Mrs. Burdette, the lady who had been old since I was a little girl, was a bit like a grandmother.
We met her at our church where she “adopted” us. She had no grandchildren and only two grown children—a son who visited infrequently and a daughter with Downs Syndrome who lived in a group home. Mrs. Burdette was divorced and didn’t drive, so at least once a month, Mom took me to keep her company.
Our visits were always the same.
I trudged up the sidewalk to the one-floor apartments. Somehow, Mrs. Burdette always knew we were there and was waiting with the screen door open.
“Well, hey, Sarah!”
I braced for my hug and kiss before climbing onto her couch where I sat, swinging my legs, waiting to get past the pleasantries. Mrs. Burdette commented about my growth and asked about my schoolwork.
As she smoothed her pastel cotton dress or patted her fluffy white hair, my eyes were drawn to her right ring finger, a nub at the last knuckle.
Maybe when I’m older she’ll tell me the story, I thought.
When Mom took over the conversation, I hopped down to wander the apartment. I inspected everything within reach. At the table beside Mrs. Burdette’s recliner, I flipped through a stack of missionary prayer cards and pressed the tip of a letter opener against my hand, thinking of the birthday cards she sent me bearing her shaky handwriting. I studied the picture of her daughter, Dale, the woman with a protruding lower lip and droopy eyes. But I never asked where Dale was or how often Mrs. Burdette saw her.
And the thing was, Mrs. Burdette didn’t talk about her divorce, her missing finger, her mentally challenged daughter, the fact that her son rarely visited—things that an elderly lady might dwell on to fill her empty days. She simply focused on her daily routines of visiting the other ladies in the apartments, enjoying her Meals on Wheels dinner, praying over her missionary cards, and listening to radio sermons.
Of course, I didn’t care then what she did or didn’t talk about. I had more self-gratifying things on my mind.
In the kitchen I inspected her red-splotched green tomatoes in the windowsill, and rearranged her magnets, hoping that my proximity to the fridge would remind her to serve the Sprite and chocolate chip cookies she kept on hand. Eventually, Mrs. Burdette got down her thick green glasses and filled them with ice and soda and passed out cookies.
As we prepared to leave, Mrs. Burdette held out her arms for a hug and moistened my cheek with kisses. Despite my having fidgeted and touched everything through her apartment, she didn’t seem a bit annoyed, but said, “Come back and see me soon.”
When I became a teenager, Mom gave me the option to go along on her visits to Mrs. Burdette.
If my conscience won, I joined her and sat on the couch, answering Mrs. Burdette’s questions. But even though my feet now touched the floor, I still grew impatient with the ramblings about her simple life. Mrs. Burdette had nothing to interest or entertain me. So sometimes I volunteered to sweep her porch or took walks while Mom visited.
When I went off to college in Florida, my visits to Mrs. Burdette dwindled, though I heard about her frequently from Mom, who ran her errands. Every so often during my summer or Christmas breaks, Mom and I went to see her.
Somewhere in those years, an infection claimed one of her kidneys. And with the red and purple bruises on her nearly translucent skin and the way her size 0 dresses hung on her gaunt form, I wasn’t surprised to hear about her colon cancer in my senior year.
When I returned for the summer, Mom said, “You should go see Mrs. Burdette. She isn’t doing well.”
One evening, I parked in front of her apartment, wondering what I would say. Visiting Mrs. Burdette had been a regular activity in my childhood, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember what she and Mom always talked about, and I pondered if I even knew enough about her to carry on a conversation.
The front door was cracked open, and a small lamp glowed from the bedroom. When I knocked on the door, I heard her raspy voice call, “Come in.”
When I walked into the bedroom, she blinked a few times before recognizing me.
“Well, hey, Sarah.”
When she lifted her arm for a hug, I saw the skin hanging on her bones like a curtain on a rod.
Her brown eyes seemed sunken into her face. But she didn’t seem sad or scared; she seemed peaceful. Her Bible lay on the nightstand by her bed and her radio hummed out a Christian station. “Sorry I can’t get up.”
“That’s okay.” I leaned down to hug her.
Our conversation wasn’t long. Her eyes fell shut from exhaustion, and her incoherent mumbles trailed off. When her eyes stayed shut for half a minute, I leaned forward to kiss her cheek, pulled the blanket over her shoulders, and slipped out the door.
Mrs. Burdette passed away a few months later after I started teaching in Florida. Because I couldn’t attend the funeral and never visited her grave, I just can’t remember that she’s gone.
Yet she is gone along with her green glasses, tomatoes in the windows, her letter opener, the untold story of her missing finger, and the other ordinary things I took for granted.
The older I get, the more I consider what kind of elderly person I will become.
Even now I realize that I’m preparing for old age by how I develop my mind, invest my time, and train my spirit. So I look to emulate elderly people who enter their golden years with grace, courage, and kindness. There’s no shortage of intolerant and obstinate older folks, the ones who grouse about millennials, dwell on the injustices of their lives, or wallow in self-pity. But then there are those like Mrs. Burdette.
When I was a little girl, I thought Mrs. Burdette was boring, her life mundane. But now I think of the example she offered even in her simple, homebound life. And like her,
When I’m old, I want to spend my time praying for others, focusing on what I have instead of what I’ve lost, and patiently welcoming a fidgety little girl who may one day reflect on the lessons she learned from her visits to an old lady.
Sarah is my dear friend from grad school. You may remember her popular guest post from last summer. A former college writing professor, Sarah now works as a content editor for a nonprofit in the Cincinnati area, keeps The View from Goosehill blog, adventures with her best pal, Laura, and raises a rotten miniature dachsund named Dudley. This post originally appeared on the website Off the Page.
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