Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lessons in Extravagance

In a culture that favors youth, the aged are often looked upon as tottering old fools whose days of giving and usefulness are past. The saddest part of this scenario is that the elderly are conditioned to believe this about themselves.

For six years I delivered meals-on-wheels. I cannot tell you how many elderly people I encountered who were glued to the TV; no change in routine from day to day, no human contact (except me), no purpose. It grieved me.

If only they could have known that their moment for extravagant giving had come! If only old Uncle Jack Beechum could have shared his wisdom with them:

"At the oddest times....(snip) he would come to visit me. This was the tenderness of an old man....(snip). It was a love almost not of this world, and yet entirely of it. He brought me presents---little sacks of penny candy with their necks twisted shut, or little bouquets from neighbors' flower beds to which he helped himself.

But he himself, though he would not have thought it, was the best present. He had no small talk and few of what are called social graces. he had a kind of courtesy that required few words, and with me a gentleness that was as deliberate and forceful as his bouquets of stolen flowers so roughly broken off....(snip) He knew that I was living in loss, that the baby had been born into loss. He knew, if anybody did, that there was nothing that could be done about it, nothing certainly that he could do, and yet he came. He came to offer himself...."
~from the novel Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry**

Did you catch it? The most extravagant gift is the offering of self. Just to be with another in his/her affliction, just to stand alongside the one struggling is a gift of inestimable value. In the season of old age, time is the precious commodity that can be given with extravagance.

The glad exception that I encountered in my years of delivering meals was a real-live person named Bernice. She was severly crippled with arthritis; her hands were badly contracted and she was in a wheelchair. But she always sought to slow me down, offer me a cup of tea, or write down a recipe for me. I knew this to be a labor of love; she could not hold a pencil but by great difficulty.

As I grew to know Bernice, I learned an amazing thing about her. She had determined to make herself useful. Each afternoon, she brought out the stationery and wrote a letter to her missionary-of-the day. She was determined to let them know they were not forgotten; they were being upheld by her in prayer. When any of these missionaries came back on furlough, she saw to it that they had a gift certificate to one of the finer department stores in town so they could buy themselves a "fashionable new outfit and some beads." Although she couldn't get out to hear them when they made the rounds to speak, she took pleasure in knowing she had helped them look nice for their speaking engagements.

I still have Bernice's recipe card in my box and whenever I thumb through the cards and see her handwriting, I am warmed by her memory. She has long passed on to her reward, but her example is in my heart's treasure box forever. Like her, I want to live--and give-- extravagantly.

**Join a great discussion on this book over at the Hannah Coulter Book Club for Copy Cats!


Anonymous said...

Hello! :)

Mark said...

Wonderful! Bernice made me think of my Grandma. She had a profound effest on my life. Thanks!