Jerry Pattengale, Chicago Tribune (3/04/03) 1:13 (The version below is from its reprint in The Purpose-Guided Student [McGraw-Hill]).
She answered the door naked. It was an awkward moment for my youngest brother and me. She was over 80.
It was an unfortunate, unforgettable moment for the boys from Buck Creek, Ind.
She thrust open the door and pulled me in with my parasitic sibling affixed to my other arm. I moved like the Ice Man, frozen and silent for what seemed like eternity. My brother pressed his hand tightly against his grinning baby-toothed smile.
Clueless that something was awry, she served us ice cream while pulling on her stockings. A geriatric hop followed while she navigated her girdle. The plain vanilla scoops were a welcome, numbing, bland distraction in an unwelcome, tasteless situation.
She disappeared several times through a doorway to return with pieces of clothing. It was certainly surrealistic. We stared long and hard into our bowls while she buttoned various layers of garments.
My brother giggled uncontrollably until my foot struck his shin.
Our new neighbor was beyond embarrassment. I was the one blushing. We were there to mow her yard. Instead, we got an education in aging.
For the first time I saw the deterioration of the mind and body. With eyes wide shut, I had seen enough for a lifetime.
In misarranged clothes and her shiny wig finding its mark, she proceeded to show us pictures from her career in the East Coast business world. There was a gorgeous woman in framed black and white photos. Classy. Flanked by executives. Dressed in wools, silks and materials foreign to blue-light-special Buck Creek—she looked like a goddess. Except for the gap between her front teeth, I would not have recognized the same disoriented loose-skinned person bantering around that mothball-scented room with mismatched Afghans.
I wanted to know that person in the photos. The stately, stunning career woman. The world traveler. The successful well-dressed woman with porcelain skin. Instead, I saw her fast-fading shadow in an ill-kept, nondescript house. It’s as if she had taken life’s bus from the center of the world to oblivion.
That trip to mow a yard has stretched to the present. I have occasionally inquired of myself, “Will I find myself decades down the road answering the door naked?” “Will young kids yet unknown find me delusional?” “Will I spend my working years in one part of the country and then retire back home? If so, would I be a stranger in my own land?” And the most gripping question, “Will I strive for goals that I’ll discover matter little in life’s twilight?”
Life’s twilight may come at 99, like my great grandmother. Or it may come in “mid-life,” like my father. In her book, A Man Called Peter, Catherine Marshall reflects on the early passing of her famous husband, Peter Marshall, the U.S. Senate Chaplain: “It’s not one’s duration in life that matters, it’s one’s donation.”
Lisa Beamer, wife of one of the Sept.11 heroes, Todd Beamer, reflects on his early passing. In Let’s Roll Lisa shares some of Todd’s habits and commitments that made his heroic stand almost predictable. Todd had taped the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt on his office inbox: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . Who strives valiantly, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in worthy causes. Who, at best, knows the triumph of high achievement and who, at worst, if he fails, fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
I occasionally read Martin Luther King’s “Mountain Top” speech, delivered the day before his assassination. After expressing gratitude for great civil rights gains, he shared the following in the last paragraph, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. . .”
From Marshall and Roosevelt to King and Beamer, and from our aging neighbors, we learn that we should give first-rate priorities to first-rate causes. One day, whether we’re giving our last address to a Senate floor, looking at a terrorist, delivering our “Mountain Top” speech, or dipping ice cream naked, we’ll have expended our life’s best energies.
We’ll all look at life’s photos and either smile or glance away. My neighbor saw something in her pictures that framed her life’s fulfillment. That gaze in her eyes erupted into a smile—her beacon of pride. In retrospect, I witnessed a royal moment. In our youth, we’re distracted by nakedness, however innocent. As we mature, we should be more preoccupied with the naked truth, however revealing.
A flood of comments arrived after this article appeared in the Chicago Tribune (3/04/03) 1:13. (It’s used here with permission.) I wish I had space to share some of the hilarious stories—and also the touching memories. One of the funniest calls I received was from a dear friend, Katie Beaver—the 90-year old Matriarch of our church (her husband served as the first pastor). She stood around five-feet tall and had a baritone laugh that would fill any room. Katie announced on the phone: “Jerry, this is Katie. I read your article.” She paused and I began to sweat. Then she blurted, “Just wanted to let you know I still have my clothes on!” . . . . . “Gotcha!” Then she burst into laughter.
But she also paused again to say thanks, and reflected a bit on her journey. She passed away a few years later, and all who knew her knew it was a full and rich life.
- Have you had a somewhat awkward or unique experience like that of the naked lady?
- Have you heard people reflection on their lives, and what types of things did they seem to find the most joy in talking about? You could ask the same question of characters in a book or movie.
- What meaning can you take from the naked lady story for your own life?
- If you live to be 80 years old, what fulfilling memory would you like to see framed in your living room?