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...