Sometimes good fortune finds us despite our best efforts to look the other way. When Janice Paine of the United Arts Council contacted me about teaching a month-long drawing class at a senior center in Naples, I am embarrassed to admit how quick I was to back off. Thank goodness she was persistent.
First of all, it was in far-away Naples, you know, over the bridge. All the way over the bridge. Islanders understand. Second, summer is my prime paint season, and while teaching has its own rewards, I do not like to take away from precious studio time. The third was, and this is very difficult to admit, that the term “senior center” did not conjure up a very happy image in my mind. I don’t know why, but “senior center” spoke to me of a sad aging population left behind by their friends and family; God’s waiting-room and all that. Ironically, it was this image that made me decide to accept the post, perhaps I could bring a little interest, cheer and compassion to their desolate situation.
Well, I am very pleased to say that my preconceptions could not have been farther off the mark! What the heck was I thinking? I’m no bopper myself, so many of my friends are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, I even have a few that have cracked the nineties. So I really should not have been surprised when I walked into the center, which is lovely, that first day of class and found a room full of laughing, chatting, vibrant ladies and gentlemen all seeming to enjoy their fulsome lives to the highest limit.
It was just brilliant. Here I thought I’d find lonely souls that would hang on my every word, when in truth it was a bit of struggle to get them to listen to me at all! Of my 38 students, I’d say about half of them were really intent on art instructions, the other half, as one colorfully-dressed septuagenarian explained to me, were there for the socializing. She hoped my feelings wouldn’t be hurt.
Heck no! I couldn’t have been happier and I told them so. For those interested I would continue with the planned practice, but I encouraged everyone to feel free to disobey and deviate to their hearts content. We were, after all, in art class, and in no other field is disobedience more prized. They thought that was funny. I heard one woman behind me say to her neighbor, “She catches on quick.” I thought that was funny.
I told them about contours and values, and they told me about their lives past and present. They come to the center for art classes, and to play cards and Mah Jongg, and practice yoga and tai chi, there’s a writers’ workshop, computer assistance, movies, needlework, health presentations, and weekly luncheons with guest speakers and entertainers. And they come to socialize. We engaged in all manner of concourse and I am pleased to announce that I have never been so inspired, or so optimistic. My “students” turned out to be my proof that I have nothing to fear from aging, that who I am now doesn’t disappear because my knees ache or my hearing slips.
I have a lovely memory of my mother at the Naples Airport. She was about 80 years old (had only recently stopped playing tennis!) and was coming home from visiting my sister in New Hampshire; I was meeting her flight. I watched the ground crew wheel the staircase up to the plane, people started filing out and then all sorts of commotion happened and I couldn’t see what was going on. When I finally saw my mother emerge through the small crowd on the tarmac she was laughing and shaking her head. Here was her account: “When I got to the door and was ready to come down I saw all these flight members come to give someone assistance. I thought there must be someone very old or disabled behind me so I tried to back up and let them out. But there was no one behind me…they were there to help me! The old lady! Tara, it never occurred to me that people would see me as old, after all, I’m still looking out from the same eyes I’ve had all my life.”
See you in class.
Tara O’Neill, a lifelong, award-winning, artist has been an area resident since 1967. She holds degrees in Fine Arts and English from the University of South Florida and is currently represented by Blue Mangrove Gallery on Marco Island. Visit her at www.taraogallery.com.