“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
“Florida: Where Old People Go To Die”
Long before I retired I heard one of my work colleagues say, “I’d never retire in Florida. It’s where old geezers go to die.” Whenever I overheard some version of this sentiment a vague feeling of discomfort lodged somewhere below my breastbone. My thoughts turned to my parents who loved to vacation in Miami Beach in the midst of winter. They were getting on in years but I never thought of them as old. They still seemed vital, nowhere near death. And besides, if they were old, surely I couldn’t be that far behind.
Then it happened. I retired in 2007, and vowed to sell the Surfside, Florida beach condo, just a few blocks north of Miami Beach. We had purchased it for my father some years before. He and Mom were gone by now, but Florida gave them much happiness reveling in balmy temperatures in the winter months. My father used to have a habit of calling me in New York when howling winds swirled snow into odd shaped drifts.
“Guess what temperatures we are having here?” he’d ask, and I knew sight unseen, a grin bloomed on his face.
“I know, Dad, I bet it’s at least seventy degrees.”
“No, it’s going up to eighty today. I’m wearing shorts. You have to move here, it adds years to your life,” he’d say.
“OK, I’ll think about it,” I usually said, inwardly vowing to avoid it at all costs.
Somewhere deep in my brain the negative Florida exhortations of my coworkers had taken root and began to sprout.
The condo stood vacant for two years after my father passed away. I couldn’t bring myself to clean out the remnants of his happy life there. Yet his words resonated in my brain, “…it adds years to your life.” Every time I lifted the receiver to dial a real estate broker, something stopped me. After months of equivocating, my husband and I made a decision to renovate the condo on the beach and try using it as our own winter retreat.
Vacationing in Florida and Loving It!
It turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made. Each time we crossed Biscayne Bay and approached Surfside, it felt like entering paradise. Bathed by brilliant sunshine and inhaling the sweet smells of jasmine, magnolia or gardenia, I couldn’t help think of my father’s ongoing game of persuasion advocating Florida. The people strolling the sidewalks radiated health and youth, relative to their ages. Occasionally we’d spot tanned-to-a-crisp old ladies in tennis skirts and stooped, silver haired gentlemen leaning on their canes, but even they looked surprisingly energetic.
Instead of vegetating, wrapped in woolen afghans in drafty northeast city apartments they were very much alive here. We saw them strolling the boardwalks, playing tennis, dipping in pools, throwing bocce balls and doing yoga stretches on the beach. I swore not to allow their wrinkled visages affect my impression of their vitality.
In no time at all, I, too, began feeling younger in Florida. I was glad to help real old ladies reach for a can of soup on a high supermarket shelf, or to support the elbow of an elderly man teetering, trying to cross a wide street on which testosterone-filled young drivers zoomed past. It felt good to be young-er and useful. If I was lucky, at some point in the future I’d be much older, but not yet.
The Vision in Purple
One day as my husband and I finished shopping in a mall some distance from our neighborhood, the usually brilliant blue sky darkened several shades. The humidity reached 100% and the ominous steel gray clouds burst, spilling buckets of warm rain. I stood soaked in perspiration under an awning waiting for hubby to retrieve the car from the oversized lot and pick me up. It was well past lunchtime and I was starving. That’s when I noticed her—a vision in purple.
I had never laid my eyes on a woman so totally color coordinated. Her snow-white hair, a halo of gentle curls framed a face not excessively lined, but bearing witness to what must have been, at the very least, ninety years. She moved deeper under the awning, like a bird trying to shelter itself from rain. It occurred to me that a gust of tropical wind could easily lift her slight frame. She had no umbrella, only what looked like a heavy bag.
She must have noticed me looking at her because she spoke up first.
“Do you know where the bus stop is around here?”
She craned her neck, looking for any signs.
“I’m sorry. I don’t really know this area. We rarely shop here.”
“Oh…I live so close. I’d walk if not for this downpour.”
“My husband is fetching the car, would you like a ride?” I asked. Based on what she said I figured it would not take us long to drop her off. Then we could finally get some lunch.
She returned a radiant smile and nodded. I still couldn’t take my eyes off her purple pant suit, matching pumps, purse, necklace and earrings and a pale lavender blouse. She looked like the misleadingly named Golden Dewdrop flower, a stunning purple Florida native.
My husband pulled up to the curb leaning over to open the door for me.
“Get in, quick. I’m soaked.”
“Wait, this lovely lady is joining us,” I said.
His look said, who is she? Why is she coming with us? I explained.
He turned to her and said, “Can you direct me to your home? I’m not familiar with the roads in this area.”
“Well, I think you make a left at the next light,” she said, pointing across several lanes of traffic.
I heard a certain hesitation, a lack of assuredness in her words.
“OK. I’ll switch lanes to get over there,” my husband said. “I’m glad we found you,” he added with a wide grin.
After he made the turn, the purple lady looked around bewildered.
“Uh, ugh…no, I don’t think this is right,” she said slowly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Did she have second thoughts about getting into a car with strangers?
“You see, my husband is the one who always drove so I paid no attention. He died last year, now I’m not sure how to get to my house driving. I could do it easily walking…but in the car, it’s different.”
“Don’t worry,” my husband said. “Just give me your address and we’ll put it in the GPS. It’ll get us there in a jiffy.”
He turned the windshield wipers on “fast” and they swung back and forth furiously, unable to clear the window of the sheets of water.
“Oh, I don’t think we need a GPS. I’m so close to home,” she said, then hesitated a bit before reciting the address.
Perhaps she was reluctant to divulge it. I punched the city and street into our old Garmin GPS device. No signal detected, a message flashed on its small screen. Maybe it’s the storm, I thought. My husband drove slowly making rights and lefts, guided by the ever more timid instructions from the purple lady.
“I think this street looks familiar. Yes, turn here,” immediately followed by, “Oops, that’s not it, maybe on the next block.”
Assumptions About This Vision in Purple
And so it went on. Fifteen minutes, twenty, thirty. It was impossible to tell whether we were getting closer, or farther from her home. Maybe we were driving in circles.
It was close to three pm and I still hadn’t eaten. My blood sugar plummeted with every passing moment and my mood worsened. Now the sweet lady’s chatter tugged on every nerve. Her slight accent, which I hadn’t noticed before, began to annoy me.
She launched into a story about the time she and her husband lived in Munich, Germany before World War II and stressed how happy they were there. That’s when it dawned on me: her accent was German. Maybe it was my growling stomach overriding my rational brain, but I couldn’t help a dark thought that mushroomed. I made a swift mental calculation and leapt to conclusion. Given her age and blue-eyed appearance maybe she was a Nazi, or a sympathizer? Who could have been so fond of pre-war Munich? My incipient migraine made my imagination soar.
While my husband chatted with her idly, turning this way and that, scooting around parked cars and avoiding buses, I wanted to dump her and head over to the nearest hot dog stand. It didn’t matter that I actually hated hot dogs. Any morsel of food would have tasted great at that moment.
After forty minutes of “Go this way. No, go the other way,” the purple lady huddling under the awning turned into persona non grata, a thief stealing my lunch. Ardently, I wished for her dead husband to appear and drive her home to…wherever it was. Why did I offer her the ride? Are we permanently stuck with her? With my blood sugar badly depleted I morphed into a monster.
Several turns later she exclaimed, “Oh, we must be getting closer, this looks very familiar!”
By then I concluded she was either a demented Nazi, or an Alzheimer’s victim who should not have been allowed to roam the mall alone. Her statement brought me no reprieve. Every now and then my husband cast a glance my way that seemed to say, it was your idea.
I plotted an exit strategy. We need to find the nearest police station and leave her in the hands of officers who’d know how to get her home…or hospital, whatever was closest.
What I Learned About Assumptions
Just as this notion gelled in my muddled brain, she piped up, “Well, well, here it is.”
“What?” I asked, fearing another failed try.
We stood in front of a low-rise apartment complex fronted by a row of palms.
“Are you sure?”
Suddenly I worried we’d be dropping her off in the wrong location.
“Why yes. See that dome behind that wall?’
“It’s my synagogue. That’s how I knew we were getting close when I noticed it a block before.”
She Took a Chance On Us
I breathed a sigh of relief. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She took a chance on us as much as we took a chance inviting her into our car. I thought I had done a kindness by offering her a ride, but her kindness to me was far greater.
All at once the poem by the English poet, Jenny Joseph, “When I’m older I shall wear purple” filled my brain. This lady was putting the poem’s advice into practice: eat sausages with abandon, wear purple… take risks irrespective of your age. Maybe I hadn’t yet begun learning the joys and foibles of growing old and taking chances.
The rain had stopped. Large patches of blue opened among the clouds. The purple lady stood there waving as we pulled away from the curb. Standing against the towering royal palm near her entrance door she looked small, yet amazingly sturdy.