The woman sat bent over a card table in the far corner of the room. When Kara Langsdon of the Iowa City Public Library(ICPL) introduced me, the woman never looked up. When I launched into a talk, sharing stories about growing up on a family farm in the 1950s, the woman never acknowledged there was anything else going on in the room. The jigsaw puzzle was everything.
This was the Iowa City Rehab and Health Care Center. The room was lined with wheelchairs. Few of the people who’d come to hear me speak had made it to the room on their own. I wasn’t at all certain how much of what I was saying they heard or comprehended. Even by those who watched me attentively.
I was speaking there because my memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, is used by volunteer readers in a partnership between the ICPL and Iowa City Hospice. Once or twice a month volunteers visit with people who live in or rely on 11 area facilities like Iowa City Rehab and Pathways. The volunteers read, ask questions, engage in conversation. They encourage people to reminisce and share their memories. I wondered what kind of connections they made.
As I talked, answered their occasional questions, and asked questions of them. I moved from story to story, talking about having fried chicken for Sunday dinner, milking the cows and making hay. The everyday stuff of farm life.
At one point, I asked, “Do you remember how you learned to iron clothes?”
Out of the blue, the woman in the corner put her hand in the air. She turned around, the biggest smile on her face, and responded, “Hankies!” She’d learned to iron on hankies. Just like I did. Just like almost every little girl did in the 1950s. She shared how she’d learned to iron and then she returned to her puzzle. She was delighted to share her memory; I was delighted to hear it.
What we remember, how we remember, when we remember are all uniquely personal experiences. When many other aspects of ourselves have been taken away by accident or age or illness, memories often remain, waiting to be triggered.
I’m honored that the Iowa City Public Library and Iowa City Hospice have found my book useful in helping people to reminisce and connect. And I’m especially grateful to the woman working the jigsaw puzzle for helping me to see so clearly how rewarding making those connections can be.