I had the pleasure of attending my twenty year college reunion this past weekend. Walking down the gorgeous University of Virginia Lawn, having lunch at Little John’s and shopping on the Corner, brought back all sorts of nostalgia from my college days. But one moment in particular had me reflecting on a bit more than just my good times at a great college. That was my visit to Madison House.
Madison House is a student-run, staff-supported program at the University which places and trains students into 19 different volunteer programs in the local community. If that doesn’t sound impressive, then consider that this involves service from over 3,000 students on a weekly basis. It is and has been for years a unique model in college-volunteer programs and one of the best and most respected of its kind.
Thanks to my best college buddy I became involved in a program called Adopt-a-Grandparent. Each week, I drove to this elderly woman’s home and visited with her for an hour.
Mrs. J was a shut-in who lived just a few miles off campus in what used to be a high-rise retirement apartment building near the Downtown Mall. I can still remember the stuffy, almost claustrophobic feel of the tiny rooms she was confined to. The den where we sat was cluttered with old, worn furniture which smelled of mildew and pot stew. Mrs. J wore Coke-bottle cat-eyed glasses that hadn’t been in style since the 1960s and a threadbare mauve colored robe. Still, I remember her as an attractive woman. Even at 83, too thin and rounded by osteop0rosis, the prominent cheekbones and large blue eyes made it clear that in her youth Mrs. J had been a knockout.
When I visited with Mrs. J, she would tell me amazing stories –stories of her life in Europe during and after the war, of her scandalous cruise ship romance where she’d met her husband, and of the loss of both him and son. She always offered me cookies and soda. She made me needle-point Christmas and Easter decorations. And she asked me about my life. I don’t remember what I told her. At the time, I felt I had nothing to give. No exciting tales of trans-Atlantic love. No great losses to compare to the heartache she’d endured.
But I was wrong. I did have something to give. My time. And I regret I did not give of it as freely as I should have. I sometimes cut my hour a little short with her because of other school functions and commitments, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I occasionally checked the clock on the wall to see how much longer I had to sit in that hot, stuffy room. I did not fully understand what I was doing for her and I’m sure I had no clue what she was doing for me.
I think of Mrs. J often–every time I visit an elderly family member, every time I go to Charlottesville and pass the Downtown Mall, every time I pull out my Christmas and Easter decorations, I think of her and I regret. I regret that I had not been wise enough to foresee the mutual impact of our visits and I regret, therefore, having been incapable of telling her so…
Here’s a picture of Kristin Ogburn, my college bud, and me in front of Madison House.