When not being independent is good

Beth and Whitney, racking up the stepsI gave a presentation to senior citizens at the Skokie Public Library’s Talking Books Club, and a lot of the conversation afterwards centered on independence. We shared tips for keeping track of our prescriptions, identifying colors of clothing, and using talking computers to read and write.

A woman there who has macular degeneration piped up and said she loves to cook, but when her daughter offered to buy her a bag of frozen, chopped onions at the grocery store, she agreed to finally give in and quit insisting on dicing them herself. “I’m learning to stop being so goddamned independent and accept help,” she said. “But it hasn’t been easy.”

Her words were refreshing, and she didn’t have to be able to see to know we were all nodding in support. Our hour at the library went by quickly, and once I’d thanked the Talking Books Club for having us, a dapper 80-year-old man named Jim guided Whitney and me to his car to take us home.

I’ve known Jim for years now – his wife is in one of the memoir-writing classes I lead here in Chicago. He drives Whitney and me to that class every Thursday, and when he found out I’d be speaking to a Talking Books club, he volunteered to drive Whitney and me to the library for our presentation, too.

Jim has the wisdom of age and the spirit of youth. During our rides to the memoir class every week I’ve had the privilege of hearing his stories about growing up in a small town in Illinois, the mother who gave him his first violin, and getting free room and board in exchange for working as a houseboy for John Kenneth Galbraith’s family at Harvard. “They said they named their son Jamie after me,” he says shyly. “But I’m not sure that’s true.”

Jim is not exactly forthcoming, but when I ask questions, he answers. In our 20-minute rides to class he’s shared the agony and ecstasy of raising children, his appreciation for his talented grandchildren, his work writing the Illinois Power of Attorney Act and then getting it through the state legislature during his career as partner in the Chicago firm of Chapman and Cutler, and his current role as president of the board of the Chicago School of Violin Making.

The Chicago School of Violin is one of only a handful of such schools in the world, and it happens to be located very close to the Skokie Public Library. “Would you like to stop at the school along the way for a tour?” I would. We did. It was amazing.

On my rides to memoir-writing class with Jim, I often remind him that he doesn’t have to come each and every week. Whitney and I are capable of taking a bus. He pretends he doesn’t hear, and you know what? That’s okay with me. Just like my new friend in the Talking Books Club, I’m learning to stop being so darn independent.


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