They don’t really need me at the food shelf yet I keep volunteering. Especially on Mondays, there are plenty of volunteers to stock, direct clients, weigh the carts, or whatever needs to be done to service somewhere around 100 shoppers in two hours. Yet, I keep volunteering. Why? Because in this cynical world, Valley Outreach never fails to boost my spirits, by reminding me of the goodness in humanity. What I mean by that is not just the prevalent standard of kindness for everyone who comes in the door but a genuine glad-to-see-you attitude. Hugs are common between volunteers and regular clients, as well as jokes and laughter. Sometimes I even witness something that reminds me how caring we can be to each other.
Her name was Mary (named changed for privacy), but I didn’t find that out until she was about to leave. She came in with her husband using a walker, her frail frame crossing the lobby where clients check in with the most tedious careful steps. She didn’t look like she was going to be able to walk up and down the rows of the food shelf even if her husband did all the shopping. Her pink t-shirt sagged on her and I am sure she weighed less than 100 pounds.
As they entered the shopping area her husband picked up one of the lobby chairs and placed it near the doorway of the grocery area. As the greeter/ helper who gives each person a cart and explains to new clients how the food shelf works, I told her husband she was welcome to sit in the lobby while he shopped. “Oh that won’t do,” he said sounding a bit gruff. Another volunteer and I looked at each other and shrugged while he eased Mary into her chair somewhat in the way of traffic of the other shoppers. Then he grabbed the cart I gave him and started off shopping.
Since Mary was sitting right at my volunteer station I tried to strike up a conversation, but when I asked her a question, her eyes would glaze over and sometimes she would shrug her shoulders or throw up her hands in a I don’t know sort of gesture. I was beginning to think Mary couldn’t hear me. On occasion, she’d raise her hand making a sign language message with her thumb, pointer finger, and pinky extended, but I had no idea what she was trying to communicate. At one point she looked at my name tag and read aloud Peg. “That’s me.” I said, “and, who are you?” She looked as if she was trying to answer me, but her brow stayed furrowed and no answer came out. She put up her hand in the same sign language symbol instead of speaking again. Just then one of the interns walked by and said, “She is saying I love you in sign language.”
Soon her husband now with a full cart of groceries was there to retrieve her. “Guess how long we have been married,” he asked the other volunteer and me. Before we could guess he answered. “60 years.”
“Wow!” we both said. “We’ve been trying to find out her name.” the other volunteer said. And the husband said, “It’s Mary.” Then he handed us a card from a stack in his pocket. It said, ‘My partner is suffering from an advanced stage of dementia. Please be patient with her.’ The other volunteer and I nodded and watched as he ever so gently, helped her stand and adjusted her walker. Mary gave us one more ‘I love you’ sign before grabbing onto her walker. With a half smile, her husband said, “She’s always telling people ‘I love you.’ With all that had been lost for Mary, she hadn’t forgotten that.