Armchair Elder

I saw her seated to the far right of the third row. Who was this white-haired woman glaring at me as I strolled down the aisle. I asked to enter the third row, seated just next to this elderly woman, with my mind using a single verb to describe her as she glared at me. I took my seat on my Southwest flight home. I had a story coursing through my head howt his white woman was fixated on my brown skin. As it turned out, she happened to be a curious, storytelling, fellow traveler.

It began when she asked me how the buckle of her seat belt worked. I learned two further data points within minutes, which were this was an 85 year old woman who was on an airplane for the second time in her life. The previous flight was two weeks earlier when she’d flown to RDU from MDW. Meanwhile, I have been on planes regularly. My first flights began at age six (nearly three decades earlier than the octogenarian seated to my left). One of the few questions that she asked me was if my other airplane rides were bumpier than our shared springtime flight from North Carolina to Illinois. I told her that, yes, they could get bumpy.

We shared an armrest, and she shared countless stories. For the next 80 minutes, I had a history tutorial courtesy of Mrs. Marilois Anderson of Morocco, Indiana.

Marilois lives in a duplex. She was a nurse until age 60 in a tiny Indiana town across the stateline from Chicago. At four, her parents moved from southern Indiana to Morocco, as her father got work for the telephone company. Her mother worked for Ma Bell, too, working the switchboard from their home. One time, Marilois placed the mouthpiece in her mouth, getting an electric shock that made the line go dead. Her father had been to war, too. He was a medic and driver. My young mind was curious about which war it had been. It was one of oodles of questions that I can not know a definite answer to.

Mrs. Anderson’s maiden name is Carter. She married in her early 20s, and had three children – one of whom lived in North Carolina, the nudge she needed to get on an airplane in her mid-80s. I got a glimpse of memory, the mind’s work, and the moment-by-moment nature of life when I asked her husband’s name. In the long pausing presence, I noted that she was unable to recall the name of a partner who died six years ago. She pulled her wallet out for a second time out from one of her two handbags. Her eyes searched for an ID with his name on it. Not on the credit card, nothing on her Medicare card. Then she did find a membership card for the World War II Memorial. Her eyes scanned the colors and images, and I read the name aloud: Mrs. Milton Anderson. I had a great uncle named Milt, too. My uncle Milt had fought in some war decades before I was born. For the 20-some years of overlap, I heard few stories of his service and his life.

Thanks to history, my ancestors and their stories, there were so many reasons that made Marilois’ memories of Morocco so familiar to me. She even said to me how she wanted me to meet her son, Jack, when I come through Morocco.

Multiple times during our flight, Ms. Anderson said that the airplane felt like we were “just sitting here.” It was magic when she peered out from her window seat. She remarked at how incredible it was that we were flying at 30,000 feet. When the floor of the clouds opened, she said, “I can see something.” I got a glimpse of how curiosity and adventure can live on. Can live in us. In her bike rides, her love of the public library, where the librarians of Newton County let her borrow knowing that some day, Mrs. Anderson, won’t bring her two books back.

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One thought on “Armchair Elder

  1. Marilois Anderson is my aunt and is in the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s. I happened upon your story accidentally…..or perhaps not….as I truly believe there are no coincidences in life. I am fairly certain that none of her family knows about your story as my Aunt does not remember much short term and so I doubt if her experience on the plane ride home was shared by her. I will pass it along to other family members who I know will find it very touching as did I! Thank you for your kindness and compassion to my Aunt… and for just listening. She is a very special lady whom we all love and adore that has unfortunately had her life ravaged by this deplorable disease!

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