For years I have wanted to write a book called something like “Ordinary People, Extraordinary lives”. Like flowers, people are scattered everywhere and come in all different shapes, colors and sizes. We see them all the time and through familiarity, we come to think of them as ordinary. We seldom take the time to examine them and see how extraordinary they truly are…
When my son was small, we volunteered at the local nursing home. He would play quietly on the floor with his trains or cars in each room we visited while I wrote letters, read, and talked with some of the residents. It was there, as I came to know people in their final years on this earth, that I got a glimpse into their hidden and mostly forgotten lives. These seemingly ordinary people had led extraordinary lives. You gain a new perspective when you spend time with the elderly. Seeing their frailty of mind and body made me realize what a treasure I had in my younger assets.
I used to enjoy visiting cemeteries and reading the headstones and wondering about the stories behind each life represented. One epitaph I recall seeing often on the tombs read:
“As you are now, I once was.
As I am now, you someday will be”.
I was struck by that saying and it applies to the elderly as they pass through the final phase of life. Once they were young people full of life and dreams, building careers and homes. Someday I will be as they are. To watch them endure with patience and nobility. the privations of living communally, stripped of all but a few treasures brought with them from the places they called home–often a lifelong home, where they sank deep roots–a place where they loved a long-time spouse and raised their children. A place of happy memories and life’s tribulations overcome. Places where they loved and lost, learned life’s important lessons and tried to pass it on to their offspring. who they sent out into the world–some never to return due to death, or just forgot their way home. These people live with regrets of things done and things not done. They grieve for family who never come to see them. Or are blessed to revel in family visits whether they come often or infrequent. And some mourn the passing of all family and friends as they are the only ones left. It can be a season of discomfort (or downright pain), dementia, depression and loneliness. It was a great privilege to be taught firsthand how to live through this time with grace.
As I came to know these individuals, their stories would begin to unfold. Some led very interesting and unique lives like a man who hunted in Africa and had many adventures and narrow escapes. He was a very good storyteller. He also had a great mind and had been a teacher at MIT.
There was a tale of coming to Texas in a covered wagon–a little black haired girl wearing long braids–who said some Native American woman tried to take her from her mother, but momma didn’t want to give her up.
One man was not elderly. He had been knifed in the back when he was mugged at a convenience store and was paralyzed from the attack. His life forever changed. He found many ways to connect with family, friends and his church. He was not able to be out in their world, but found ways to be part of it. I wrote many letters for him. He taught me about shape notes and Sacred Harp singing. as well as how to make the best of a very bad situation.
There was a lady in her late nineties who told stories of her daddy who was a rancher in the Texas hill country. One woman was a single mom who had worked at the local cafe and raised her family. And then one of my favorites–a precious lady who married later in life to a farmer and helped him build his farm. They had no children, but she loved to sit with the baby goat kids and take care of them. (Of course I could relate.) On her wall there was a photo of her in her youth. She was gorgeous! The photo was black and white, but you could imagine what she had looked like in person with her striking blue eyes. Her beautiful blue eyes could no longer see due to macular degeneration. She always wanted me to read from the Bible, tell her about my goats, and write letters to family. I took a baby goat to visit her once. As time went by, I learned that she wrote poetry. I am not a poetry fan, but her poems spoke to me. I took the handwritten notes home and typed them up for her. Her family asked me to read one of her poems at her funeral. I was honored.
In each of these dear ones lives, I saw a story unfold slowly like the petals of a flower opening. A story of life, blooming to full maturity. Each of these people touched my life. They became friends. They were my teachers. They shared wisdom for my time in life where I was and by example taught me how to face what is to come, should I live to old age.
As a Bible believer, I see purpose in life on this earth. I cannot logically come to accept that we are here by random chance with no purpose but to live life as another animal species–living by instinct alone.
I see more than that when I look at this world and each person in it. Dial down the microscope and magnify the minutest detail in our world and you will see amazing workings—amazing design. Amazing purpose. From microbes, to the threads of the stories of all of humanity, I see amazing design, however random it appears to us at one given moment. I see amazing purpose. In the lives of these people who became part of my life, part of who I am today, there was purpose in their lives and in our coming together for awhile. To think they lived and loved and suffered and died for no reason is illogical to me. There is no beauty in that, either.
I’ve heard a saying that I think is an African proverb. It is something like, “when an old person dies, it is like a library burning down’. So true. We all pass from this life and what remains? We are forgotten. Our favorite color, what we did for a living, our favorite food or song or what we thought about politics, will be lost in the sea of time. A few are remembered who did things outstanding from a human perspective. But the small details of their lives—what made them who they are—are often lost and forgotten. Few of us find time to write memoirs. Fewer find time to read them.
The Bible compares us to a flower that fades or a grass that withers. This last week we had a cold snap and all the glorious green grass and flowers faded overnight. They will be forgotten and trodden under my cows’ hooves. Nothing will remain. Perhaps a photograph I took or a fading memory in my mind of a spectacular show of color. Does it seem a waste? What was their purpose?
What will be left when we are gone? Will our library of wisdom, experiences, and love be lost and trodden underfoot? What legacy will remain? When the grass or flower dies, it is gone, but it leaves seeds and becomes organic matter that feeds the plants of the next season who come up after. It is my prayer that I have cast seed in my spot on earth and that my legacy left behind would be sustaining to those I leave behind. I hope to write my memoirs on the hearts and souls of others just as those who have gone before me have done upon my heart and soul and many others do so on a daily basis as I come in contact with them.
By Joyce Urwin
A seed was sown
By the hand of God;
He placed it deep
In fertile soul.
A plant grew soon
Both strong and tall
It weathered storms
Both great and small.
Its blooms came early
With beauty rare;
Its petals were trust
With love to share.
So now we find
With His own power
God has grown for us
A Friendship Flower.
I thank all the many friendship flowers I have been blessed to grow over the years!
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. quote from Middlemarch, by George Eliot