My best friend B. is 96 years old, very deaf and almost blind. She lives with her daughter in Germantown. Each Friday I visit her, taking winding, rural Brink Road from Laytonsville almost all the way to Germantown.
B. and I have been friends since 1964 when we began library science classes at Catholic University. She is a small, quiet, reflective person who has always lived simply, spending some of her modest income on books and recordings of classical music as her only luxuries. For
years she helped enable her grandchildren to attend fine private schools. She has been my own personal tutor in literature and music and a role model for discretion and virtue. In her own unintentional way she has inspired and persuaded others by simply being herself.
She introduced me to walks along the C & O Canal and a discovery of how refreshing the quiet is — how centering oneself can come just from sauntering along the still water and listening to bird songs. But the times we’ve always connected with each other most are when we talk about books.
Some years ago we began our own book discussion club — just the two of us. Since she had already steeped herself in British literature and had lived abroad for many years, we decided that we would fill in some gaps in our American literature backgrounds. We began by re-reading the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” That led us to David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John Adams. We seemed to pick our subsequent selections in chronological order — books about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, then any Mark Twain we hadn’t read before. Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Country of the Pointed Firs” was a special delight; Edith Wharton was a downer for both of us; H.L. Mencken’s writing whetted our interest so much in him that we paid a visit to Baltimore to see his former home and a small park in his honor. We visited the Enoch Pratt main library on the one day each year that the Mencken Room is open. I think we finally had to discontinue our book club when B.’s eyes began to fail and her deafness increased.
Since then, our visits have become shorter because her energy is easily sapped. It takes her longer to think of a word she’s trying to say. When I’m talking about my activities, especially my volunteer work, she seems to withdraw, perhaps because she misses no longer being able to help others.
On my last visit, I could tell the moment I entered and began conversing with B. that she was more alert, more lucid than she had been on my previous visit.
“I wanted to ask you something,” I began. “Remember that author William Maxwell that we liked so much?” B. looked up from her habitual lunch of tomato soup, cheese and crackers. I continued, “Nobody in my book group has ever heard of him. Which one of his novels do you think I should recommend first?”
Unhesitatingly she answered, “You’d better check the libraries first to see if they still have any copies.”
I knew then that she remembered one of her favorite authors and how unknown he seems to be. We began talking about Maxwell’s work, how much we had loved it, and our conversation lasted through lunch. Suddenly, she arose, grasped her walker and stepped carefully down one step to the living room where the tightly filled bookcases lined one wall. I followed her as she pointed to the place where her copies of William Maxwell’s writings were shelved. I removed them, and we talked the rest of my visit about each book and which one might be the best to start with. It was like old times.
All too soon when it was time for me to leave, I began my usual search for my cane. It wasn’t in the kitchen, the dining room, the hall. B. reminded me that I had used the bathroom, but I knew it wasn’t there. At last she said, “You went over to the bookcase,” and she turned her walker in that direction. “Here it is!” She held it up triumphantly.
“Thanks so much,” I said. B. was smiling a certain way, and I knew that she was thinking, “I can still do something for someone.”
It was, indeed, a good day.