I had the good fortune to get a plane ticket to Birmingham on Christmas Eve. So one week later, I found myself there enjoying my home town for the holidays. Since I lost my home there a few years ago and have not reestablished a residence due to my transient job, I had to stay with my good friend Frank Wilson. He had a full house, but was more than happy to let me sleep on his couch. Frank is definitely a "more the merrier" kind of guy.
My boss Riff called to tell me that there was a Ford passenger van to be picked up at a retirement home and then taken to Atlanta. The name of the place was Virgin Pines, and it was in a nice section of town called Homewood. I showed up at 8pm, hoping to hurry and get the van so I could go join Frank at the Viennese orchestral celebration at the Alabama theater. I dearly love the Alabama, a grand old movie palace from days gone by. And to be with Frank and his wife on New Year's Eve and have a champagne toast at midnight sounded mighty good to me.
After I met with the Head attendant on duty at Virgin Pines, I was given the keys and went out to look over the van and fill out the paperwork. I came back inside and had the attendant sign and gave her a copy. As I hurried out the door, I heard a voice call out to me. "Excuse me, sir?"
I turned and saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair. "Were you speaking to me?" I asked.
"Yes, could I please impose on you to help me?"
"What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"Can you please push me back to my room? I just don't have the strength to get there myself."
"Don't people help you out around here?"
"Oh yes, they will. When they get around to it, I suppose."
I smiled at her. "I would be more than happy to help you." I walked up behind her and began to push the wheelchair. "What room number are you in?"
"No. It's one... one... one - 0..."
"One - 0?"
"Oh my goodness, you'd think I could remember my own room number. I'm 96 years old, and I think my mind is beginning to give out on me. That's a terrible thing, isn't it?"
I didn't know what to say to that. "I'm sure we'll find it."
She was quiet for a few moments, then suddenly exclaimed "One - 0 - nine! That's it."
"See, you remembered. You only temporarily forgot, and I do that all the time myself."
"You're very kind. What's your name, young man?"
"Bill Thomas, pleasure to meet you."
"Well may I say that the pleasure is all mine. I'm Hattie McLemore, and I'm 96 years old but still kicking."
"You certainly are." We got to her room, and I opened the door and pushed her inside. "Is this the place?"
"Oh yes, my humble abode."
"I hope you had a nice Christmas."
She rubbed her hand across her mouth. "I've had much better holidays in the past. This one was a little hard for me. Just push me over there by the window, would you?"
I did as she asked, then sat down in a chair next to her. "Did they have any festivities here at Virgin Pines for you?"
"They have all kinds of stuff, but I didn't want to participate."
"All the other folks here had family come and visit, and it was just too depressing for me."
"Your family couldn't make it?"
She let out a sigh. "My husband died ten years ago, and I've been alone since."
"Do you have any children?"
"Two. David died over in the Viet Nam the year before the U.S. withdrew the troops. He was too young. That just left my daughter Diane."
"Are you two close?"
"We were very close. I loved her very much. But..." Mrs. McLemore got misty-eyed. "Diane died last March. The cancer took her. Her husband Jack never cared much about me, so we've lost touch. She had twins, but they passed away when they were young. Some form of leukemia, I think it was."
I felt deeply for this woman. "That's really sad."
She looked up at me. "Yes, it is. But I have to go on, don't I?"
"Sure. Of course."
"So this Christmas was not a very happy one for me. I've outlived all the people in the world I cared about."
"Don't you have any friends here?"
"A few. They all had families who came and took them out for the holidays. It's just been... It has been rather lonely."
"I can imagine."
"No you can't. And I sincerely hope you never have to. How are you spending New Year's Eve, Bill?"
"Going to the Alabama theater with my friend Frank."
"Oh, I used to love going to see movies at the Alabama. You know, it's about as old as I am."
"Yes it is. Well, I guess you'd better get going."
I got to my feet. "Yes ma'am."
"It was awfully nice of you to push me to my room and talk with me. It felt real nice, like someone cares."
"Someone does care. God bless you, Mrs. McLemore." I nodded and left, headed fast for the van parked outside. I was running a little late, and knew that parking spaces downtown near the theater would probably be hard to find. I climbed into the van and started the engine. And then I felt a tug at my heart.
A few minutes later, I knocked on the door of room one - 0 - nine. I heard a voice say "Come in." I walked in, and Mrs. McLemore asked me "Did you forget something, Bill?"
"No. I just wanted to see if you'd like some company to ring in the New Year."
She looked like she was shocked beyond belief, and then she sniffled. "I would really enjoy that. Very much."
I sat down next to her. "Tell me how you and your husband met."
She smiled broadly. "Well now that's a story." And she began to tell it to me.
I thought she would fall asleep soon, but she was animated and wide awake. She talked and talked, and before we knew it midnight was upon us. I started off 2013 with Mrs. McLemore, and I really do believe it made her happy. Isn't that what life is all about?