Jersey Girl

Once, when I was fifteen, I rode a bus all the way from Nashville to NYC. It was miserable. We arrived early that morning, and my small town eyes awoke to skyscrapers and busy street corners. We all smelled like stale chips and McDonald’s sausage biscuits mixed with that ever so pleasant aroma of teenagers in puberty. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I loved every minute of it. I’ve been to NYC…but I’ve never been to Jersey. I met, however, my freshman year of college, a Jersey girl.

“Not a **** thing,” she’d tell me. Where eyebrows once had been, flaky skin furrowed in an irritated way every time I’d ask her what she had done that day. “But what are you girls up to?” Her Long Island accent was evident, and it told you part of her story before you even asked. Mrs. Olive Heyse was 98 years old when I met her. She was sitting in the lobby of Garden Plaza Assisted Living in Cleveland, Tennessee. My friends and I soon became her “girls,” weekly visits becoming a necessity in the midst of our hectic college lives. Our Jersey Girl had once played in a string quartet. She had worked in a bank. She had taken a boat to England. She adored Dalmatians. Mrs. Olive would cry every time we left. She’d say, “you girls are just too good to me.” What she didn’t know was that we all teared up when we left as well. She was too good to us.

We certainly had our experiences with the old gal. For instance, one time we all thought she was on the brink of death when it turned out that she had merely drank to much wine at dinner. Other times, we would be sitting with her and her dinner partner Ms. Helen would roll up and begin causing trouble. I laugh a deep hearty laugh every single time I think about Ms. Helen (who had also been dubbed the building’s “cat lady” because of her cat named after her dead husband). Helen would purposefully run over the feet of other residents in her motorized scooter. Mrs. Olive’s eyes would role and under her breath she’d mumble insults. Nursing home visits often turned into comedy hours.

We saw her through three birthdays and had two birthday parties for her. Her face lit up like a kid in a candy store when a giant blue M&M appeared at her 100th Birthday party. Reporters from the Cleveland paper were there and we made sure everyone knew that she was turning 100. There were moments when she was irritated at us for causing such a commotion, but at the end of the day, we wanted her to know how much she meant to us.

That’s the thing. She had no one–not really. One nephew and his wife lived in Knoxville, but the wife was suffering from terminal cancer and her nephew was a coach for a traveling minor league baseball team. Day after day she would sit alone in that lobby people watching. She would go to jazzercise and wave her decaying little arms and light up the room with her smile. We simply wanted others to know that she was there and that she mattered. I write this for the same reason.

I found out two days ago that Mrs. Olive passed away. There was no service. I imagine there weren’t any people who would have gone. So, with my words, I wish to honor her memory. She would have turned 102 on October 20th. Imagine everything she lived through. You know, as her memory began to fade, she began to believe that she had convinced my friend Katie to go to college. She never failed to tell us, “She asked me if she should work or go to college, and I told her she should go and get an education because I didn’t get to. And so that’s why she went to college.” Of course, none of this was true, but I think we began to believe it ourselves after a while. Because…in a way, Mrs. Olive convinced us all to go and be people we wouldn’t have been had we not known her. She convinced me, at least, to recognize the people around me. She made me realize what a responsibility we have to recognize people as being human and needing love. It’s our responsibility to affirm others that their life matters.

Let our lives be a sweet aroma of praise to you, O Lord. I believe Mrs. Olive’s was. Here’s to the life she led.

Katie and Mrs. Olive on her 99th Birthday
A weekly Garden Plaza visit
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Mrs. Olive with her girls (minus a few)
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Mrs. Olive and her Dalmatian cookie cake
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Mrs. Olive and I celebrating the big 100th Birthday

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