Monday, January 18, 2016

With Deep Appreciation

"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty."
~Henry Ford 

I love this quote, and then again, I love to learn.  So, according to Henry, I'll never be old!?

Though I now consider myself a lifelong learner, my love affair with learning didn't start until my early 20's.  Although I always did well in school, my good grades were more a result of innate ability and the fear of disappointing my parents.  I went to college to better my opportunities in life and to avoid the economic struggles I witnessed at home, not out of any thirst for knowledge.  In the process, as was common for my generation, I married, and moved from the Midwest of the early 60's to northern California to put hubby through graduate school.

For the first time I met folks from South Africa and Israel, Germany and France, China and Japan.  The wives of the graduate students formed a support group and I was invited to eat different food, listen to points of view that never would have been entertained in my parents' home, attend events I never would have considered.  

More impactful, however, than the somewhat exotic, worldly young men and women I met during those years, was the elderly wife of my husband's major professor.  Mrs. W. was, in fact, quite unassuming, probably shy. I remember her as in her early 70's, the epitome of a gentle woman, with a halo of white air, blue eyes (one of which was blinded by glaucoma when a young woman), a quiet smile and a wardrobe of tweed skirts, hand knit sweaters and sensible shoes.  I never heard her raise her voice nor criticize anyone, including a very difficult mother-in-law.  I never saw her lose her patience nor challenge even the most outrageous point of view.   She didn't even blink when our new Schnauzer puppy had an accident on her handwoven Persian rug.

What I did see were her accomplishments - she had woven every piece of fabric, other than carpeting, in their home - linens, draperies, even furniture coverings. From the first day of their marriage she had knit all of her husbands argyle socks. She cured olives from their backyard. All with one eye.  

But most of all, she was infinitely curious and eager to learn.  When we wanted to try batik, she joined in.  When Ravi Shankar came for a sitar concert, she came with us.  It didn't matter to us - or to her - that she was almost 50 years our elder. We never would have thought to exclude her, and she never would have thought not to accept our invitation.  Not because of her position, but because of who she was, especially because of her willingness to explore and the almost innocent pleasure she took in the new and different.

I remember the exact moment I understood it was her love of learning that both awed and inspired me.  We had gone to a conference with our husbands and while they were at meetings, we remained at the hotel and met with our books in hand for a session beside the pool, I, with my mystery of the month, and she with her Thackeray and a novel in French.  What followed was not a discussion of the books (thank heaven). but why she read what she did, why she loved to learn, why it was so important for her health and well-being to continue to learn.

If you would have asked me 20, even 10 years ago, to name the five most influential individuals in my life, I doubt that the list would have included Mrs. W. It is only now, when I am near her age, when I have met people who have stopped learning or appear to distrust learning, that I  realize what an invaluable gift she was to that naive, sheltered young woman of 50 years ago. What a difference she made. What an important role model she remains for the woman I am today.

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