Memory of what really matters
What's on their minds? Love of spouses, family

Wednesday, September 23, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cliff Radel, right, enjoys lunch and listens to residents and aides at the Lodge Care Center in Loveland.
(Glenn Hartong photo)

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The mayor and the teacher met the General Motors man and the beauty queen over a lunch of ham roll-ups and memories.

They delighted in reminiscing, recalling happy times with loved ones, especially their husbands and wives. Their descriptions had a bittersweet feel to them like an early fall breeze carrying warm reminders of summer and chilly hints of winter.

The four are retired, in their 80s and 90s and living at the Lodge Care Center nursing home in Loveland, site of this week's "Lunch With Cliff."

As my hosts are retired, a respectful "former" goes in front of each of their job descriptions: Ted Berry, Cincinnati's first black mayor from 1972 to 1975; Helen Flournoy, who taught grade-schoolers in Detroit; GM executive Henry Hipkins; and Regina Caskey, Miss Lima of 1933.

"That contest was no big deal," Regina said with a wink and a "don't even try to make something out of it" wave of her hand. "I was just a beauty queen in a little, one-horse town.

"The most important thing, I ever did was stay at home and help my husband raise our children. Now, that was a big deal."

This week's lunch was a regular midday meal in the lodge's multipurpose room among four residents, joined by activities director Kathy Hollo; her assistant, Stacey Banhart; and volunteer Dorothy Abato. The three staffers helped my hosts deal with fly-away napkins and balky knives while giving kindly pats on the back.

And while "Lunch With Cliff" is usually my chance to hear what issues are on people's minds, this lunch conversation turned my thoughts dramatically inward. The depth of my hosts' feelings challenged me not to waste my energy on trivia. They reminded me of what really matters. They talked of their lives and the message was clear: Nothing lasts forever. Relish the love of your life, your chosen job, your friends. Enjoy the present and preserve the memories.

At first, Henry told me this would be a quiet lunch.

"There's not much conversation around here," he complained. "And I'm not much of a conversationalist. We usually just talk about the food, if we talk at all."

Henry then proceeded to prove himself wrong.

First he pointed to his ears and shouted: "MOST OF US ARE LIKE ME. HEARING'S GOING BAD."

Ah, but then I noticed when someone talked about their children and grandchildren or their brothers and sisters, Henry's ears worked just fine.

"I like to listen when other people at another table talk about their family," Henry confided. He said he could always tell when the table talk shifts from food to family.

"You always hear laughter."

Henry said such laughter is contagious. "We all laugh because it reminds us of good times."

Henry's good times began and ended with his wife. They were married for 54 years. "And she's been gone two years come January."

His eyes twinkled as he remembered how they met. "It was a blind date. I was in the service." And he can't forget how she caught his eye. "It was her smile. It was so sweet.

"I miss her so," Henry added. "My heart still warms up whenever I think of her."

Ted Berry leaned forward, slowly reached across the table and patted Henry's hand. "We share similar experiences," he said. "We love talking about our wives."

Ted and his wife recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. He has vivid memories of the first time he held her hand and touched her cheek.

"Her skin was so soft. She never did wear much makeup. But she always looked pretty."

Down at the end of the table, Regina and Helen exchanged knowing glances. The widows were thinking of their late husbands.

Helen married her high school sweetheart. She finagled him into walking her home from a big game. "And from that night on, I knew he was the one for me."

Regina wasn't as sure with her future husband. They met in high school. "The other girls had crushes on him. But he did nothing for me." Then, years later, when she was 20, their eyes met at a Halloween party.

"I got all jittery inside," Regina said. "I never had that feeling before. Or since. I knew it was true love."

She was radiant in her reverie. Her eyes grew large as she remembered her husband. Out of habit, she reached up to make sure her hair was in place. She wanted to look just so, even if it was just for her husband's memory. She was cherishing what mattered. She was teaching me to do the same.

Regina smiled a bright, winning smile, the same smile that helped her win a beauty contest 65 years ago.

Only this time, her joy was mixed with sadness. A single tear trickled down her cheek.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.