At 11:00 a.m. sharp the doors opened, and the regulars carefully started making their way into the nondescript community building that played such an important role in their lives. As they entered, they were greeted by the hearty aroma of the noontime meal that the staff of five had been laboring over for several hours. Today’s menu included pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans and hot rolls. Each person could also choose either a tossed salad or fruit salad. And because it was Wednesday, they were serving everyone’s favorite dessert, chocolate cake.
The people who gathered together three times a week to enjoy these meals came from all over the county. As they filed into the large dining hall, some walked under their own power, others used canes or walkers for their balance and a few utilized wheelchairs. Over the next forty-five minutes there was a steady stream of people, with the women outnumbering the men three to one. The hungry diners ranged in age from their mid-sixties to their early nineties. The majority were dressed casually, but a few of the women had worn something nice that made them feel attractive.
As noon approached they began to settle into their chairs. Most sat with the same friends at the same table for each meal. Many had been coming here for years and wouldn’t dream of missing the opportunity to catch up, spread gossip and happily compare their various ailments. Each person was convinced that they had the more serious affliction, however it really wasn’t so much a case of complaining as it was a friendly competition. And that is what these meals were actually about; friendship.
The free lunches provided not only physical nourishment but also emotional and spiritual fulfillment for individuals who were too often cut off from life, leaving them starved for human contact and interaction. Each of these events was highly anticipated by those who depended on them to provide an opportunity to get out of the house and be in the community. The chance to be with others, who they had so much in common with, gave them a sense of belonging.
As usual, the dining hall was filled to capacity. A happy feeling of anticipation filled the air, mixed with the steady hum of multiple conversations, some of which took place at a high volume due to the large number of hearing aids scattered through the crowd. However, in the center of the room there was a large table where six women sat chatting in a way that conveyed they shared a relationship that went far beyond just being friendly acquaintances. While there was nothing about their physical appearance that set them apart from the crowd, they nevertheless held an important position within the gathering because of the sincere respect that was accorded them. They effortlessly projected a well-earned air of dignity that seemed to quietly inspire the others in the room in a way that was touching.
Each of these women had traveled a particularly difficult path to reach this place, and their experiences united them with a special bond that was deep and meaningful. Although they had been driven to the point of mental and physical exhaustion during their journeys, they were now at peace with themselves and the lives they had led. They were content to spend the remainder of their years in the company of friends who understood their struggles and losses. Over the passage of time they had become inseparable.
Elizabeth Powell was the oldest at eighty-six. She was prim and proper and, although not vain, she took great pride in her appearance. Her hair was always neatly fixed, and she wore her best dresses to the luncheons. Serious by nature, she did not tolerate those who had the nerve to refer to her as Beth, or even worse as Liz. Her name had four syllables, and she expected all of them to be used.
Elizabeth had been coming to the Senior Center for the last eight years since her husband passed away. Nathan’s struggle with dementia had been heartbreaking and emotionally draining for her. After he died, Elizabeth felt completely lost. Caring for him had consumed her life, and suddenly she was left with no purpose, no reason to get out of bed. For months her friends pleaded with her to start coming to the luncheons, but she kept putting them off. Finally, after running out of excuses, she reluctantly gave it a try. At first she felt ill at ease. After being married for fifty-six years, it didn’t seem natural to be alone, but the warm welcome she received made her feel alive again.
To Elizabeth’s right was Virginia Harris. Tall and thin, she was soft spoken and less boisterous than the other ladies. Her natural shyness made it difficult for her to join the group, but once she did, she felt completely at ease with the others. Although at seventy-nine she was one of the youngest of the six, she was struggling with the most serious health issues. Thankfully, her leukemia was now in remission. Because her ability to get out of the house was somewhat limited, she especially appreciated the three meals she shared each week with her friends.
Virginia’s life changed forever at the age of thirty-one. She and her husband Bill had been blessed with two daughters, but they decided to try and have one more child in the hope they could have a boy. Their dream came true, and in 1968 Erick was born. However, they were stunned to learn that their son had Down syndrome. At that time assistance and services were limited for children with special needs, so Virginia and Bill did everything themselves to ensure that their son was able to enjoy a fulfilling life. Virginia would give anything if her husband was still alive to see how well their son was doing. Erick had a job he loved, and he enjoyed living in his group home. Occasionally he even accompanied his mom to these lunches where he was readily accepted.
Doris Sutton was sitting at one end of the table. Relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, she had successfully hidden the disturbing facts of her life from most people. Her eighty-two years as an African American woman, born and raised in the deep south during the horrific days of segregation, had been incredibly difficult. Only the close friends gathered around this table knew the extent of the humiliation, pain and loss she was forced to endure, and that made them even more amazed that she had survived with such a positive outlook.
But it was the long courageous battle that her husband Douglas waged against Parkinson’s disease that defined her later years. Doris did everything in her power to help her husband, but shortly after their sixty-first wedding anniversary the struggle was lost. Devastated, she drifted for months on end until she discovered the senior center and found comfort in the loving relationships she shared with the people who gathered here each week. For the first time in her life, her race, her gender and her age did not matter. Doris was accepted as an equal. She doubted the others could understand how much it meant to her to have a seat at this table.
Irene McDonnell was seated at the other end of the table. Her shocking red hair was streaked with gray, and the wrinkles around her eyes deepened when she laughed, or as some described it, when she cackled. She was two years younger than Elizabeth, and she enjoyed reminding her of that fact at every opportunity. As a form of defense mechanism from the harsh realities of life, Irene had decided long ago not to take herself or anything else too seriously, and she did her best to enjoy each day to the fullest.
Irene’s cheerful nature belied the fact that her life had been incredibly challenging. Her only child, Brent had sustained a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident at the age of nineteen in 1975. For the next thirty-four years he fought bravely to recover from his injuries, however, the damage was so significant that he no longer possessed the physical strength or mental acuity to reclaim his former life. The stress of caring for her son destroyed Irene’s marriage, and she had no choice but to shoulder the responsibilities that mounted in her life without help. Suddenly in 2009, at the age of 53, Brent developed pneumonia and quickly passed away. At that point, Irene felt completely broken. But slowly over time, she began to re-examine her life, and she made the brave decision to make the most of her remaining years.
Sitting side by side in the middle were sisters Jean and Joyce Baxter, neither of whom had ever married. Jean, at eighty-one, was the oldest by seven years, and out of necessity she had assumed the dominate role in their relationship. Joyce had suffered a stroke forty-eight years before, when she was only twenty-six. The devastating effects from the cerebral blood clot compromised her speech to the point that her words were slurred and sometimes difficult to understand, and she had lost the use of her right arm and leg. Without hesitation, Jean became Joyce’s caregiver and constant companion. It was a commitment that Jean made without reservation because she knew in her heart that if the situation was reversed her sister would have done the same for her.
It had been a challenging life for both of them, but there was an unshakable bond of unconditional love that sustained them through the darkest of times. People at the community center often marveled at just how close the sisters were. Although theirs lives were different than many others, they had found a way to be happy and at peace with their circumstances. Joyce’s disability had made them appreciate life in a deeper way than those who had not faced such daunting obstacles. They had each, in their own way, shown great determination while resisting the temptation to lapse into self-pity.
These six women had been friends for years. They had shared the memorable moments that make life worth living, and they had been there for each other during times that seemed unbearable. With each additional year of age, the appreciation of their friendships deepened. But above all else, they were bound together by the reality that some form of disability had entered each of their lives.
They had endured the most severe conditions that life could throw at them, but each had struggled and persevered in their own way. The fact that they made the effort to come together three times a week, no matter what, was a testament to their strength and resolve as human beings. They were survivors who had faced pain and suffering, and although they were older, and in some cases frail, they had overcome their challenges and moved on with their lives.
None of them had done anything that would be considered newsworthy. In fact, none of them had led a life that would attract any attention at all. Due to the circumstances that they were thrust into as caregivers, they had lived in the shadows, out of view of the mainstream - and yet what they had each done with their lives was in a sense heroic. They had each made tremendous sacrifices for someone they loved.
These women had fulfilled their respective roles in life with decency and grace. And although often tested to their limits, they had refused to give up because each of them possessed the character and sense of responsibility that led them be the kind of person that others could count on.
But, unfortunately, in the real world they were too often dismissed as just “elderly people”. Although their years of experience was an invaluable resource for anyone willing to listen, daily life moved at such a lightening pace that very few were willing to slow down and take the time to engage them. They mistakenly believed that these individuals had nothing left to offer, and therefore they were not worth getting to know. But that was a serious misjudgment because these ladies possessed the most valuable knowledge there is; how to live.
Three times a week Jean, Joyce, Irene, Doris, Virginia and Elizabeth came together for a nice meal. But the true meaning of these luncheons was far more important than just providing the opportunity to enjoy good food. They each continued to attend because they felt blessed by the comradery, the acceptance and, most importantly, by the love with which they were embraced.
Each time these women sat down at their table together, the joy they shared was a quiet victory over the trials and tribulations of life.