I showed up at 11 a.m. sharp for my first Thursday lunch shift. Slipping on a pair of clear plastic gloves in a kitchen that reeked of vegetable steam and dish soap, I stepped hesitantly into a new world—that of the 55 plus. The sparse crowd in the sunny cafeteria stared at me curiously, as I was conspicuously younger than anybody in the room.
“Are you new, honey?” someone asked, and I turned to see a beaming face with tanned creases and bright pink lipstick. “I’m Lee. I’ll show you what to do,” the old woman said briskly, showing me which pitchers held regular coffee, decaf coffee and hot tea, and how to fill the baskets with tea bags and cream. She trotted off on little white Keds and I followed her on her route, making sure each guest had something to drink as they arrived with canes, walkers and occasionally an oxygen tank. As I poured and chatted with a few of the men and women, the room filled up in anticipation of a hot catered meal and conversation with old friends. Everyone asked why I was there, if I was getting class credit.
“I’m volunteering because I want to,” I said, telling them I was 28 and worked fulltime in the next town. This was my lunch hour, and instead of eating my peanut butter and banana sandwich at my desk, I was here to be an attentive and cheerful waitress.
For the next year, I was a fixture at the Carlsbad Senior Center every Thursday, ready to wipe up spills, pass out salads and milk, listen to complaints and hurry to refill hot tea before tempers flare. It was never a chore for me—life made sense when I was there, when I could see those smiles and greet the regulars by name, when I got a tiny glimpse into who they were and the choices they’d made to become the people they are today.
Take Lee, for instance. She became my favorite instantly, as effervescent as a hot air balloon. She knew I was getting married in a few months, and had one piece of advice: “Call him ‘my loved one.’ “ She lit up when she said that. “Say, ‘thank you my loved one.’ ‘How are you, my loved one?‘ ” Her eyes sparkled with pure enjoyment.
Every time I saw her, it was another sweet story. “Oh, I’ve had the most wonderful life. I had twins, you know! Try to have some if you can.”
“Oh, I had the most fun yesterday! I went line dancing with Ray.”
“It’s raining outside? Oh, I would just love to be sitting in my chair with a book and a cup of tea.”
From what I could gather, Lee’s life hadn’t always been perfect. Her husband died when she was 40, she told me, but she’d never remarried. Why? Because the gentlemen she dated were “better friends than lovers.” That meant she had been single and living alone for more than 40 years (by my rough calculations). But instead of mopey, she was radiant. Instead of pitiful, she was enviable.
Not all the seniors I poured coffee for and cleaned up after were so charming. Many had sour countenances, stared blankly or refused to smile. Several never uttered a “thank you.” And patience was not their strong suit. At any given time if you looked around the room, you’d see four or five veiny hands shaking coffee cups in the air and looking downright peeved if you stopped at another another table before theirs.
What makes you turn out one way or the other, I wondered? What makes the prim little woman so cross when she’s served tea a few minutes past the hour? What makes some people complain about a small piece of chicken and demand parmesan cheese on their noodles? And what makes people turn out scrumptious like Lee?
There were others—Betty, who just got remarried after the death of her husband and loved taking leftovers home in old margarine containers, and Ray, who fought in three wars, survived his battleship sinking off the coast of Guam and recently won $11,500 at the casino. But the one who convinced me that I needed to rethink my own life was Lee, who relished her life. It was Lee who made me realize that my own pessimism would irrevocably twist my fate; my own despair, if I let it, would wither away my heart even as the years withered my body.
The true beauty of serving lunch every week was that I got to see lives well lived and lives poorly lived. It’s possible to hide from the sum of your decisions when you’re young, but when you’re old, it’s plainer than your face if you are truly happy or truly miserable inside. What might be irritating on a 30-year-old is grievous on an 80-year-old. People don’t wear frustration and anger well at that age. And when you’ve been miserable for so long, it’s hard to change then.
I had one other opportunity to work with seniors at a Jewish assisted living facility that year. My friend and I did a weekly current events, gossip and trivia show on a Tuesday evening. To our dismay, our audience dwindled from 40 to 3 and then, one evening, none. As we sat alone in the beige-walled multi-purpose room, we wondered what we had done wrong. We’d spent hours researching for our show each week. We made up quizzes and told personal anecdotes that must have been at least a little entertaining. And we talked really, really loud. We traced our demise to a black-haired woman in the back row, who muttered in a thick New Jersey accent “Let’s get oudda here,” to her friends, and they exited in the middle of our show.
I knew then I didn’t want to turn out like that Jewish woman, bored and ungrateful, and I didn’t want to come out of adversity bitter and weary. It made me realize that I’d better decide quick what kind of life I’d like to live, what kind of disposition I wanted to have when I’m 85. That I had better start finding the extraordinary in the everyday or it would eventually become invisible.
The oddest part was that everybody was so surprised that I would want to spend time serving them lunch and hanging around with senior adults. Did they not realize how delightful they were, how elegant Isthma looked in her pearls, how the couple sitting over there, so securely enthroned in each other’s presence, reminded me about the beauty and longevity of commitment?
I absolutely adored these Thursdays, and these people. It was a privilege, and a treat, to escape a world of apathy, shallow comparisons and beauty contests. These people, many of them at the end of their lives, taught me how to live mine.