Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Features

Beauty before Age

By Peggy Ginsberg Maduff

The date was January 2004, several months before my 85th birthday. As I approached the Safeway Store, I saw a very attractive young lady steering her wheelchair toward the doorway. Pulling the door open, I made a sweeping flourish, from shoulder to waist, and said, “Beauty before Age!”

The young woman went through the open door, turned her wheelchair so she could see me, and greeted me with her own kind of flourish.

“You’re beautiful, too,” she said, with a large grin on her face.

Isn’t this what life is all about? Taking time to care for each other and taking care of each other even in little ways. And, in the process of caring, allowing ourselves to forget our problems, to let our own pains subside.

As I leaf through my memory book, I recall a special vacation trip with my husband and children to visit my cousin Ruth, who reminisced with me about an unforgettable day we shared at Camp Airy when we were youngsters.

Frolicking Kittens

Two goofier girls of five and six years old you couldn’t imagine, as we bounced and pounced and tumbled and twisted like happy kittens frolicking in a room full of mattresses, seemingly stacked there just for our amusement. No rules. No regulations. No one saying to Ruthie, “Be careful. Don’t fall!”

Instead, Ruthie’s mom stopping time for one beautiful moment to watch a rosy-cheeked Ruthie playing just like her cousin Peggy. No one worrying, for just a short bit of time, about Ruthie’s difficulty walking.

This had been one of the happiest days of our lives. A day, especially for Ruthie, of well-earned bliss.

As this day came alive again in my mind, I thought back to so many things Ruthie and I shared. Our first outing together was to Gorsuch Brothers, who made special orthopedic shoes. Ruthie got shoes that were laced up to her knees. I always got boys’ brown shoes with scuff-proof toes and Thomas heels. I detested those ugly shoes, but Ruthie never said much about hers, which were equally ugly.

In May, Ruthie and her big brother, Jerome, always came to our house to stay until school was out, since her mother, my aunt Lena, had to go to Camp Airy to get it ready. I remember the fun we had. But I also remember one morning when Ruthie was crying outside the bedroom door. I know not why. Both Jerome and I tried all our tricks to help her, but to no avail.

Finally I said, “Jerome, go downstairs and get an umbrella out of the stand. My feet are getting wet.”

That took care of it. Ruthie started laughing! And I felt like a friend.

The next image I recall was when I was 12 years old. It was 1930 and I’d been hearing rumors of something called a depression.

Ruth and Jerome went to a Sunday School near mine. Ruth would be confirmed on Saturday and I would be confirmed on Sunday. When Mother and I found the perfect white confirmation dress for me, I happily realized I could also wear it for my graduation from Public School No. 49—and help stretch the family budget.

White Dress

But I felt happier yet when I asked Mother to let Ruth wear my new dress for her confirmation. Aunt Lena and Ruth were delighted with my suggestion, and I was delighted with ME for thinking of it and saving them ten dollars!

Looking back, I’m surprised to find that my 12-year-old self could share her new white dress with someone else—and even let her wear it first! But that was the effect Ruthie’s good heart had on my own.

Generosity and warmth weren’t something I’d gotten from my own family. For some reason unknown to me, everything in our household seemed to be a deep dark secret. I never asked why Ruthie jerked when she walked and sometimes drooled a little when she talked.

Years went by before I asked her. “Ruth, what is the matter with you?” I was 60 years old by then.

“Peggy, I have CP!”

“What’s CP?” I asked.

Ruth sat up very straight in her chair. With a laugh in her voice and a twinkle in her eyes, she said, “CP is cerebral palsy!”

In high school, another person reminded me that when people open your heart, they take a special place in it. Phyllis and I met in a second floor classroom in Sunday School. Our teacher said, “Phyllis can only walk upstairs once. Who will volunteer to keep Phyllis company during assembly?”

“I will!” My hand shot up immediately. Assemblies were a drag.

Phyllis and I both went to Western High School. She had her classes on the second floor and used an elevator pass, just like my cousin Ruth.

When Phyllis got a tutor at her home, I was lucky to see her several times at Girl Scout meetings. We talked on the phone frequently, too, and visited at each other’s houses when we could get someone to drive us.

At sleep-overs at my house, Phyllis shared my double bed and we’d gab a while before settling down. Just as with Ruth, we never talked about her health or why she couldn’t walk much. In the morning, her mother would pick her up after breakfast.

One day, I received a formal invitation to the wedding of Phyllis’s sister. Fortunately, my mother and I found my first formal dress—peach chiffon with a pleated bib front and elbow-length puffed sleeves—on sale!

As I made my way into the hotel ballroom, an old woman (she must have been 40) saw me and rushed over. “Don’t you dare get near me!” she hissed.

I was shocked—shocked that the woman was wearing the same dress as mine. It was obvious that she knew I knew exactly how much she had paid for it—ten dollars!

As I sat with Phyllis, we laughed about the dress, listened to the music, and watched the guests dancing. It dawned on me that I seemed to be Phyllis’s only friend. But she was so easy to like. She was a sweet person and I loved the way she adored her five-year-old brother.

Some months later, the telephone rang and Mother took the call in the kitchen.

“Peggy, you are invited to sleep over at Phyllis’s house,” Mother said. “Go pack your overnight bag. Daddy can take you over there.”

Once at Phyllis’s home, I found that my friend was already upstairs in her bed, propped up with three pillows behind her back. I got myself settled into my pj’s and sat on the bed. We talked about the crazy episode with my dress at the wedding.

Then there was a lull in the conversation, an odd, disquieting lull. In a soft monotone, Phyllis said, “Dr. Sam Wolman was here. When he went downstairs, I heard him tell my parents, ‘With her heart condition, she won’t live beyond her 18th birthday.’”

I had to say something, but what could I possibly say? The only thing I could think of made no sense at all, but it was the best I could do.

“I know Sam Wolman,” I said. “He took care of my mother when she had pneumonia. He sent me away from home for six weeks. I lived with Aunt Mary Finger, and Buena, Lucille, Clarice, and Harriet. Mother slept in my double bed, while Daddy slept in his own twin bed.”

However feeble my response, perhaps it helped Phyllis to verbalize her problem to her friend. Maybe just having her friend in her room helped her turn over and go to sleep as she did that night, knowing she wasn’t alone.

But time passes, and college studies eventually took me far from my Baltimore home. When I returned there from Iowa on summer vacation, I asked about Phyllis. Mother told me that Phyllis had died.

Had she made it beyond her 18th birthday? No one in my family seemed to know. But I do know that in the years she’d had, Phyllis made an impression upon my heart—as had Ruthie and, most recently, the beautiful young lady in the wheelchair at the Safeway Store.

Looking back on these everyday memories of simply helping each other, I think about how maybe listening and just being there makes more of a difference than we know—and helps us see the beauty of each soul.

Even now, I remember my sweet friends.