In previous issues of The Juniper Berry, I discussed certain factors which influence the process of aging. I presented a framework, which at times is used to classify various age categories: the young old; the aged; and the oldest old. I also introduced my 92 year-old friend Millie, whom I have known for over 25 years. Since immigrating from Eastern Europe in the 1950s, Millie lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with her youngest son Miron. While Miron, worked by day and went to school at night, Millie carefully tended to their walk-up railroad apartment, shopped at local stores, went to the corner Laundromat, and surrounded herself by friends, who for the most part spoke and/ or understood her language. She appeared happy and content, and at times smiled and hummed a tune as she sauntered along the streets. For the most part her health was relatively stable, except for the onset of adult diabetes when she was in her early sixties. She also experienced arthritic pain in her hands, especially when the weather was damp and cold. Her blood pressure, at times, was a bit erratic, which required periodic monitoring .Her doctor prescribed a mild heart medicine to strengthen a slightly irregular heart beat. Millie was careful to follow the prescribed medical regimen and scheduled regular visits with her physicians.
Then by the Summer of 1970, Miron had saved up enough money for a down-payment on his dream house in Middle Village. It seemed to him that most of the Eastern European people he knew wanted to move to Middle Village, Maspeth and sometimes to Long Island. So on weekends, he scoured the local communities for a two-family brick house, in a quiet area, and perhaps near a park. In the old neighborhood, McCarren Park was a favorite gathering place for many of the locals. As he drove around, he discovered several new two family homes which were almost completed, not too far from Juniper Valley Park. He glowed with pride and confidence, as he took Millie to see “his find.” She too liked the building, the local area, but above all the beautiful park nearby. In the intervening months, before the house was completed and before closing, I visited Millie several times in her old apartment. Although she expressed joy that her son was able to buy such a beautiful home, she seemed anxious about leaving her Slavic-speaking friends, was worried that she would not be able to walk to the stores, as was her daily custom for years. She would have to leave her Church, her Laundromat, and her bank behind, as well as her ready subway access to physicians and other related resources. Also due to limited access to the subway, visits to her other son, who lived in Park Slope, would have to be curtailed. It was a time of ambivalence, anxiety, stress and some sleepless nights for Millie. “My son works and goes to school, I don't drive. How will I get around. Where will I shop and do my laundry?” she would ask wistfully. Yet she felt that the move with her son could have some positive benefits for her too. And the proximity of “the beautiful park” was one of them.
The house closing took place in the Fall, and they were settled in their new home before the weather got cold. Almost immediately, Millie began to explore the neighborhood and could be seen walking around the block and making her way to the park on foot. I recall catching up with her one day as she sat on a park bench, under a glorious oak tree. She seemed to revel in the beauty of nature and the wonders of the changing seasons. In retrospect, I wonder if a statement in a book entitled Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore might be her driving force: “You should walk as often as possible among plants that have a wonderful aroma, spending a considerable amount of time every day among such things.”(p. 172) Perhaps the beauty and wonders of nature helped Millie cope with the losses, stress, anxiety, and uncertainties of leaving her old neighborhood, and adjusting to the exigencies of a new and strange environment.
Shortly after moving into their new home, Miron and Millie went shopping for dining room furniture. Since Thanksgiving was just around the corner, they wanted to be sure that they could accommodate invited guests in their beautiful new dining room. One afternoon, I dropped by to see their new furniture, and found Millie busy planning the Menu for their Thanksgiving meal. Being that this is the holiday season, I would like to share two of Millie's special dishes with my readers. One is a special rice stuffing for the turkey and the other is a string bean dish. With great pride and patience, Millie explained how to prepare these two healthy dishes.
Millie's Rice Stuffing:
For a 12-14 lb bird, bring approximately two cups of enriched long grain white rice, covered in cold water, to a boil and cook gently for no more than ten minutes. Strain in a sieve and run cold water through the rice to keep it from clumping. Finely chop one stick of celery, one half onion, and some parsley sprigs and saut� in a pan with a small amount of butter. Then add approximately three ounces of ground chuck beef to the pan and slowly brown and mix. Season as desired. Let all ingredients stand for a few minutes until cool. Then lightly toss all ingredients together in a bowl or sieve until well mixed. Stuff the openings lightly and secure in usual manner. Your turkey is ready for the oven. (Rice may be cooked and refrigerated in advance.)
Millie's Tasty String Beans:
With your fingers, snap approximately one pound of fresh string beans into one inch pieces. Gently cook the beans, covered in cold water, for approximately one half hour. Drain and place string beans in a Pyrex or other heat-resistant dish. Open one can of cream of mushroom soup and mix with approximately two ounces of cold water. Pour over the string beans. Add about three tablespoons of French Fried Onions to the contents and mix with fork. Sprinkle additional FF Onions on top, as much as desired. Place in over with turkey for approximately 30 minutes or until slightly brown. (String beans may be cooked an refrigerated in advance.)
Millie retained her love of cooking for many years in her new home. And in some ways, like her walks in the park, that too helped her adjust to new people, and new surroundings. As people grow older, personal and household adjustments become more challenging, and it is important to help our friends and relatives find meaning and value in their lives, as they learn new ways of coping with life changes associated with aging.