It was a time when I was going through a divorce. My 3 young daughters and I were trying to readjust our lives.
During the week things were routine and didn’t present too many problems as I worked and they went to school. Saturdays needed something more structural.
Voluntary work with the local library, taking books to elderly live-ins seemed to be a worthy project and something we could do together especially if it was followed with lunch at McDonalds. Since I had grown up among elderly relatives, I thought this would be ideal and expose my children (7 & 9) to the elderly generation.
Her name was Mrs. Lipinski. The library told me she was very elderly – no family or friends to mention.
We picked up the books and headed to Mrs. Lipinski’s low income apartment dwelling. With books in hand and 2 young children close beside me, I knocked on her door. It opened. A short, stocky lady with a scowl on her face, wearing a worn and faded house dress and no shoes opened the door.
“What do you want”, she gruffly barked.
This was not the introduction I was anticipating but proceeded onward.
“Hello Mrs. Lipinski. I’ve come from the library with books for you. These are 2 of my children, Kim and Barbara.”
“You don’t know anything about me. How would you now what I like to read”, she spit out.
OK! I’ve dealt with grumpy older people before and realize that something has made her VERY unfriendly.
“I don’t know what you might like,” I said as I held out a book to her, “but take a look at these and we’ll go from there.”
She grabbed the book from me and threw it on the floor behind her. Not knowing what else to do and in hopes of a better reaction, I handed her a second book which she also grabbed and threw on the floor without so much as even looking at it.
“That’s what I think of that one,” she said. “Now anything else!”
OK! She’s really pissing me off and trying my patience but this is a test. I have 2 children watching me in frozen silence. This is where moms have to think fast!
“Well, Mrs. Lipinski, here are the last 2 books. Maybe you will like one of them.” Perhaps this was not one of my best ideas! There are now 4 books scattered on the floor behind her as she looked me directly in eye and said, “You have more?”
Nobody can be this mean and rude, especially in front of children without a reason. So I bit my tongue and answered, “Tell me what you like. Do you like romance stories, family stories or good old fashioned murder?” – emphasis on MURDER.
“It depends,” she snarled. “No one has brought me anything decent yet.”
My children have still not moved!
“Well”, I said, as patiently as possible and stepped around her where I knelt on the floor and proceeded to pick up the books, “I’ll try and find something better for you next week.”
Maybe it was seeing me on my hands and knees, maybe my tolerance of the situation or the faces of my children, but I sensed a glimmer of regret in her eyes. Not enough, however, to say – I’m sorry.
I smiled at her as I left with the books and my dumbfounded children. As soon as we got outside, my daughter Kim yanked my hand and said, “Are you really coming back, mom?”
“Oh yes”, her stubborn and determined mother replied. “Something is definitely wrong here and I intend to find out.” But I knew why she had NO FRIENDS!
The next Saturday, I learned from the library that I was the 5th volunteer assigned to Mrs. Lipinski. I could understand that as off I went with 4 new books but minus 2 children.
Again I knocked on the door and again she yanked it open with the same caustic greeting, “I didn’t think you’d be back.”
“I said I would. Perhaps you will like what I’ve brought you this time.” Still standing outside the door, I handed her all the books – might as well get this over with – one grab and one pitch to the floor.
She took them, didn’t really look at them, but instead of the floor, she tossed them on a small hall table just inside the door. “I’ll check them out”, she barked. “When are you coming back again?”
“In 2 weeks”, I replied, “and I’ll bring 4 more with me then”.
Once again, I smiled as I left her standing tn the doorway, but somehow I knew there was now a tiny crack in her armor.
For the next 2 years I continued to bring her 4 books every 2 weeks and it was during the latter part of this time, that she trusted me enough to share her story.
For some unknown reason she didn’t remember her mother who had either died or left her with her father, a farmer with no child rearing skills and obviously little compassion for her. Her father had wanted a son to help with the farm while growing up and who would eventually take over the farming heritage. His perception of females was that they were only good for housekeeping duties and to satisfy a man’ needs.
Mrs. Lipinski had minimal education. At the age of 14, her father sold her to a widowed farmer – 30 years her senior. Her anger, disrespect and contempt for her father was apparent but she spoke well of the farmer who had bought her.
“He was decent to me”, she said, “and even married me.”
When she was in her late 40’s, he died but willed the farm to her providing a home and some form of financial stability. Now here was a woman who owned precious farmland but had little education and no social skills – ripe for a wolf to come knocking at her door.
And knock he did!
“He said he loved me – talked me into marriage. I didn’t know anything about handling money. He took over all the finances, talked me into selling the farm and then he left with my money. I had nothing,” she murmured with desolate resignation.
She was hurt, broke and angry now having to fend for herself and depend solely on welfare for the rest of her life.
My visits to her became something I looked forward to. She actually smiled now when I brought the books and told me how she would now waive at the school children who had previously taunted her by calling her ‘crazy old lady’. Children can be cruel! She eventually found a friend in her apartment building.
Mrs. Lipinski made a huge impression in my life. She prompted me to become very active in volunteer work particularly with seniors which later led to my participation in promoting Pet Therapy programs – seniors and animal interaction.
There are many sad and lonely people in this world – many stuck in nursing homes with no family or worse, families that choose to forget them. They have a common denominator – sadness, loneliness and anger.
My volunteering gave me more than I could ever have given.
Eventually I moved to the west coast but Mrs. Lipinski and I wrote back and forth until she died. Her short notes were difficult to read with so little schooling and a shaky hand, but were written with love and affection making them precious to me.
A pastor once told me that we don’t always know how we touch someone, but you touched me Mrs. Lipinski. Thank you for coming into my life.