When I moved into this house 34 years ago, we had a very elderly woman who lived alone across the street from me at the far end of the block. The neighborhood children referred to her as the “crazy lady” but the adults told me she was perfectly all right – just a bit of a recluse.
Indeed, she was that. The only time I ever saw her was when she would peek out from behind her vintage venetian blinds to stare at all of us as we had our block parties in the street.
As a high school student in a Roman Catholic seminary, I had done volunteer work at a local home for the elderly in northern Wisconsin. Back then, we called them “Old People’s Homes” and ever since, I have had a soft spot for those unfortunate elders who had no one to care about them. However, I was told Mrs. Uhri only wanted someone to take her shopping and that job was already filled.
Flash forward a few years to a blinding snowstorm when Mrs. Uhri’s rear door blew open and off the hinges. The husband of her shopping helper took care of things like that for her but he could not get away from work so I was asked to go and help her.
And so I finally met Mrs. Uhri. I learned she came to that house in 1927 as a young bride. Her husband was a merchandise buyer for the very upscale Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago and Mrs. Uhri accompanied him on business trips all across the country. From that day forth I became her “handyman” and she called me with increasing frequency.
I quickly dispatched whatever task she had called me for and then sat back to chat. She loved to talk and I loved to listen to her tales of living in times long before I was born.
I learned what it was like to be wealthy during the Great Depression. She told me stories of volunteering in soup kitchens. She had an album of pictures from a long vacation in Nevada when the Hoover Dam was under construction. She had albums of newspaper headlines from the Second World War.
What’s more, she had stories to go with every picture and every headline. She was truly a living history book. I have always been a history buff and the opportunity to listen to the life experience of this amazing woman was something I treasure to this day.
I like to think she taught me more than just a unique perspective on history. She also reminded me of what I had begun to learn in high school visiting residents of the old people’s home. Our elders are treasure troves of information and tapping into that is good for them and for us.
Some of us find conversation with our elders difficult. We are all about the future and they are all about the past. If you believe that understanding the past is a good thing, take advantage of the living history books you may have around you. They will be gone sooner than you think.