I always admired them. The WWII vets that came to the bagel shop where I worked on my summers away from college. I loved the job because we had regulars who loved to talk each morning, and I enjoyed listening to their stories. The bagel shop was a popular place for WWII vets to come and have breakfast, because we had great bagels and inexpensive, refillable coffee. But more than that - we knew the regulars, got to know their names, and offered them some conversation, a friendly ear, and really listened.
I came to know the deep understanding in their eyes, about the good and bad in history-and I understood their sense of respect for something greater than the here and now. Of the 16 million service members that served in World War II, only about half-million veterans are still alive today, with 1,000 WWII veterans passing away each day. 60 million lives were lost in World War II, reminding us of the heavy cost this generation paid for the ideals they defended. These men and women faced many life challenges - growing up in the poverty of the 1930's, surviving the Great Depression and facing conflict throughout the world. Their lessons are full of wisdom the world needs - an understanding shaped by historical trials and tribulations that made them the Greatest Generation. In the book "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069," Neil Howe & William Strauss write about this generation,
"Contemplating this generation's inevitable passing from power, we have been waving it goodbye much as we would a beloved family member whose train is passing out of the station. . .For some time now, this same train has been pulling into another station: elderhood. . ."
Getting to know these veterans was a blessing in my life, because I stopped to listen. They taught me what it means to believe in something greater than yourself-and why the world is better for it.
My first job out of college was at an Alzheimer’s facility, and one of the best parts of my job was really listening to people’s stories. People have interesting lives, and in their later years, they want to talk about it. I remember a resident we had, who loved telling me about her days working in downtown NYC, dancing, and shopping on Fifth Avenue. She was a feminist, who went against every convention of her time. Whenever I would talk to her about her past, she’d remember who she was, and the Alzheimer’s would momentarily seem to go away. She was in a wheelchair and needing help eating, but somehow remembering those times, you could tell she was in a moment of true happiness. One day she talked to me and said something to the affect of, "Let's go dancing down Fifth Avenue, I'll wear my heels." I called her family, and sure enough they told me the stories were true-they were so happy to hear she was having these moments of clarity. A few months later, Ida past away-but I will never forget her, or the memories of her time in New York City-she reminded me to dance and enjoy life. She taught me to take chances and live life to the fullest-while everyone was watching.
My experience at that job, changed me-it made me look at life a bit backwards. I wondered what memories I would want to remember?-what knowledge would I want to impart? What life would I want to have lived? I will never forget the conversations I had with these beautiful souls. I wanted to dance, I wanted to stand for something, I wanted to have those moments to remember and share when I am older - and most importantly I wanted my life to have meaning.
I guess what matters most in the end is where we are with ourselves, and what we did for others. Listening to the ones we love and the ones we meet along the way-is truly a gift I never want to miss.
There is a Morgan Freeman film that talks about this very idea. It is called ‘The Magic of Belle Isle’. Freeman’s character goes to Belle Isle to drink his life away-he is a writer and after his wife’s passing has a hard time coping with her loss. What saves him, is a little girl-who truly listens to him-without judgement, or question, and understands him through his life stories.
He becomes her writing mentor, and he begins to realize that even though he is old, his life still has value to others-because they listen to him and value his advice and wisdom. We are communicating faster nowadays, but somehow connections get lost. I wonder if I had a cell phone back then, would I have missed out on all the opportunities to connect with people. So today, I remind myself to maybe leave my cell phone, computer, and tablet at home and just listen to those I meet along the way.