Friday, May 27, 2005

Dust and Ashes

When I was a junior in high school, I was pretty typical in my self-centered attitude. I did not have a happy teen-age experience until I got to college, and as is usually the case, I thought my life was completely horrible and so on. So when I was 17, in attempt to make me a little less self-centered, my mom made me start volunteering at the Center for Food Action, where she was (and still is) employed as a social worker.

Anyway, the summer I worked there was one of the more formative experiences in my life. I think I probably continued to be a self-centered teen in many respects, but I did come to realize that, even in a wealthy area like Bergen, there were a lot of people who had a rough time. Even more so than that, I worked primarily with a group of female senior citizens, all of whom were retired and wanted to give something back.

I volunteered at the CFA for many years after that, and didn't really stop going until I started law school.

Yesterday I found out that my friend Bertha, who trained me in the pantry and worked with me for all those years, passed away this week. She was 85. Bertha was this tiny little woman who had grown up in New York. Bertha was Sicilian, but when she was very young she had married a Mc (literally, her last name was McIllwee). Her husband had died at a realtively young age, they had never had children, and Bertha never remarried.

Simply put, Bertha had an awesome life. Every year, she and her other widowed friends would travel to some remote destination. She loved volunteering, which she did almost every day at some place or another, and ballroom dancing, which she did with equal gusto. She enjoyed regaling us with tales of her childhood in Catholic school (and how she liked to sit in the back of the class because "that's where the boys were."). About five years ago, she had heart bypass surgery. Within two months, she was back at CFA, bouncing around and cracking jokes. She went on and on about how great her doctor was. "Look!" she yelled at me, as she literally pulled up her shirt in the middle of the food pantry to show me her nicely healed scar. "You can barely see it!"

I haven't seen Bertha in a couple of years, which is why I was surprised by my reaction. When my friend Mike died, it literally felt like someone was sitting on my chest for weeks afterwards - in other words, I physically had a heavy heart. And I felt that way again when I heard about B.

She should have lived forever, or at the very least, till she was 110. She ought to be planning a trip to Tokyo or getting elected the queen of the "seniors'" prom again. She taught me something about the value of living life alone, on your own terms, surrounded by lots and lots of loving friends and extended family. And while I know that 85 is a ripe old age, and that if anyone soaked every last bit out of what you can get on this green earth, it was Bertha, I still feel a little bit of bitterness that she will no longer be bumming around Mahwah in her beat up jalopy with the "I'd Rather Be Dancing" bumper sticker.

So, Bertha, please consider this a belated thank you for everything you taught to me. I know that if there's anything after this, you'll approach it with your typical joie de vive. And if there isn't, you'll simply continue to remind me of the importance of having fun and doing good, no matter the situation.

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