I didn’t start out visiting with Joan Arteberry to help her with her columns. She was a longtime member at my church, and she had been missing in action for quite a while. I just wanted to see how she was doing. I meant to drop in for a few minutes. Three hours later, I was on my way home. Even as my entire Sunday afternoon had disappeared, I left with a promise to come by and see her again soon. She was such a great conversationalist that I truly enjoyed the time we spent visiting. But it took awhile to get back for a second visit because I understood the time commitment. Round 2 was as much fun as the first. As I left, she said, “So you’re one that will keep your promise to me. Thank you.” I was all in.
In those days, Joan was still able to get up and around a bit. Her ideas for writing and her ability to get them on paper were all her own handiwork. We just visited about the old days in St. Charles, animals that Mr. Z had trapped, her daughter, her granddaughters … just regular life. She was always interested to know what was going on in town and in our church.
Somewhere along the line things changed. Her health problems created serious limitations, she began dialysis, and her world became what visitors told her was going on. I noticed a couple of her columns seemed somewhat short and asked her about it. “Well, I can only really feel with this index finger, so that’s how I type my columns. It takes awhile.” She had some dictation software that didn’t work on her laptop. I’m far from a technology wizard, but I was pretty sure the laptop I was looking at was not going to run that program. “I can type for you,” I volunteered.
And here is what I learned. While people’s minds age at different rates, Joan’s remained sharp-witted and intriguing till the end. It was a blessing and a curse. It was frustrating to be so limited in her ability to enjoy an outside life. But she knew she had some reach to her readers and that kept her going … thinking of things to write about and creating the sentences to go with her ideas.
As I listened to her, I heard very little about the riches she did or didn’t have. Her stories were about everyday people and their ordinary lives. She talked about her younger years of going to school, walking (not driving) around town, going to the movies or out for ice cream, helping out at her folks’ bar, going to the library and going to church. She relished reliving those memories and trying to make them come alive for others. Making the usual seem special. But here was the thing. It was not just creating something extraordinary for a reader, it was also a reminder that her own life had been well-lived. Remembering to enjoy and appreciate the little things paves the road to satisfaction, even in times when it seems there isn’t much to look forward to.
The last few times I visited with Joan we worked hard on her columns. I also acted as a sounding board as she evaluated her health circumstances and decided what to do. As that is now behind me, I have the opportunity to reflect on how to take what I learned from her and carry it forward. The answer is obvious … take the ordinary and try to make it seem special for others.
“Slices of Life Along the Fox” is a column that runs every other week in the St. Charles Kane County Chronicle. Sandie Benhart has family roots in the Fox Valley dating to pre-Civil War days. She has lived in St. Charles and been active in TriCities life for many years. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.