Tuesday’s ElderSparks session was notable both for its completely improvised nature and the range of topics it touched upon.

We met on a very hot day when even the air conditioning needed relief. E~ left almost as soon as she arrived, complaining the room was too warm. That left two women, L~ and S~, who were present last time, M~, the habitually bored male ambassador, my colleague Cynthia, and myself. I was glad to see M~ return even though it was more at the urging of staff than his own volition. My heart goes out to him because he looks so unhappy, like a little boy who grudgingly participates but is reluctant or unable to express his needs. At the first session he attended, he told us he had had a stroke in his 70s that left him unable to walk or stand on his own. Otherwise, he seemed pretty intact. I can only guess at how difficult it is for him to be here in this skilled nursing facility, deprived of the life he formerly knew. Hopefully the counseling and other support he receives — perhaps even one of our gatherings — will lead to a breakthrough one day.

At an earlier meeting, we started the hour by having each person say a little something about him- or her- self. This time, I made a game of it, resurrecting the classic Twenty Questions to guess what hobby each of us had at an earlier time in our lives. The group did well, arriving at the correct answers well within the 20-question limit: M~ collected coins, L~, old knick-knacks, S~ made quilts, Cynthia sewed clothes, and I played pick-up football.

Once the subject of sports came up, I was reminded of something momentous that happened a few days earlier: Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees star shortstop, made his 3000th base hit, the first Yankee to ever reach that goal, and only the 28th MLB player to do so. The fan who caught the ball was a 23 year-old recent college grad with $100,000 outstanding in student loans. He returned the ball to Jeter rather than sell it for more than enough to retire his debt. Some people thought he was nuts.

I was curious to hear what the group thought about the young man’s decision: What would they do with the ball if they had been in the bleachers that day and caught it? To make the question more real, Cynthia and I reenacted the scene as best we could given a linoleum floor that substituted for turf, conference room tables that no one would ever mistake for an infield, and baseball skills that wouldn’t qualify for a Pony League team of 5-6 year-olds. As usual, an ElderSparks smiley face mask proved adaptable enough to be used, this time, as a bat; a crumpled-up sheet of drawing paper served admirably as a ball. Cynthia pitched and I played Derek Jeter. Three of us voted in favor of selling the ball for all it was worth, and two of us chose the more selfless option of giving it back.

While discussing the annual salaries of athletes like Jeter and the gargantuan home he has built for himself in Florida (see below),

it occurred to me that the residents sitting around the table had all grown up during the Depression. I asked them to describe what it was like for them and their families. Everyone said it was hard. L~ told of spending her childhood surrounded by elderly boarders her parents took in to make ends meet. S~ described growing up in Philadelphia as one of 9 children: her father was a tailor, her mother a seamstress who imparted a lifelong interest in quilting. S~ was extremely proud that at the age of 18 she had boarded a train to Vermont by herself to study art at Goddard College. How wonderful it was to hear this woman, whose impairment usually left her unable to participate as fully as the others, become so vocal and articulate.

I asked S~ if she would show us a design that she used in her quilts, and she was happy to oblige.

Watching her draw, I was struck by the assurance with which she put pen to paper. Regardless of her physical limitations, she was still an artist who knew what she was doing. I suggested she lead the group in an art exercise the next time we met. S~ probably won’t remember what she committed herself to but I’m equally sure she won’t hesitate for a moment when reminded.

Once again, L~ told us she wouldn’t attend the next session because she is going home.

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