When I was a child, I was afraid of old people. I don’t know where exactly this fear came from and I’m quite sure I hid this fear from my parents, as knowing both my mother and father, they would have done everything in their power to rid me of this irrational fear. I vividly remember as a small child, my mother pushing me around as I sat in grocery store carts, holding to the handle with my small chubby hands and kicking my dangling legs. I remember being frightened when old people would approach me and pinch my cheeks or pat my head. I was particularly scared of elderly people in wheel chairs, or those carrying canes or walking with the aid of walkers. I wanted to disappear and I wanted no part in interacting with them.
My great-grandmother had what we called “senile dementia” back then, and I remember as a little girl, I watched her play with dolls. I remember as a young child of four or five, going to visit my grandmother and great-grandmother and how my great-grandmother chased me down the hall trying to hit me over the head with her cane because I had picked up her Casper doll. It so happened that I had the exact Casper doll at home. It was a talking Casper doll (made by Mattel in the early 1960s) and I was merely trying to point this out to my great-grandmother. But she wanted no part of me touching or holding her dolls. Yes, I was terrified of her and I avoided her like the plague. I remember a time when my mother brought my great-grandmother home from the nursing home to stay at our house a couple of nights. I recall my great-grandmother seeing the red-leafed ornamental shrub outside our living room window blowing in the breeze and calling my sisters and me to come see the giant turkey. Not understanding her dementia, my young sisters and I thought she was both peculiar and funny.
Somewhere over the years, I got over my fear of elderly people. I’m not even exactly sure how or when it happened but am just thankful that it did.
One day last week I was in a Belk’s department store standing in a check-out line. There were three people ahead of me. There was an elderly woman being waited on, and behind her and in front of me, two young teenage girls who were occasionally chatting with each other but who were mostly self-absorbed by the cell phones in their hands, totally oblivious to their surroundings. Walking around us all was a sweet little gray-haired elderly woman. She was thin with a slightly stooped posture and bluish-gray hair and was wearing a maroon sweater. Her fragile appearing skin was covered with age spots and wrinkles and she appeared to me to be in her mid to late nineties. I assumed the elderly woman being waited on was her daughter. There seemed to be some dementia affecting the woman and she walked up to the two teenagers and stared at them. She looked down at their phones, then up at their faces, and back down again at their phones. She looked at the clothes they were holding and stooped to examine their shoes. She moved in a little closer and looked up and down at them while they were talking as if she were trying to understand or maybe even trying to get their attention. She wrung her hands in a nervous-like manner. The teenagers paid her no mind, ignoring her like she wasn’t there. Something about that made my heart ache a little. Then she turned to me. I smiled when my eyes met hers. She looked me up and down as she had the teenagers. She looked at the blouse and slacks I was holding in my hands. She looked at my purse. Moving in closer, she looked at my shoes. She got even closer and looked up into my eyes. Again, I smiled. I spoke to her. I looked into her eyes and said, “Hello, how are you today?” She grinned a wide toothless grin. She moved in to give me a hug and then grabbed my arm and rubbed the sleeve of my fuchsia colored polka dot shirt, looked me in the eye, grinned wide and said, “Honey, that’s just so pretty on you!” I smiled and said, “Oh, thank you so much!” She continued to smile. By then her daughter was finished checking out, and grabbed her arm to escort her away. As she was shuffling away slowly and holding on to the arm of her daughter, she turned back around to look at me, straining in a child-like manner to see me again. I smiled and waved goodbye to her and again, she flashed her adoring toothless grin.
That sweet little old woman had made my day. I felt sad for the two teenage girls who had ignored her–the ones who couldn’t seem to take their eyes off of their brightly colored neon smart phones. I couldn’t help but feel that they had missed something big that day.