Here & there: Last leaf on the tree

Stock image, St. George News

FEATURE — “They’re all dead,” she told me. She extended her gently gnarled fingers in turn as she listed them: my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my husband and my daughter.

Her wizened face, anchored by one mole on her upper lip and one just under her chin, both of which sprouted wiry white whiskers, wasn’t exactly sad. It wasn’t exactly serene.

But it was resolved: “I’m the last leaf on the tree.” I nodded. She nodded. What else could she be at her age?

I’d been owing Beth a visit for almost a week. We weren’t friends. We weren’t even acquaintances. She was an assignment – one that I’d accepted happily and intended to do but somewhere between kids and work and home and life, the days had quietly mounted between my intentions.

On Wednesday, I made a special trip to Trader Joe’s with the explicit purpose of buying something for Beth. Maybe even something perishable to force my hand.

But perishables proved tricky for the woman I only knew as 96. Would she have a vase for flowers? Would raspberry seeds get caught in her dentures? Does she even have dentures?

I settled on body balm. It’s Utah and winter, after all.

Twenty minutes later, I stood on her concrete porch, painted gray and chipping, waiting with my small offering as seconds ticked into minutes. I could hear Fox News blasting from within and what I imagined were muffled steps. But still nothing.

She wasn’t expecting me, exactly. But she was homebound. I waited with the odds.

Finally, the door spilt open, a face peering out several inches lower than my 5 foot 3 frame. Time has a way with spines. Of bending and curling in on themselves like a tired pup after a long morning of park play.

From her low perch she cocked her head to both better see and hear me, her unexpected visitor, and inquired my identity.

She took me at face value, a neighbor coming to check on her, but I still wonder who she wouldn’t have invited in; she was clearly eager for company.

“Stand behind me and catch me if I fall,” she instructed. I complied, arms half open as I shadowed her and silently prayed she wouldn’t fall. I’d just met the woman – I didn’t want a broken hip happening on my watch.

She took several minutes to navigate herself and her walker over the chartreuse carpet back to her chair and footstool four steps from the door. Once there, she agilely propped her feet up, leaned back and began to tell her story.

She spoke of her parents. She spoke of her children, their careers and their divorces and one daughter-in-law’s money laundering crime. “My son turned her in, you know. He couldn’t be married to a crook!” She spoke of her neighbors and her moves and the meals now regularly delivered to her home by someone she can’t remember. And then the stories looped back to the beginning.

As she talked, I listened. And I thought about the importance of our stories. Beth’s and mine and ours.

Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, started studying resiliency back in the 1990s. He helped develop a 20-question survey for children, called “Do You Know,” designed to see what stories they knew about their families. The incredible discovery: the more the children knew, the more resilient they turned out to be.

Children knowing their families’ stories was, the study found, “the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

The study’s findings were still true nearly twenty years later. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the children who’d scored the highest on the original survey, those who had known the most, known the best and worst of their families, were the most resilient in times of trauma or stress.

But telling our stories isn’t always easy – even if we know it’s good for us. And even if we know it’s good for our children. So how do we learn?

I suggest we all find ourselves a 96-year-old neighbor (give or take) in need of a visit, buy a little Trader Joe’s head-to-toe balm and sit while she tells her story on repeat.

And then practice what we’ve learned at her wise, dry feet.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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