Much of my childhood was spent growing up in a trailer park in rural Nova Scotia. It was very much it’s own little community with all kinds of interesting characters, my family included.
One of our neighbors was Melba Green. In many ways she was a stereotypical stay off my lawn kind of seniors. At least I think she was a senior, I don’t think I ever really knew how old she was. For as long as I knew her she never worked and I assume it was old age pension that she lived on, but it very easily could have been a disability benefit.
She was single and I don’t believe she was ever married, she had a brother and sister in law who lived about an hour and a half away but visits between them were seldom.
She was quite overweight and had mobility issues. First using a cane but then eventually required a walker for most distances.
She would spend most of her days sitting watching TV or peering out the window waiting for us to do something that she could yell at us to stop.
When I was about about 12 years old I ended up doing odd jobs for Melba. With her mobility issues she had a hard time doing even simple tasks. One of the first things I started doing for her was grocery shopping.
Once a week we would hop in her old Chevrolet Chevette and drive to the grocery store. She couldn’t reach back to pull the seat belt across so usually she just drove without it. The drivers seat was broken and in fact the whole car leaned to the drivers side. Eventually we started taking a taxi as the car was too old and she really shouldn’t have been driving anyway.
We always drove past three or four stores to get to the one she liked as it was familiar and it had a little dining area where she could sit while I went around the store getting the things on her list.
When I was done I would bring the cart back so she could inspect everything and give me the money to go pay. She had little money so I really had to pay attention to what everything cost to make sure it for the budget.
Once I gained her trust with the grocery shopping she also had me start doing her banking. So we would stop at the bank and she would either sit in a waiting area or stay in the car. She had a different account for every bill so I would deposit her Government cheque and then transfer funds into each of the accounts so the bills could be paid. I would also get envelopes with cash in them for things like groceries and my pay.
House cleaning became another service I would do for her. Dishes, floors, bathrooms, and laundry. Like most of us she had a oil furnace for heat. There was something wrong with it as everything in her home was always covered in a black film of soot coming from it. It was very unhealthy but I knew she couldn’t afford to have it fixed. It was about this time that my feelings for Melba Green changed. It became obvious that my helping her was as much about companionship as it was anything else. I was someone to talk to, a break from obvious loneliness.
Her yelling out the window at us neighbourhood kids came from that boredom and loneliness. Even though she had family fairly close, they had their own lives and her finances made even that distance of travel difficult.
Instead of just going and doing my job I tried to have more conversations with her. We would every once in a while sit and have meals on TV trays while watching soap operas and chatting.
Melba taught me a number of things and looking back I can see them even more clearly. Not just the practical life skills but also perspective.
There are reasons people are how they are and it’s important to have empathy and try to see things from their perspective.
When she finally was moved to a nursing home I was happy for her. She wasn’t someone I worked for now, or the cranky old lady across the street, but a sort of friend. The environment was going to be much healthier without oil soot in the air. The food would be healthier and there would be people closer to her age for companionship.
Once she moved we only visited her a couple times, but she seemed so much happier and even started losing weight.
We lost touch when my family moved away as well, but I hope she knew that she had an effect on my life and I believe I’m a bit better of a person for having known her.