An old friend gives a special gift, and gets one

Our friend, at long last, has returned to Indian Valley with its vast meadow and rim of scenic mountains.

The process of returning home was years in the making. I hadn’t known this woman long when she mentioned she was from Greenville, not Quincy. That was in 1980. I learned that she lived in Quincy, in a tiny apartment, but that was for convenience. She didn’t want the related hassles and expense of driving back and forth, so she made do.

But make no mistake, she was returning home just as soon as she possibly could.

I moved away for a few years and when I returned in the mid-1990s, Barbara was still here. She had moved into a mobile home, but she still hadn’t returned to the community of her childhood memories.

Talking about going back was still a constant topic. She shared her rich memories of living on Hot Springs Road in one of two houses her father had built. She talked longingly of the summer days she and her younger brother spent playing along or in Wolf Creek, or rather Woof Crick, as she always called it. She remembered her long evenings playing in the yard or riding her bicycle up and down the street or going to the movies once a week. And then the things she did at school.

She liked school up until she turned 12 and then it and the world outside her immediate comfort zone seemed to turn hostile in her way of thinking. Barbara seemed to cling to an idyllic time in her life and to situations that could never be repeated. Her former husband, a man who shared her childhood, tried to set her straight one time; Greenville wasn’t the same, he attempted to explain. The mills were gone. The town was smaller and far less successful than in the 1940s and 1950s she recalled so fondly. She was furious with him for telling her things that she knew, but didn’t want to hear.

Into Barbara’s old age, she continued to talk wistfully about returning home to Greenville. Like so many, she hadn’t prepared for her retirement and old age. Somehow things would work out. Somehow, she would get enough money to buy a small house on a piece of property where no one could bother her, unless she invited them in.

She would have her cats and maybe a little dog or two for companionship. Somehow, the memories of her parents and brother — all dead before her — would be sharper, sweeter, perhaps they would be nearer.

It was a rainy Friday afternoon when my good friend Lyn and I returned Barbara to the places she loved. She was with us in spirit as we made the stops we thought appropriate to scatter her ashes. There was the original house with the stone fireplace that her father had made. The family spent weekends gathering special rocks just for that purpose. They weren’t just any old rocks. Both of her parents were rock hounds and they had to be special.

And there was a stop along Wolf Creek where her ashes could mingle with the waters where she and Donny once played. We also stopped at a place where there was a wonderful vantage point of Indian Head, her favorite mountain. And there were other points all along the valley.

I thought it would be a sad trip. It was nostalgic not sorrowful. “I miss the old Barb,” Lyn said at one point. I knew exactly what she meant. I did too. As Barbara aged and the years of not heeding her physicians and taking care of herself took their toll, the kind, fun, storytelling person we knew disappeared. And she had no money set aside for her old age. What she wanted and what was possible were completely different things and it was very, very difficult trying to get her to understand that she couldn’t live alone. That only people with good, additional insurance and money got to remain in their homes with round-the-clock nurses. She also didn’t understand that we had lives and demands of our own. We couldn’t provide the kind of care she required.

But as we made one stop after another and released our friend to the gentle winds, I came to realize the old friend had returned in a sense, not just to her beloved valley and its mountains, but to us. The old Barbara we loved and joked with was right there with us, whether we talked about her much or not.

The journey also gave Lyn and I an opportunity to consider more deeply our own pending old age.

I know I don’t have a longing to return home and if Lyn does it’s not something she’s mentioned. But that’s not where our conversation turned. Lyn actually said it for both of us when she said that she never wanted to become a burden to anyone. I know that Barbara became one especially for her. Somehow our friend seemed to grasp that I had a job and a very little grandson to deal with. So she wasn’t as demanding. But she was also very angry with me for stealing her treasured collection of books. I didn’t take them. They had been too damaged by cats to keep. But try as we might, neither of us could convince her of the truth.

Lyn spent hours with our friend. Often just talking, but also preparing little meals that were somewhat in line with what the doctor ordered. She also ran errands, often paying for special things that were needed. I don’t think Barbara had a clue as to what she came to expect, even demanded.

The experience changed our outlook on life. I agree with Lyn that I don’t want to be a burden to people, especially those outside the family, assuming I still have family left. I think about my husband who is a little older and wonder how we’ll get by. It isn’t that I didn’t know I would get old. The surprise is that I didn’t know it would happen so fast.