I enjoyed it; the truth was, she was (and is) one of my favorite people at the church.
At some point, I realized that I wasn't asking Eleanor many questions about herself. Usually she'd approach me with a question or a comment, I'd respond, we'd go back and forth a few times, and then before the conversation could continue, she would thank me and walk away, saying she'd better let me go. The first few times, at least, I thought she was handling the fact that she had no more to say to me and wanted to go visit with someone else in a very gracious way, and maybe she was. But after this had happened a few times, I realized it was entirely likely that she was just trying not to bug me, and that if I continued the conversation, she probably wouldn't mind.
She attended the church regularly, but she usually came to the first service, and I usually came to the second, so sometimes months would go by without me seeing her. But whenever I did see her, she acted like she had spotted an old friend.
I started talking with Eleanor a little more, whenever I got the chance. I found out that she was the youngest of 8 children, and that all of her siblings had passed away, as well as both of her parents. She especially missed the sister with whom she'd shared a home for years, up until the sister died. She mentioned a relevant year in her life and how old she'd been at the time, leading me to do some quick math in my head - she was at least 89, possibly 90. These days she usually spent Easter and Christmas with her nephew in Wisconsin, and she enjoyed being with him and his family, but it wasn't home. She didn't drive herself anywhere anymore, she said, and she didn't want them to have to drive her home on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day (since the trains didn't run late on Christmas Eve, and she didn't want to be a burden), so she spent the night there, and she appreciated their kindness, but she kind of wished she could be home for part of Christmas, even though she thought that if she did, she would be lonely.
I remember talking with her one day during a picnic Sunday service. She looked off as we talked, asking where Katie was. We spotted Katie over on the lawn playing a game with some other children, and Eleanor commented on how big Katie was getting. "Children are so wonderful," she said. "Your children in particular," and she smiled at me. I thanked her. "I only ever wanted to have 8 children," she said, laughing a little. "Since I was one of 8, I always thought that was the perfect number."
I smiled at her. "How many did you have?" I asked her.
She smiled back without bitterness. "None," she said. "I never got married, and then it was too late. But I love them. I love children."
I have no specific reason to tell this story right now, or even to tell it at all, except that our conversation has stuck with me. The moment Eleanor said "none," my heart broke for her a little bit. I think of her, how she never showed me any sign of bitterness about her life, how she showed everyone around her such kindness, how she had (has) a quick sense of humor, a curious mind, an eye open to beauty. I think of her and I am inspired to appreciate my blessings, to try to ignore my losses, to be kinder to others, to engage the world with grace.