She was central casting’s quintessential “little old lady.” At best, 99 pounds soaking wet. Five-feet-two would be aspirational. Bent from years of whatever work she did, 89 years old and looking frail, it was easy to “look right past” her, as I did, when I showed up to fix what the last guy left undone.
Looked right past.
One day, a few years ago, on a whim I decided to write down all the different jobs I have performed for which someone paid me. Yes, there was the usual newspaper delivery boy, babysitter, mower of lawns. But there was also usher at the Bear games, night clerk at a 7-11, psychology teacher, factory worker, electrician, tree pruner. And lots more. Interests other than jobs? Gardener, stamp collector, ham radio operator, UFO enthusiast, bread maker, marathon runner …
Who are you? Who am I? Who are all the people we come in contact with? Really?
We pack a lot into our short lives. Make your list. Right now. See what I mean? Inside our skin, bearing our name and fingerprints, there are an amazing number of “who’s.” Each of these is one strip of interpersonal “Velcro tape” just waiting to connect with a shared interest.
Need an “old man” to complement the “little old lady?” He’s retired. Surviving open-heart surgery and a recent knee replacement, He spends much of his time sitting either on his back porch or in a lawn chair under a warming sun. Eighty-two years old, moving slowly, easy to “look past,” to dismiss.
Just renewed my driver’s license that was about to expire and got my “real ID.” When I arrived at the facility, the line, I kid you not, was at least a block and a half long. OMG! Knowing that there might be an “old people’s line,” I parked and, indeed, was directed to that line. Eight people in front of me. Eight. Once inside, I see seniors with walkers and boys looking too young to shave. An hour later, I’m taking my driving test (yes, they make you do that) and I asked the examiner what gave him more concern: the 16-year-olds or the 76-year-olds? “They both have their challenges,” he said. I bet.
I have more than 400,000 miles behind me; 16 complete trips around planet earth. The 16-year-old has all that in front of her. I am history. She is the future. I am a book about the past; she, a book to be written in the future. If we dismiss history or show little interest in the future, how much do we miss at both ends of those journeys?
After working for the “little old lady” for only a few hours, it dawned on me that there was more here than met the eye. So I apologized for my “looking past” and inquired about her story. She was an accountant, in charge of the books for a large hotel. A genius with numbers. Neither a CPA nor college graduate, she was so good, no one asked or cared. That explains why she still had all 52 cards in her deck, and the two jokers as well. A rich story I almost missed.
We bring to every conversation and interaction our lifetime of experiences and interests or dreams of things yet to be. You know what makes for a “great conversation?” When we get to talk about and share something we’re interested in or passionate about. And we are listened to. (I know. All too guilty.) But unwrapping our Velcro hook does not necessarily mean there was an eager Velcro loop to meet it. So would a better human connection involve checking for some common interest before we begin talking? Or at least sharing the conversation time so the other person can get a chance to share their interest? Having a conversation they might also and equally consider “great?”
So I join him once a month on his back porch for a drink. He points out the very unusual rocks he has collected. Then there are the wine bottles he has cut the bottoms off of and turned into folk art wind chimes, and the whiskey bottle hummingbird feeders, and the incredibly beautiful stained glass windows, and the collection of bubble gum dispensers. And what’s left of his golf game. And our shared interest in UFOs. Since he’s an avid fan of Fox News, we don’t discuss politics. So much to miss if I saw only his politics. Way too much that is admirable, beautiful, and fascinating. Way too much.
Who are you? Or, to steal a great movie line, “How many of you are in there?!” Are we willing to find a way and time not only to share but also to discover some of the many “who’s” there are in the 400,000 mile histories of the old as well as the 400,000 mile futures of the young? Would that be a good conversation topic?
She’s 14, vegetarian, great cook, wants to be a veterinarian. She’s 17, art gallery intern, wants to be an art historian. He’s 19, accomplished musician, wants to be a social worker.
Those would all be some really interesting conversations. At both ends.
Wrapped too much in ourselves, how much are we willing to discover — or miss — in others?
Next month: What are you? Stay tuned. It will be a trip.
Bill Sieck is a longtime Oak Park resident.