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An Unforgettable Holiday"

Ruth J. Colvin
First Prize - $10,000

Ruth Colvin is the founder of Literacy Volunteers of America (now ProLiteracy), a national non-profit organization which trains volunteers to teach basic reading/writing and English as a Second Language. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She is a previous Amy Writing Award winner. This article was printed in The Post Standard of Syracuse, NY on  Nov. 26, 2010.


© 2011.  The Post-Standard.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


It was the week before Thanksgiving some years ago, and my husband, Bob, and I were feeling sorry for ourselves.  Our son and his family were on the east coast; our daughter and her family on the west coast.  We were in between and feeling lonely.  It simply was not possible for us to visit them or for them to visit us.


I wanted to think friends would have included us in their own festivities.  But, apparently, none knew we'd be alone.  The phone remained silent.  I recalled the many times that we’d invited others to join our family for dinner.   But I was in no mood to prepare a big dinner.


Most of us consider Thanksgiving a family day.  But what about others who were without family on Thanksgiving?


I recalled when Bob's and my mothers had been in nursing homes.  How they looked forward to our visits!  Especially on holidays.  But I do remember noticing other residents sitting by themselves, apparently envying our reunions.


So, on impulse, I phoned a local nursing home, identified myself, and asked if there were any patients who had had no visitors.   I expected to hear of three or four.  Or even half a dozen.


What a shock when the director paged through her records, then told me, "I have the names of 24 residents who've had no visitors all year."


Our feelings of self-pity evaporated.


Our consciences wouldn't let us pick just a few names out of two-dozen lonely souls.  But what to do to visit that many on Thanksgiving morning?


Of course—make  cupcakes!  One for each.  Decorated and in a separate package with a single rose for each.  And, somehow, we must decide how to make each one feel he or she was the special one being visited.


In the process of getting ready for our Thanksgiving Day visits, we forgot all about being lonely and sorry for ourselves.  Instead, we were up early, packing the cupcakes I'd made the night before.  The nurse had assured me the people we'd visit could eat such sweets at any time.


As we bundled up, we were surprised how excited we were about the trip.  We discussed what I might say to each.  Bob had chosen to stay outside each door to hold the other treats and help make sure I had the proper name for the resident of each particular room.  Conversation was to begin with my introducing myself and saying "Happy Thanksgiving."  Then waiting to see if more talk was appropriate.


The first name was that of  Marjory Marshall.*  When I entered her tidy room and greeted her with my pre-arranged speech, she looked up at me as she sat in an overstuffed chair, dressed in her bright pink robe.  "Do I know you?"  she asked.


I admitted she probably didn't, but that I was lonely and hoped to meet new friends.  She thanked me for the cupcake and responded eagerly to questions.


That's how I learned she had been a teacher in a rural school and active in her church.  She'd remained single all her 94 years.  All her relatives had died.  "I'm tired and would like to join them.  Sometimes my pastor comes.  I asked him, 'Why do I continue to live so long?'  He told me, 'I guess God has something planned for you to do.'"                                   


Then she asked me, "What do you think God wants me to do?  I can't figure it out."


It was a logical question indeed and I had no easy answer.  "Well, the Bible says we should 'encourage one another and build one another up' (1st Thes. 5:11).  You seem to be blessed with a good mind and a positive attitude.  I'd guess He might have you here to help some of the others to be happy."


Her smile and firm nod assured me this was the correct answer.  It confirmed her wish that she was needed there in the nursing home.


Then there was Mr. Barber.*  He and his wheelchair were in a corner where he sat staring at the walls.  His response to my greeting and the offered cupcake was, "Can I eat it now?"  His only interest was in the cupcake.  So, even though he didn't so much as look my way, I knew he was pleased with this little gift.


Mrs. Metcalf,* a blue robe over her white hospital gown, was slumped over in her wheelchair, having been tied in so she wouldn't tumble out.  Her white hair was frazzled as she lay with her head on her arms, fast asleep.  I hesitated, thinking of leaving quietly so as not to disturb her.  I put the cupcake and red rose on her bedside table.


"No, no, do go ahead and wake her," the aide instructed.  "She wouldn't want to miss a visitor—the only one she's had."


I wondered how to do this without frightening her.  So I knelt down at her side, gently touching her arm, and whispering, "Mrs. Metcalf?"


She raised her head, eyes still sleepy and hazy.  "I'm Rose Metcalf."


"I'm Ruth Colvin.  I've come to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving."


"How nice.  It's mighty nice of you to come.  Thank you.  Thank you."  And her eyes glazed over again.  But she'd responded to me even though it was for only those few seconds.


Each of the twenty-four residents' reactions was different.  Yet every individual touched Bob's and my hearts.  We realized that all were "somebodies" in their day.   


As we left the nursing home to return to our own home, Bob and I discovered we had grateful tears welling in thankfulness for our own health, for our family members, for our friends.  We realized, too, that someday we might be in a similar position of yearning for a visit from someone.  Anyone.


It also made us more aware of caring staff members who work day in and day out--often at menial jobs--to take care of our nation's elderly and/or those who need special attention.


When I told a friend about the Thanksgiving Day which had cured our own feelings of depression and loneliness, how it turned out to be the most meaningful one we'd had in many years, she determined to do something similar.


She and her young son chose Christmas Day to visit a nursing home in her own community.  Their gifts weren't cupcakes and a silk rose, but a new pair of sweat pants for each person visited.   It made their day brighter too.


Go ahead—if you’re feeling sorry for yourself, give a lonely friend or a local nursing home a call.  It’ll do even more good to you than to those you plan on helping.


*The residents’ real names are not used.


Printed November 26, 2010; The Post-Standard;  Syracuse, NY

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