Like me, you can probably remember a relationship you had as a child with an elderly relative or friend of the family. Some of my best memories of such a time involve Mrs. Cowling, an elderly lady who lived next door to us. We had just moved to a new neighborhood in Calgary, and there were only two completed homes on the block. Our home had the only family of children for about three blocks. There was my older sister Paulette (13 years old), myself (7) , and my brand new brother Ken who was not yet one.
Mrs. Cowling was in her eighties at that time (even now, I do not know her actual age). She had two grownup sons, one lived with her and the other lived in Vancouver. She also had an old dog named Mikey, which I now believe was a Swiss Bernese mountain dog. My first encounter with Mikey was a not-so-friendly greeting involving a lot of barking and a run towards me until his chain held him back. I later learned that he was all show. Once you called his name, he would bark some more and then just sit down and return to considering the world around him.
I first met Mrs. Cowling just a day or two after we moved in when she arrived at our door with some cookies and introduced herself to my mother. My mom was thirty-five years old at the time, and with three children she was only too happy to have some company. From that day forward, Mrs. Cowling pretty much arrived every morning around 10:00 for coffee and a friendly visit. In fact, any time she did not walk over, my mother sent me over to make sure she was alright.
I recall there were times when a visit was not all that convenient. Over the next six years, my mother had three more children, and by the time I was thirteen our neighborhood block had over 100 children. The neighbors on the other side of Mrs. Cowling had twelve children and so Mikey had plenty of barking to do.
Now when I reflect on my special relationship with this elderly woman, I remember why we got along so well. First, we both had the ability to love others unconditionally. Her love flowed because of her stage in life and the grace that came with it, and my love was extended because, as a child, I could sense her warmth, compassion and encouragement. Next was the time we both invested into our relationship. She had long since finished working and time was a commodity she had an excess of. I made time for her because she made me feel important and worthy of her attention. Winters were spent doing her sidewalks and making sure the steps were clear so she wouldn’t slip on her way over for coffee. Summers had me mowing her lawn and pulling weeds in her garden. Each of these encounters would end up with cookies or cake and juice, and at times some change for whatever I might use it for.
Then there was our willingness to listen to one another. Mrs. Cowling and I spent lots of time talking with one another. She would have me talk about school, about my friends, about my adventures as a child, and I in turn would ask her numerous questions about her life and experiences. Her experiences of life were so interesting and it made me anxious to grow up and explore the world she spoke so fondly of. Finally, there was a sense of interdependence that seemed to come from the freedom and grace we experienced when in one another’s company. At her senior age and my youthful age, we seemed to appreciate our interdependence. We enjoyed our time together and the conversations that ensued.
Mrs. Cowling passed away when I was 13 and the neighborhood just never seemed the same after that. Even today, when I visit our former home in Calgary and look at the home next door, I treasure the fond memories of my times with this wonderful lady.
In reflecting on this special relationship, it may be that children and seniors are a perfect match. Each is willing to unconditionally invest time in relationship, to freely express their love, to listen generously, and to be in an interdependent relationship. In our years from say 15 to 45, our focus seems to turn to independence, building careers, finding a partner, raising a family, and then sending our children off to college or university. And then, as we begin to consider the next stage in our life, Love, Time, Listening and Interdependence return as grace appears.
Most of us know in later life that it is our relationships that bring us the happiness and joy we have sought throughout life. Perhaps we should give greater attention to how love, time, listening and interdependence might enrich our lives today!