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Older friends earned admiration

September 05, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

While growing up, I often was irritated when my mother would say, "I love old people."

Although I don't think the word "ageism" had been coined when I was a know-it-all-and-sensitive-to-political-correctness young adult, I was bugged.

My mom certainly wasn't discriminating against her friends of advanced age. (Please note, I hate the word "elderly.") But I considered it kind of patronizing that she seemed to feel the need to mention "old" - as if people somehow magically became different when they crossed the threshold of Social Security eligibility. As if having lived for a long time makes people special.

Guess what? It does.

Longevity does make people special, but it's not the only criterion. Attitude and outlook are key. Looking back, I see that it was the richness of her friends' experiences and the way they viewed the "up-in-years" part of their lives that made them special to my mother and earned her admiration.

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My older friends have earned mine.

My good friend and neighbor Neale Baltz will celebrate her 100th birthday next month. Many, many times after we've chatted, I've run to my computer to record her stories so I don't forget them.

One of nine children who grew up on a Virginia farm, she recalls with vivid detail the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Later, when Neale was a supervising teacher in the South, she left the rooming house where she boarded, because her racist landlady didn't like the opportunities she was offering black teachers in segregated schools.

She earned a Columbia University master's degree in 1936 and took it on the road to 32 states, training teachers to teach reading. She opened and supervised the school for children of Americans serving in postwar Berlin.

She rocked.

Neale hasn't played her usual three-times-a-week golf this season, but she does her exercises every morning and always checks to make sure I've done mine.

She inspires me.

So does my friend Myrtle Haldeman, whom I met in 1997 when she published her children's book "Cassie: The Girl With the Hero's Heart," the story of an 11-year-old girl in the months surrounding the battle of Antietam.

At the time Myrtle lived on the Pennsylvania farm where she and her husband retired and ran a Christmas tree farm/bed and breakfast. When he became ill and was expected to live for only a few more years, the couple moved to Hagerstown, not far from the farm where Myrtle had grown up.

We keep in touch, not often, but always valuably - for me.

Myrtle is a thoughtful person whom I once told, "You make good decisions."

Yes, she is kind and considerate, but I also mean that she's carefully purposeful about her life and what she chooses to do with her time.

Mother of five children, grandmother of 12, the retired teacher has traveled, painted and taught memoir-writing at Hagerstown Community College. Now she tutors early readers at a local elementary school. She's a voracious reader, a "versatile volunteer" and she swims twice a week.

Myrtle has written a Cassie sequel as well as poetry and memoirs - "Tales of a One-Room School," "Thy Kingdom Come: A Journey of Faith" and most recently, "What I Have Learned ... So Far."

There's a smile in that title. My octogenarian friend begins her book with a chapter titled, "How Little I Know."

Myrtle actually knows a whole lot, but her openness to change and constant desire to know more amaze me.

Guided by her strong faith that God is love, she is consciously and intentionally positive.

She appreciates the perspective her 85 years have given her.

So do I.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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