Life lessons in what we really possess

As I pad into the bedroom, Alba is crouched beside the recliner, dark eyes locked on my mother-in-law, gently patting the nonagenarian's arm. It is too private a moment: I stop and quietly back out of the room.

This is a difficult moving day, from independent living to assisted living, and ever-cheerful Alba - for five years my mother-in-law's part-time aide and full-time friend - has come to help. It is a time of adjustment for everyone.

For me it is also a day of humility. A day of relearning one of life's immutable lessons: that warmth and love trump job titles and fancy education, and that persons of quality are wherever you find them. This day the lesson revisits me in several corners of the retirement center. We can all come upon it - if only we look.

Today the lesson starts with Alba, who grew up in such dire poverty that until she came to the United States at age 13 she had never slept in a bed, only on the floor.

Even moderate levels of formal education, so important to functioning in American society, were totally out of the question for Alba. Yet here she is, 20 years in the United States, buttressing my mother-in-law and other clients and, despite modest wages and single-mother status, somehow buying a house and making a home for her three children.

To our family, indefatigable Alba is a crown jewel. This moving day I am especially thankful for her as, arms laden, I jitney repeatedly from old apartment to new. Sometimes I meet her at both ends of the jaunt: packing items in one place, putting them away in the other. And, everywhere, bolstering us all.

This lesson from a retirement home is not the first of my lifetime.

Frank, who didn't have an abundance of money or education either, was one of my first instructors. We came into each other's lives when Frank was retired and I was 10.

A relative was letting him and his two horses live on her farm, and I was looking for something to do that summer, so our getting together was a natural. By the time autumn's chill intruded, I had learned a lot about horses and more about people. I'd especially learned that each person has his own merits, and that the supposed barrier of age - like some water-soluble stain - can be easily washed away.

Maybe Frank learned something, too. The next year he unretired, and spent every summer for the rest of his life teaching children about horses and riding.

Then there is Norma, who owns a nail salon in a Washington suburb. For years she and her husband struggled to raise their three children. But when her sister was unable to care for her two little ones, Norma and her husband didn't hesitate. They swooped up the children, rearing them with love and support, and reminding them that, if they applied themselves to education, they could make easier lives for themselves.

Finally, there is the late-night cleaning woman in a New York City office building, the graceful lilt of the Caribbean still in her voice. Sometimes people feel sorry for her, she confides to a dawdler, because she is still doing physically demanding work when long past traditional retirement age. But they shouldn't, she says: Every day she is grateful that she can still make a contribution in the workplace. "And I am satisfied," she says earnestly, "because there is dignity in my work; there is dignity in all work."

People like Alba, Frank, Norma, and the cleaner teach by being who they are and by the way they live their lives. Those fortunate enough to cross their paths are students and - if they pay attention - big winners.

But that isn't enough for the Albas of this world: They want to teach their children about the one thing they never had - education and its value in today's and tomorrow's society.

Many of them succeed in this, too. Norma's education lesson stuck: Both of her youngsters soared to the top, personally and academically, and are now attending fine colleges.

Alba's lesson also took: Her eldest son is readying himself for college next fall. He and his two siblings seem to be turning out well: Alba has been doing a quality job at home, too. Of course, she did have one person on whom she could always rely for advice in child rearing, for help in understanding youthful behavior. That's her friend the retired social worker, once employed by the New York City public school system, the woman now moving into assisted living.

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