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The Vagaries of Life

By Esther Stone
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:22:00 AM

When I first came to California, in 1957, and was looking for a job, I learned that I met the qualifications to be a social worker. I took the civil service exam, passed it, and in a very short time later, was a bona fide social worker! 

My first assignment was as an old age caseworker. I had had very little contact with aged people at that time, so I initially viewed this with some trepidation. But my fears were soon allayed as I met each of my new clients in turn, and found that beneath their common mantle of age each was a unique individual with a distinctive personality, background and life experiences.  

Before long I developed a good rapport with each of them, and I found it very rewarding to be able to help resolve problems when they arose, and, too, I felt fortunate in being in a position to gain many insights about aging that I would not have normally been exposed to. 

One of the most significant things I noticed was the how differently each person coped with old age. Some seemed happy enough passing their days uneventfully, watching television, being active in their churches, engaging in hobbies like knitting and the like. Others had close relations with their families and enjoyed sharing stories about them with me. Still others seemed lonely and bitter, and would dwell on their illnesses, their losses, their isolation and their children’s neglect of them. While others seemed to merely accept their circumstances with a kind of dull passivity. They seemed to have lost the will to participate more actively in their lives and were mired in the limitations that old age had imposed upon them.  

Among all of my clients, however, there was one woman whose memory has stayed with me all these years. 

Her name was Helen. She was a frail, sprightly woman of 82. She had white hair, a stooped posture and a marked tremor in her hands. Despite her fragility, she always greeted me warmly when I came to visit, and we would have interesting conversations on various subjects of interest to her. She was an avid gardener and took great pride in showing me her garden. I still remember the brilliance of her red-belled fuchsias on lush display.  

When she had occasion to write to me she did so with a stub pen, in purple ink, her letters formed with a wavering left-handed slant. I was impressed by this assertion of her individuality and her indom- 

itable spirit. 

One day, after a routine quarterly visit, I was dictating the results of my contact with her and I used the expression, “she has a zest for life.” When her file was returned to me I noted that the typist had mistranscribed my words into “she has a jest for life.” I liked her version better! Perhaps the secret of aging gracefully was to laugh at the depredations of old age, rather than bemoan them—to acknowledge them, move on, and live one’s life as best one can. 

I have lived many chapters of my own life since that time, and now find myself, quite shockingly, within ambling distance of her age then. She has been an inspiration to me throughout the years, and I hope that I will continue to relish new challenges and to laugh at the vagaries of life, as she did.