As I get older, I see evidence that happiness isn’t necessarily related to wealth. Sometimes, the people who have the least are the happiest, or at least they are content. That was the case with my friend, Bea. She found a way to get by and be happy with the cards she was dealt.
I used to drive Bea home to her apartment on Fridays after lunch at Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center. My friend, Ruby, who was in charge of the senior program, got me started when she asked me to drive Bea home one Friday. Bea had shown up that day for lunch with a bad nosebleed and tissues stuffed up her nostrils. Ruby got the nosebleed stopped and I drove her home. It turned into a regular thing.
Bea was in her eighties, lived alone, and walked several blocks each day to get a hot meal at the Center. She usually arrived with a two-wheel cart loaded with her “stuff” (which was actually just a collection of junk) and she always sat in the same place for lunch. No one dared sit in her chair, because Bea would chase them out (and probably cuss them out). She didn’t talk much, but instead ate her lunch and headed home. Occasionally, she would reach into her cart, pull out a package of cookies, and hand them to the people sitting around her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t generous; she just never had much to share.
Bea was a petite woman, a little short of five feet. She was thin, stooped, and always wore a dress, head scarf, and ragged blue coat, despite the weather. Her glasses, which usually rested on the end of her nose, were spotted and occasionally taped together. Her dentures made a clacking sound when she laughed. “Heh, heh, heh,” was approximately what it sounded like; sort of like she was laughing to please herself. She hadn’t had a lot to laugh about, and few people to laugh with, but she could enjoy a joke or a witty remark.
Bea was a woman of few words, which may have come from living alone for so many years. When I asked her how old she was, for example, she would reply that she was “still 39.” Then she would laugh that cackling little laugh. It was her little joke.
Bea was a smoker, as were a lot of single women of her era. She smelled like smoke and had a smoker’s cough, which she would launch into at the end of a laugh. When her coughing fit was done, she would shake her head, straighten up, and say something like “Oh, I need to quit smoking.” To save money, Bea would light a cigarette, take a couple of puffs, then pinch it out and put it back in the pack. She smoked long, thin cigarettes held by wrinkled fingers capped by broken fingernails.
When I gave Bea a ride home, I pulled my car up to the curb near the Center and loaded Bea’s cart in the back. She always said the same thing as she got in: “OK, Bea, get your buns in first … now one leg … now the other. OK, good to go.” During the rides, I asked Bea questions about her childhood, and I began to realize that no one had cared enough to ask her before. She was happy to tell her story.
Bea was born in Chicago, in 1929, the year the Great Depression began. Her mother died when she was five and her father couldn’t take care of his children, so Bea and her sister were placed in separate orphanages. She got misty-eyed when she talked about that part of her life, and she said it was “so sad” to be away from her father and sister. Her voice sounded far away as she remembered. She persevered, got through school, and then left the Midwest, moved to San Francisco, and stayed. She never married. She worked as a secretary, supported herself, and saved a little money. As a senior, she got by on her savings, social security, and the meals at the Center.
When I dropped Bea off at her apartment, I got her cart from the back of my car and followed her down three flights of stairs while she counted them out: “One, two, three …” all the way down.
The door to Bea’s apartment was usually barricaded with an old bed frame, tape, and a sign that warned her neighbors to stay away (“This means you, Rachel!” the sign said). She told me that one of her neighbors (probably Rachel) had broken in to “steal things.”
At the door, she painstakingly removed the barricades, took the tape off the knob, and pushed the door open. Her apartment was dark and smelled of stale cigarette smoke. Paper grocery bags took up much of the space, filled with various “treasures” she had gathered and stacked three and four high around the room. The only furniture I saw was a single bed, an arm chair, and a small table. The shades were pulled down over the one window, casting an eerie glow over the room. A radio on the table was her only form of entertainment.
At her door, Bea would say she was all right, thank me, and give me a good-bye hug. As I headed back up the three flights of stairs, I could hear her muttering to herself in her apartment. I didn’t understand much of what she said, but I think I heard “Well, how nice,” which I took to refer to my efforts to help her.
Due to cataracts, Bea’s vision got progressively worse, to the point that she could barely find her way around. She was afraid of doctors and terrified of surgery, so she avoided doing anything about her vision. Some of the other seniors at the Center told her it was quick and easy to get her cataracts removed, and she would listen to them but not do anything about it. Finally, when her vision got so bad she couldn’t read her birthday cards, she arranged to get the cataracts removed. She asked me to take her to the surgery, and back to the doctor for a follow-up appointment. I was honored and agreed. After her follow-up doctor visit, I asked her what route she would like to take to go home. She asked to drive near the bay so she could take in the sights, which she hadn’t been able to see for quite a while. She stared out the window, and, as we went past the Bay Bridge, she sat up straight and stared.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It looks wonderful!” she answered.
I agreed, and ever since I have looked at the Bay Bridge (and many other things) with renewed appreciation.
Bea died last year, quietly and alone. There was no warning, she just stopped showing up at the neighborhood center. Eventually someone new sat in her chair, and by now someone else is probably living in her apartment. There was no obituary in the newspaper and no funeral. I’m afraid that many of the world’s poor and lonely people end like Bea, with no one noticing their demise.
when I think about Bea I realize how hard and lonesome her life must
have been. All her life, Bea had to make her own path, because there
was never anyone to care for her. And yet Bea never complained, at
least not to me. Instead, she carried on, in her rather quirky way,
making her way through life. Bea had been dealt a pretty lousy deck
of cards. She wasn’t given a thing in her life, and she had to
work for every small thing she had. And yet she treasured it all. Life
hadn’t been good to her, but she had been good to life. She had found a
way to be happy.