Thursday, January 21, 2010

Visiting Mrs. Louie

By Susan Esther Barnes

Periodically, I visit a woman in her 80’s who doesn’t get out as much as she used to, since she is now confined to a wheelchair. It’s hard for me to describe how I feel about going on these visits; it’s complicated. She always seems happy to see me, but she has friends and a daughter nearby, and I don’t see how a visit every once in a while from me can really matter. On the other hand, I know my Grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, would approve, because in some ways it is reminiscent of my visits to Mrs. Louie.

When we were kids, my sister and I used to visit our Grandmother and her brother, Uncle Mitch, may his memory be a blessing, for about a month every summer. Grandma and Uncle Mitch lived in an apartment in San Francisco. In the summer, they spent about half the week in their apartment, and long weekends in Felton, where Uncle Mitch had a part-time job as a courier and caretaker for what we called “the lodge” (interesting story there, but that’s for another time).

Periodically, when we were in San Francisco, Grandma would send us to the apartment across the hall to visit Mrs. Louie. Mrs. Louie was about Grandma’s age, and once when I asked why we went to visit her, I think Grandma said something vague about Mrs. Louie being lonely because her family and most of her friends had died.

Sometimes visiting Mrs. Louie was a little boring, and I remember she told us some of the same stories numerous times, but I don’t remember particularly disliking our visits with her. It had a feel of normalcy, like it was no big deal, but, on the other hand, I still remember it more than thirty years later, so there must have been more to it than that.

I remember I liked how animated Mrs. Louie got when she told us about the raccoons she and her husband used to feed where they used to live, and how sorry she felt for the people who bought the house after them and who probably wondered why so many raccoons showed up in the evening demanding dinner.

Similarly, when we were in Felton, periodically Grandma would take us down the hill to visit Mr. and Mrs. Wertheimer. I didn’t have the words for it then, but now I know the Wertheimers were morbidly obese. Each of them had a special piece of furniture to recline on, sort of like a couch with a raised part for their upper body, since they were too heavy to sit on regular furniture. Every year at Passover when we talk about eating while reclining, it reminds me of the Wertheimers’ couches.

I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning the Wertheimer’s weight. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask about it. As with Mrs. Louie, I didn’t particularly look forward to visiting the Wertheimers, but it wasn’t something I tried to avoid. Talking with them was like talking with any other grown-ups; it was just part of life.

As I got older, I encountered people who spoke down about people who were elderly or overweight. Even now, I know otherwise good-intentioned people who for some reason talk to the elderly in a different manner than they use with other people, almost as if they were talking to children. I never understood that. As far as I could tell from visiting Mrs. Louie and the Wertheimers, elderly and overweight people are just like everyone else. They aren’t more or less smart, or lazy, or interesting. They are just people.

It wasn’t until after Grandma died that I was mature enough to wonder why she made sure we visited Mrs. Louie and the Wertheimers every year. Maybe it was just because she was being nice to them. Clearly, they didn’t get out much, and didn’t get many visitors. I don’t think it was only because she liked visiting them herself; she could have done that without us.

I also came to wonder whether she was doing it for us rather than them. I wonder whether she was teaching us the value of having compassion for people who are lonely. I wonder if she planned for us to learn to see elderly and overweight people as people who are just like everyone else. I wonder whether, if I were given a chance to ask her why we made these visits, she would look at me in surprise and say, “It’s what we do.”

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