The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on August 5, 2010.

Her name is Esperanza, which means “hope” in Spanish. And if I knew the Spanish words for grace, compassion, humor, wisdom, and thoughtfulness, they would be good names for her, too.

She’s my husband’s aunt, and we usually see her only about once a year, at the family reunion picnic that takes place every summer. Most of the relatives on this side of the family still live in the Chicago area, and we’re not able to see them as often as we’d like, or as often as we used to. So it’s a joy to reconnect with everyone at the picnic, and I especially enjoy catching up with Esperanza.

She’s a fan of my writing, so one of my rituals at the picnic every year is to arrive with a large envelope for her, filled with copies of my Villager columns. I try to mail them to her a few times a year, but sometimes I come to the picnic with an entire year’s worth of columns, and an apology that I didn’t send them to her more regularly.

“That’s okay,” she tells me. “This way I can take them home and read them like a book.”

Gardening has always been one of our favorite topics of conversation. I don’t claim to have a green thumb, but I love growing herbs, especially since many of them thrive on neglect. Esperanza and her husband always had a wonderful vegetable garden, in addition to the herbs they grew, and my mouth used to water just listening to them talk about whatever they were growing that year. I say “used to” because some health issues keep them from being able to garden as actively and avidly as they did in the past.

This year, Esperanza talked about the day center they go to regularly, where she spends some time helping out in addition to simply being there with her husband. It’s a labor of love, she says, and even though it can be a lot of work, it’s work that energizes her rather than wearing her out. I could tell that was true just from watching her as she talked about it. Her smile was wider, her eyes were brighter, her voice more animated.

I also knew it was true because I used to feel the same way whenever I was at the adult day center where I worked part-time years ago. The work could be physically – and sometimes emotionally – exhausting, but there was a joy to it that made it not seem like work at all. It was stimulating and energizing, and it was both rewarding and enlightening to spend time with people who had lived through so much, and who were dealing with the challenges of age in a variety of ways – some with a quiet acceptance of increasing physical and mental limitations, others with a fierce determination to live life the way they wanted to for as long as they possibly could.

I always enjoyed the lessons and the gifts that came from working and interacting with people who were a generation older than I. I learned to see history from the eyes of someone’s personal experience, rather than from the textbooks I read when I was in school. I learned how graceful it could feel to dance with a man in a wheelchair, and how inspiring it was to go bowling with a woman who had never been bowling before, but who decided that her mid-80s was as good a time as any to try it.

And even though there was some frustration and heartbreak that came with the job occasionally, I always went home after work with my spirits uplifted, my energy raised, and my battery recharged from spending the day there.

That’s how I felt after talking with Esperanza, too. And as we left the picnic this year, I reflected as I always do on how quickly the kids are growing up and how quickly the rest of us are growing older. But instead of feeling sad or depressed by that, I enjoyed the warm glow I always get after spending time with cherished family and friends. And especially after talking with someone like Esperanza, who always inspires me with her grace, her compassion, her humor, wisdom, and thoughtfulness. And, of course, with hope for us all.

© Betty Liedtke, 2010