When I was fifteen, I got my first paying job selling ice cream at the Dairy Queen near my house. It was one of those seasonal outfits that opened for the hot summer months of May through September, then closed while the owners wintered in Florida. I accepted the job with glee, relishing the idea of earning enough money in the summer to relax and enjoy the rest of my school year.
My colleague at the ice cream counter was Mrs. Walker, a spry, hyperactive 80 -year-old who had more energy than people a quarter her age. Mrs. Walker had been a long-time town resident who survived the Depression, two World Wars, the Sixties and two decades beyond without ever aging in any meaningful way. She had white hair and wrinkles, of course, but still had the good health, stamina and outgoing personality that made life worth living at 80.
She's someone who truly gives old people a good name.
I didn't know any of this the day I first met her, of course. I just saw an old lady who somehow didn't have the sense to stay home and watch soap operas. What in the world did she think she was doing hustling ice cream? And how big a dent would she put into my plans to pick up as many girls as possible at work? I wasn't receptive at first when Mrs. Walker started to talk about her life. I grunted polite monosyllabic responses to her stories about outliving two husbands and raising six kids during the Depression. What a downer, I thought, as I quickly chased the thought of economic deprivation from my mind. I had never been without money and I couldn't relate to the concept of people starving in the US. How could anyone starve when ice cream was just 50 cents a cup? During my second summer at the shop, Mrs. Walker seemed less spry than before, and I wondered if old age was finally catching up with her. I politely asked if she was OK, praying silently that she wouldn't burden me with some horrible tale of cancer or heart disease. She assured me that she was fine, but had a few things on her mind. I didn't pursue it. We continued to work well together throughout the summer, with Mrs. Walker occasionally taking the time to educate her "young James", as she called me. Mrs. Walker was very prickly about interpersonal skills and always pushed me to go the extra distance with the customers, not just the young pretty ones. She encouraged me to extend myself and try to make everyone leave with a smile. I nodded politely, but thought it was the corniest thing I'd ever heard.
Mrs. Walker left early that summer, unexpectedly for me, but not to others who knew her well. She volunteered for a missionary program in Colombia, to help care for orphaned infants whose lives and families had been ravaged by the recent earthquakes. It seems that three of her sons are missionaries there and had been presumed dead during the first quake. She hadn't heard from them for weeks after the disaster and feared greatly about their well-being. Yet she never said a word about it. This had been her troublesome "other things" that I hadn't bothered getting details about.
Fortunately, her sons survived, but overwhelmed her with tales of sick, orphaned children who needed help from emergency personnel. Few volunteers were eager to accept an assignment in Colombia, with its its political and geographic uncertainty. It would truly take a saint to do it. Mrs. Walker didn't hesitate to accept the challenge.
I'm not sure what impressed me the most. Maybe that she had raised three sons who were altruistic enough to become missionaries and devote their lives to helping others. Possibly that at her advanced age, Mrs. Walker still felt a calling to do something meaningful (even heroic) with her life. I was amazed that she would risk life and limb without hesitation for children she didn't even know. I was humbled that she silently weathered the potential loss of her sons and never once expressed her fears to anyone else. And, amazingly, throughout all of this trauma, she still found the time and energy to try to teach me some compassion.
Before meeting Mrs. Walker, I'd never taken the time to get to know anyone outside of my own safe, privileged world. My idea of starvation was dinner being an hour late and a tragedy was not having enough money to buy a new CD. My career goals were immature and self-centered, focusing mostly on anticipated earnings. I felt ashamed of myself when I saw what a valuable contribution she was making to the world, long after most people hung up their hats and retired to the golf course. I knew in my heart that I'd missed a golden opportunity to learn about life from her while I was preoccupied trying to meet girls.
I won't make that mistake again. Mrs. Walker is due to return from Colombia in two weeks and I've already committed to being at her welcome home party. I'm looking forward to getting to know this special woman better, even if it means having my manners critiqued. It won't be easy to get her to talk about the experience, but I hope she'll take me into her confidence and discuss what's really going on in Colombia. I care about it and I care about Mrs. Walker in a way I never dreamed possible.
My minister once said that people often get their guidance from God in the most unlikely places. He also said that angels walk the earth unrecognized among the rest of us. In wildest dreams, I never thought I'd meet one working by my side at Dairy Queen. But I did, and her name is Mrs. Walker.