David and I went to the Senior Center for lunch today. Several people waved at us as we signed in. I headed toward the take-one-leave-one bookshelf with the paperback David finished last night. It took me a little while to get there.
“Hey, how’re you doing today?”
“Good to see you.”
“I saved you and David a seat.”
I smiled, returned greetings, and deposited my book. I didn’t take one. I still owe one more before I’m even. I got back to the steam table as David got his plate. Enchiladas, rice, and green beans today. Looked good.
We go to the Senior Center for lunch almost every day. We learned about it from one of our neighbors when we moved here in February. She begged us to come. The number of participants was low, sometimes only 30 or 40 a day, and the caterer was threatening to pull out of the program.
It’s a Title III program that falls under “Special Programs for the Aging”. It’s one of those “entitlement” programs that conservatives like me sometimes object to, at least in principal. I was a little embarrassed at first to take a free lunch, literally and figuratively. But at the time, we were dry camping in our RV while we repaired the damaged inflicted on our mobile home by the latest renters. After spending the morning pulling up carpet ruined by animals, painting sub-flooring with Kilz, or scrubbing walls yellowed by nicotine, it was such a relief to run down to the Center for lunch that I didn’t object much. The paperwork we filled out emphasized that the program was available to anyone over 60, regardless of income or other need criteria. My aunt, whose counsel I value highly, told me that we seniors need to take advantage of every benefit offered to us, and there’s a donation box available for voluntary contributions. The deciding factor was that David loved going to the Center, so I swallowed my pride, and we became regulars.
It’s now six months later, and we’ve been living in the mobile home for a while. We have kitchen appliances, new carpeting and tile, fresh paint, and only a faint lingering odor of dog mixed with cigarette smoke. We have the time and the energy to fix lunch at home, but we still go to the Center most days. Due to some publicity in the Rains County Leader and lots of word-of-mouth advertising, we now have at least 70 people a day and sometimes as many as 100, not counting the 30 or so homebound recipients. The food is good, but the company is better. Over the months, we’ve made some really good friends, and we’ve seen the faces and heard the stories behind the program.
One lady is a widow with a bright smile and a fanatical interest in the Texas Rangers. After her husband died and before she started coming to the center, she sat at home alone, waiting to die. An ex-Navy man has lots of stories, and on Memorial Day he prepared and presented a program for his fellow seniors. Another lady reads a lot and frequents the take-one-leave-one bookshelf. She tells the same stories over and over and is probably in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. There are couples and singles, blacks and whites, snappy dressers and Goodwill rejects, those who drive nice cars and those who depend on the program’s bus or a ride from a friend. Some depend on the lunch they eat at the center and the meal they take home for dinner as their main source of nutrition. Many depend on the social interaction to relieve an otherwise solitary life.
We’re all a family, and we watch out for each other. We smile and hug, we play Mexican Train or 42, we work on jigsaw puzzles, we eat, we chat. The Center manager hovers over of all of us, making sure we get enough to eat, even those of us who are picky eaters. When my neighbor isn’t feeling well, I get a meal to go for her. When her car isn’t working, we take turns picking her up. When someone needs a ride to the beauty shop or the doctor or the grocery store, there’s always someone to provide it. And if you need a wagon…
“I have a fig tree I’m trying to save” said one lady. “It’s a long way from the house, so I have to tote water out there.”
“You need a wagon,” I said.
“Oh, I have one.”
“I guess we need to get one.”
“Could you use a wheel barrow?” said another gentleman.
“That would work.”
“You got it. I’ve got two. I’ll bring one tomorrow.”
And he did.
So what have I learned? I’ve learned the real meaning of the idiom “walk a mile in my shoes.” I’ve learned to check out the faces and the stories behind the entitlement. I’ve learned that government programs sometimes hand out a lot more than a free lunch.