TERRE HAUTE —
My wife’s aunt, Martha Jean McCarthy, passed away earlier this month; she was 85 years old. Martha Jean was kind and generous and busy her entire life. It was in her home that we spent a few Christmases, and even more lazy summer afternoons, laughing and eating with a whole gang of cousins and in-laws and sisters and babies. We already miss her.
Joanie and I traveled to Indianapolis just a few weeks before she passed and visited with her in her cramped but tidy condominium, for she had moved from her big suburban home long ago, after her husband, Bob, had died. She was in good spirits and spent most of our time together thumbing through a scrapbook of old photos with us, wanting us to see the faded pictures of the people she had outlived, and of the children who now were wearing the shoes of watch care and concern for her on their own middle-aged feet.
As I watched her as she sat in her robe on her porch in a flowered chair, it occurred to me that she still had things to do and places to go, and that the cancer she had fought for years was still going to have to wait to finish its work until she had whittled her checklist down a bit. How human of her, of us, to think that.
If I am as lucky as I have been much of my life, I hope to have a similar list still going when I am an old, old man, not a “bucket” list of mountains to climb or seas to cross, really, but just a list that proves I am still up and about and active, written proof that my teeth aren’t in a glass for good.
It seems these days as though I am always busy, that I am never done doing what I need to get done. I have papers to grade right now, and lessons to plan; I have a barn that needs paint on its roof, and I have brush to cut; I have rock to stack and bushes to trim; and I have a garden that needs to be tilled and flower beds to clean. I have a deck that needs to be stained and another that needs to be built; I have started to work on another book, and I can’t seem to ever find the time to get much done on it. And to tell you the truth, I’d still like to put all of those things on hold to play golf or watch the Red Sox on television, or to lie on the floor with a good book stuffed in my face … or to even get in a good nap.
I don’t think it is an admirable thing to believe that we have everything done in our lives, ever, for life is a work in progress, and to sit back and say that we are finished with it not only means boredom for us, but also perhaps makes us boring to others, as well. I can name friends who have retired with images in their heads of lounge chairs in the sun and glasses of iced tea in their hands, but they couldn’t sit around for long. They are back to work, even if it is part time.
The most interesting people I know and knew never seem to have everything done. I remember when my father-in-law went into the hospital for the last time — he was Martha Jean’s little brother — he was still talking to us about working on the Model T he had. He told me he planned to get back outside to mow his yard — if my son or I would do the trimming — and I know he wanted to get back to church and to his euchre-playing friends and to tinkering with clocks, well, with just tinkering, in general. And that is the way it should have been. He wasn’t content with just sitting in a chair, but if he had to be stationary, at least he was working a crossword puzzle — in ink, I might add.
I wrote a story a few years ago about the art of loafing and how it is a good thing to sometimes have nothing to do, that there is actually a craft to it. I still believe that, but I have to say that these days, when I find myself with little to do, I get restless and pad about the house and yard looking for some small project to polish off. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand; I don’t rip out walls and build patios and raise barns on whims. I mean I can always find a squeaking door that needs oil, shoes that need polish, or a faucet that drips, and I tend to have those chores on a checklist just waiting to be tackled.
Of course, I have sometimes lost my list and had to start making it again. By then, I have almost always forgotten what I had on my original list, so I make an entry on my new list that reads: “Find original list.” In other words, I can keep pretty busy just getting ready to get busy.
A few weeks ago, I spoke at a retirement community that offers assisted living. The folks who came to my little chat that night may be styling their hair with wider-toothed combs these days, but all were interested and involved and active, and I enjoyed their company. I imagine that they all keep lists, too.
In the days since Martha Jean left us, we have traded stories about her, about what she had done and what she wanted yet to do. For instance, in the weeks just before she died, Martha was insistent that one of her daughters help her paste those photos in that scrapbook of hers.
She was up and doing to the end, and I think that her life — unfinished list and all — was a good one.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at www.tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently — when he finds the time — working on his third collection of stories.