I first saw her one day as I was leaving my parents’ apartment in Great Neck on Long Island. She was trudging merrily down the hall in my direction, a little, happy-looking gray-haired woman in a dark gray skirt and durable looking oxford style shoes with white socks.
“Good morning,” she said as we entered the elevator. I knew immediately who she was. She was Mrs. Mirrim. My parents had told me about her, and she fit their description perfectly: petite, friendly, spry, thick Jewish accent. “Always on the move,” my father had said. “Always getting something done.” Oh, yes, one more thing—the ladder.
Mrs. Mirrim, all of five feet tall was carrying a six-foot aluminum ladder. She was in the habit of taking it down to the lower-level parking garage to wash her Lincoln.
“May I help you with that?” I asked. I already knew the answer. My mother had told me they’d offered many times, but Mrs. Mirrim was insistent.
“Oh, it’s no trouble.” She laughed. She wasn’t the least bit out of breath. “It keeps me young. My husband did it for years. Now it’s up to me.” Her right arm was looped through the middle rung. Her left hand held a bucket and sponge.
We both got out at the garage level—that’s where I’d parked my car. I walked along with her until we reached her parking spot. And there it was, a twenty-year-old beast of an outdated luxury automobile. It looked like a tank. But it was pristine.
Mrs. Mirrim, dwarfed by the vehicle, came up alongside the car and set the ladder in place. “It’s the only way I can reach the roof,” she said before heading over to the water spigot on the side wall of the garage to fill her bucket. “On Tuesdays I wash the car, but not just because it would have made my Sid happy—that was his day to wash the car. But I have to drive over to the nursing home to help the old people. I don’t want to go with a dirty car. It’s important to show respect.” Mrs. Mirrim, I learned, was six months shy of 80.
“What do you do at the nursing home?” I asked.
‘Oh, not so much anymore. I just help prepare and serve the meals. I like to make sure the soup is good. They never put enough salt unless I’m there to watch. Then I visit the rooms to see who can go into the garden in their wheelchair. I take one at a time. Getting the sun is so important and they might have no one who visits. But that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.” It seemed that she might have been speaking from personal experience–my parents had said they didn’t think she had any family.
She was standing on the third rung of the ladder, waving goodbye to me with one hand and swishing her soapy sponge along the roof of the car with the other. I saw her a number of times after that day. She wasn’t always carrying the ladder. Sometimes, it was a hamper of food she was taking to the local shelter. Sometimes it was dry-cleaning or a few bags of groceries, not always her own, but those she would pick up for the “old people” who lived in the building.
“I have to hurry and make latkes for the men at the fire house,” she said to me one day. “I shouldn’t be late. They need bulk.”
My parents moved away and I don’t know what became of Mrs. Mirrim, but I have never forgotten her inspiring view of life: it isn’t just about aging well by taking care of ourselves, but how we take care of others, too. Mrs. Mirrim knew something about active, satisfying and productive living at any age. I’d be willing to bet that if it were possible for Mrs. Mirrim to be around somewhere, she’d still be buying green bananas.