We generally believe that older people don’t think in the same terms we do, as if the words comprising our thoughts have only come into existence since we did, to be used by us alone.
Mrs. Bertenstein has lived in the cul-de-sac forever, which means more than fifty years. Her husband Harold died fifteen years ago, but she still believes in his side of the bed, and sleeps on what has long been her own.
That he ate a lot of gummy worms is one of her most assertive memories of him. It’s a dancing memory. Some memories lodge in place and sit in their seats. Others walk. They draw closer, then walk back again. Some memories sprint as if they exist to win a race. And some dance beneath a trained spotlight that moves as they move. He had an awful and inexplicable sweet tooth for gummy worms, but no other form of candy. She’d be embarrassed—on account that children would notice and gawk—when they went to the general store in town, a shop of 200 years’ vintage, with its old farming buckets—clean, of course, if retaining a faint smell of fruit and grain—of sweets, and he’d fill up an entire brown sandwich bag with gummy worms, which were sold by the pound. She knew exactly what two pounds of gummy worms looked like and how they felt in the hand, and even went to the store on Harold’s behalf after he had recovered from pneumonia and was still too weak to go out. The look on his face with her return and the brown paper bag she held aloft and shook as though it were a bell and might ring. No mere prescription filler was she. That was a good time. And he was healthy again. He almost wasn’t. In another week, or two, or three, he could rescue the tomatoes in the backyard. They needed his hand, he maintained, and his wife let him score the point.
The Andersons live across the street from Mrs. Bertenstein and may be on their own way to fifty years in the cul-de-sac. Ro, the wife, reminds Mrs. Bertenstein of a young Mrs. Bertenstein, or, rather, how she had been before, because she doesn’t view herself in terms of young or old. You’re here, or you aren’t, she thinks. Equal validity. But Mrs. Anderson gardens and is always overseeing a project in the yard, which is what Mrs. Bertenstein used to do, but that was also because Harold was alive and gardening was the activity that they did together more than any other, unless one counted being asleep, and Mrs. Bertenstein isn’t the kind of person who looks at sleeping that way. Life may be for the living, but living is for the wide-awake.
Mrs. Anderson sends her boy Albert across to Mrs. Bertenstein’s house. He’s twelve and the kind of kid who is clumsy and awkward without knowing it, but a born protector of those around him. He’ll most likely end up large and genial. Some people come out of the womb with a shield in hand, others a sword, and a very few both. He’s not going to be anything special, probably, but he’ll always be dependable, and arguably that is as special as anything because that means there is a little bit of a sword in there and a little bit of a shield. He’s fine. He wants you to be well. But special, or a little bit special, is not the same as what you want, necessarily. It can be a separate thing. It’s needed, but maybe not by you.