Bess died two years ago, just before the New Year. I miss her. I miss our Soup Dates.
Bess had just turned 90. She stood barely four feet tall, and not all that much taller, I think, in her youth. She was the mom of a colleague of mine, and completely dependent on her for driving and housework. My colleague, who already worked twice as hard as normal folks at her job, was exhausted. Coming home to a mother who was just as needy as the job she’d left was draining her further. “I love my mom,” she’d say, “but I sure do wish I could just have a couple of hours in my own house–ALONE. Just once in a while.”
I could not afford to help my friend hire someone to meet her mother’s needs. But I could do one little thing: I could take Bess out for lunch once a month and talk for a couple of hours in a restaurant, giving my friend a teensy break.
So began Soup Dates With Bess.
You have to understand, this was pretty self-serving on my part, and not because I especially love soup. I love stories.
As a teacher of American Studies, I had assigned my students, a few years earlier, the job of finding someone from the Word War II generation and conducting an oral interview. Afterwards, we invited all the interviewees to the school, served them a potluck lunch the kids had brought, and let them tell some stories to the group. Huge hit. All but one of my students interviewed men who had fought in battles, some at D-Day in France, some earlier in Italy or in the Pacific. One girl couldn’t find anyone to interview, so my friend offered her mom.
“A lady?” my student asked skeptically. “A lady has stories from World War II?”
Bess had been an Army nurse. She and her best friend signed up first thing, straight from Illinois dairy farms to Germany. Yes, she had stories.
On our first Soup Date–I started calling them that because tiny Bess only ever ate a single tiny cup of soup and half a cup of coffee–I encouraged her to bring along an album. She walked me through about a quarter of it that first lunch. Each little square black and white photo carried hidden folds of memories, which she unfolded, first for herself, tentatively, then with more and more authority as she pointed out handsome soldiers she’d nursed or castles she’d visited on leave.
“You go out to lunch and look at her pictures?” my younger son asked, eyebrows raised. “That sounds…exciting.” But you know what–it was NEVER boring.
I lost my first grandmother in a car accidents when I was 15 and just starting to show interest in my elders. Too late, she took all her stories with her. I did then begin to pump my other grandmother for information. She had been a young housewife during the war years, and her husband stayed Stateside, though, so her stories were mostly about ration books. And she lived on the other side of the country from me.
Bess’s Army life wasn’t Hemingway. She was very matter-of-fact about her experiences, and she never came under fire. But she lived change and growth on a huge scale, and she saw first-hand the courage and grit we have since come to call The Greatest Generation. She had that grit herself. It was an honor to hear about it.
After nearly two years of Soup Dates, Bess and I ran out of albums, and toward the end, I had to admit to my husband, we were running out of topics as well. Once I’d plumbed the depths of her wife-and-mother years, the pickings got a little slimmer. We got close to thin ice a couple of times, realizing we were not always on the same page when it came to politics. Had Bess lived longer, I don’t know–maybe we would have exchanged Soup Dates for movies. Maybe I would have come to feel less excited and more put-upon on date weekends.
I never got to find out. I know my friend’s life is easier now that she doesn’t have to take care of her mother. I also know it’s emptier. As is mine.
How about you? Have you had the experience of hanging out with elders not related to you? Or did your own grandparents fill that role? What gifts did they give you?