I was 9 when I met a toothless wonder named Molly. Nearly 100 years old, Molly lived at the local nursing home. When my school chorus came to visit the rec room each year, Molly was legendary for seizing the moment with boundless tactile enthusiasm.
Molly could no longer speak, but made primal, joyful sounds as she hungrily gathered the brave among us close to her. My turn came. I shook with uncertainty. Molly seemed to have wrinkles within her wrinkles, and smelled like off mayonnaise. She took my face in her gnarled hands and kissed every inch of my head, her skin too dry, her lips too wet. But when Molly’s dim and caked eyes locked with my own, I felt instantly, deeply loved. Magic.
Once Molly released us, we assembled in front of the room and sang. The alien audience scared me. One man had the stub of his partially missing leg awkwardly bunched into a gray sock. Another woman’s body seemed to implode upon itself, a broken paper fan. A jolly lady kept shouting “Hi, Sweetie! Hi, Honey! Aren’t you cute?!” reaching out to air-hug the empty space between us.
We sang. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you...”
As cracked old voices joined ours, my heart swelled.
We gathered our Kmart coats and got ready to leave, Molly sobbed as she was wheeled out. My teacher said, almost to herself, “Molly loves children because she was a principal at a school like ours.”
A principal? Molly had been a principal? As if I had been bashed in the head by my wiffle ball bat, my brain suddenly swirled. I reeled with awe, panic, rage, fear, guilt and determination. Molly had once been young. Smart. A principal who took care of kids like me.
I had been in a room full of human beings, and I’d seen only aliens. What if too many people did what I had done? What if nobody ever bothered to see old people as human? Never made the effort to help them tell their stories? The thoughts made my throat tighten like a ball was lodged, blocking breath.
I knew I had to become the kind of person who could see elders as worthy human beings, capable of experiencing joy, and deserving of actively being loved.