While driving to work this morning, an old neighbor, Mrs. Bryant, came to mind. She was over 80 years old, a widow and lived alone. It’s funny how old folks we knew decades ago waft their way into our memories, intertwined with little revelations we somehow missed those years. She had a daughter who checked in on her daily, who was about the same age I am now. Aside from her, she was largely isolated. This would have been early 1976 through mid-1977. I only remember the years because that was the extent of the time I lived on her block.Mrs. Bryant was fragile, with thin skin, purple splotches and tears. She moved slowly and carefully, because it seemed new bruises arose faster than the old ones could heal. She would smile and invite me in for coffee. She ate a lot of fresh fruit, especially blueberries, long before any of us knew anything about antioxidants. Excited to have a visitor, she led me to admire her indoor garden—assorted plants carefully arranged on a library table in front of her dining room window, accented with a sheer white lace curtain behind it. She noted the healthfulness of growing indoor plants, “It’s important to let the light shine in when you’re house-bound.” Her rented apartment was well-kept, exuding the atmosphere of an old classic movie. Her vintage sofa was covered with a pastel floral tapestry, using doilies for arm covers. She had a heavy, solid wood dining room table that was elegantly decorated. Aside from her daughter, no one ever came to dinner, but she did it to please herself. When I went into her apartment, she’d turn off her black and white television, so it wouldn’t distract us from talking. Sometimes when she was home alone, she left it on just to “look” at it. After all, octogenarians didn’t “watch TV,” they “looked at television.”
I was always fascinated with that generation of Americans whose lives spanned from the pre-WWI days past the Viet Nam War and flower-power era of the hippie generation. They experienced the automobile and air travel coming into common use, radios, Prohibition and the Mafia, telephones, the fallout of the atomic bomb, Penicillin, Polio vaccination, television, colored television, and eventually, microwave ovens. I viewed Mrs. Bryant’s generation as having seen an entirely new world evolve like no generation before them, relished hearing their stories, and held the highest respect for them. I remember wondering what it would have been like to fall in love during the roaring 1920’s, the dancing, lacy dresses, big hats, and vintage jewelry—being courted by a chivalrous young man.
Mrs. Bryant was warm and welcoming, and didn’t make a habit of complaining about her aches and pains or the pitfalls of living alone. Before the advent of cell phones or remote control medical alert lanyards, it must have been a little scary for her. Still, she loved the peace of her own quiet, taking pride in caring for her roomy two-bedroom apartment, cooking for one, and having the independence to live alone. She didn’t pry into my business and she didn’t try to offer advice. She simply and purely offered her hospitality and friendship.
Mrs. Bryant loved it when I allowed her to hold my baby daughter on her lap. Sometimes she’d sit on the front porch rocker with her, looking into her face with awe, as excited as a little girl being entrusted to hold a newborn for the first time. It brought her joy in the moment. Honestly, isn’t that the most any of us can hope for in any moment?
Mrs. Bryant never talked about her marriage or earlier life, or dwelled on the loss of her husband. The only story I remember her telling me about him was how he disapproved of the Social Security Act. Amused, she said “He was only supposed to pay thirty-seven cents a week, but he adamantly refused, and you didn’t have to back then. After he passed away, my daughter paid the government back for all those years he didn’t pay in, so I could collect a window’s pension. I have to say, thank goodness they allowed me to do that! Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done to get by.” Barely out of my teens and a working mother, the thought of opting out of the Social Security program never crossed my mind. That payroll deduction was a “given” in my generation, and I learned from Mrs. Bryant never to complain about it.
I don’t know how long Mrs. Bryant had been a widow, but it was long enough for her to have grown beyond the past, and simply lived, each day as it came, to the best of her ability. She was the only elderly person I’ve ever known that didn’t complain about the immorality or disrespect of my culture, the noise or opinions of neighbors, cars with faulty mufflers or motorcycles screeching down the street. Mrs. Bryant never heard the reverberating crash or screams of the woman whose car rushed into the telephone pole on the corner, her face broken through the windshield, just one house over. She couldn’t hear fire trucks, patrol cars or ambulances, any more than the neighbors calling to round up their children for dinner. She didn’t hear the young couple upstairs; the quarreling, cussing, objects being thrown, or stomping on the stairs, but she may have felt the vibrations. She couldn’t hear the German shepherd barking wildly next door whenever that occurred, but could have seen him jumping around on his chain through that dining room window.She he never had to listen to another word of criticism or condemnation from anyone. Sometimes I wondered what was going through her head when she looked at television. Was she trying to connect the parts of conversation she could see onscreen and piece together a scene, or was she creating a dialogue to her own liking to go with the images? Perhaps she was mentally sharpening her non-verbal communication skills. I wondered why she bothered to look at television at all.
Mrs. Bryant couldn’t hear my baby crying. I think she might have liked being able to hear her laugh and cry, but eye-to-eye, she could see her funny faces, read her expressions, and coo gently to her. Long before I had the privilege of her befriending me, Mrs. Bryant made peace with her aloneness, much like she made peace with her age-induced deafness. It was comfortable and safe.And I’ll bet she knew a lot more about what was going on around her than she ever let on to anyone. Instead, she chose to embrace the peace of her own quiet.