Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dowling Park

Jodie and I had a wonderful time with Nana visiting us last week. It was a joy to have her here, and we did a lot of fun things. Church and our small group were stimulating for her, and she played the cello every day, read, and wrote letters, when she wasn't attending Emerson's violin lesson or visiting with other people in town. I miss her already.

On Saturday, Nana and I went to the airport. Jodie helped us load the airplane and get situated....

Then Nana and I headed south, over the Smoky Mountains, and across the agricultural flats of Georgia. We spoke of the Civil War and Sherman's "March to the Sea," and Nana made maps in her notebook and wrote down facts.

She really enjoyed the flight, and as we neared the Florida border she wrote everyone an email on her iPad for Chip to forward.

We were greeted at the airport by Nana's cousin, Doris Tingley, and her husband, Cal. It was wonderful to see. Nana and Doris hugged and laughed, and laughed and hugged.

We drove for 20 minutes, then passed through a large gate that said "Advent Christian Village" in big letters. Moments later, we pulled into the driveway and were met by another of Nana's cousins (by marriage), Donna Johnson. (For anyone who may not know, Donna was married to Bud Johnson, who is Nana's first cousin. Bud died about five years ago.)

Donna gave us a tour of her house, which is a beautiful, single-family house. When Nana sat down at Donna's baby grand piano and started banging out a hymn, Donna sang the notes - but not the words - with a beautiful voice (more on this below). As we exited through the garage, Donna pointed out her "Pinkie," which is a four-seat golf cart, painted hot pink.

We then toured Doris and Cal's house, around the corner from Donna's, then went to Marilyn's house, which is about a mile away. We followed a golf cart down the road. Leon and Shirley Lombard were there waiting, and Donna arrived shortly thereafter.

After eating and talking for hours, Donna, Leon, Shirley, Doris, and Cal left, and we slept well.

On Sunday morning, Marilyn drove us to church and we arrived a half hour before the service. The church is a large, modern building, very tastefully done in a beautiful setting. There were a hundred or more golf carts parked around the church.

We needed every minute of the half hour before the service started. Nana was approached by a dozen different people. Most of them knew her from Arlington, the Somerville Advent Christian Church, or Alton Bay. The only name I remember is Bobby Crocker, who Nana used to babysit with his two brothers (both now dead) when she was growing up in Arlington.

I estimate the congregation had about 300 people in it, maybe more.... My first impression was 600, but I keep questioning that number and revising it downward. The congregation was mostly people over the age of 70, but there were quite a few younger people and a surprising number of children. The music was great. The choir had about 40-50 people in it and considerable volume. The organist was good, and accompanied a grand piano. I saw Nana react positively to the music. The minister looked young at a distance, but when I met him later he appeared to be in his mid-40s. His sermon was good, energetic, and Nana loved it. I think everyone would recognize it as a good, definitely adventist, sermon.

After church, we were the last people out of the sanctuary, as there were more people who needed to see Nana. Doris grabbed one man as he went past and introduced him to Nana. He is the activities director for the Village. He was very excited when he heard that Nana plays the cello, and talked extensively about the music in the Village. There are two nearby colleges, and their orchestras come regularly to play in the sanctuary. There are also three cities within an hour of the Village, and organized bus trips to hear symphonies, operas, and to see plays are a regular occurrence. There are also smaller performance ensembles in the Village, coordinated by this man (I can't remember his name.... George something, maybe) and he practically begged Nana to come play cello there. "We need you and your cello," he said, and said that he would also love to have Nana's piano skills there. Nana was obviously pleased.

There is a cafeteria connected to the church. It kind of reminded my of Alton Bay, except larger and newer, and less camp-like. There is a buffet on Sunday and on Thursday, and food is cooked to order on other days. The food was GOOD, and healthy. The continual queue of people wanting to meet Nana and re-live old days continued through lunch, and she was standing and sitting repeatedly. I would bet that Nana got more than 50 hugs before noon on Sunday.

One conversation I overheard gave me a twinge of sadness. A woman that Nana hadn't seen in 50+ years said, "What happened to you, Janet? You just disappeared!" Nana said, "Well, I married a minister, you see, and so I had to be in church every Sunday, and we moved up Maine and were in the Baptist church, so we lost touch a little with Advent Christian goings-on." The woman responded, "Well, I'm SO glad to see you, it's wonderful to see you after all these years!"

As Nana and I strolled out of the building after lunch, Nana remarked on all the people she knew. It did seem like everyone was from New England and had some connection with Arlington or Alton Bay. Everyone knew Nana or Nana B or the Gedneys or had been in the Somerville church or had some other connection. "Nana," I said, "what's that hymn about being called up yonder?" She responded immediately, "When the roll is called up yonder! Oh yes, Greg, that's just what this is like!"

Nana went with Leon and Shirley, while I rode with Marilyn. Marilyn drove me around to see more of the Advent Christian Village. All the roads are private, so golf carts are legal through the whole area. Many of the residents who no longer drive cars still get around on golf carts because no license is required (a fact that was NOT lost on Nana). There is a grocery store, bank, a post office (the Village has its own zip code), a cafe, motel, fire station, police station (but there is reportedly no crime). The "clinic" is a small hospital, with its own pharmacy, and there is a sprawling nursing home. Everything is accessible by golf cart.

Marilyn drove me around to show me the various homes, including apartments in a large building, duplex apartments, and single-family homes.

We went to Leon & Shirley's house for a brief visit before they took me to the airport. After a brief tour of their home, Nana settled at the piano, and the others gathered around. After several songs, I thought to pull out my camera and caught this one (which I already emailed to some of you).

Nana, Doris, and Cal drove me to the airport. As I got ready to leave, Nana gave me a hug, and asked if I thought there was any way she could afford to live in "a place like this." I told her that I didn't know, but suggested that maybe she could gather some information during her stay. The three cousins were still at the airport fence as I took off to fly home.

* * * * *


I had looked at the website for Dowling Park - the Advent Christian Village, rather - before we went, and it had not made much of an impression on me. After my visit of less than 24 hours, I unexpectedly came away with a very positive impression. The website described the village as a place for "tired ministers" and missionaries, and that's exactly what it is. Everything about the place is designed to fit with that purpose - providing a vibrant place for elderly Christians.

Donna has aphasia and early Alzheimer's. When she sang that hymn, she sang the notes and not the words because she can't remember them. After talking to Nana for an hour on the couch, she left and asked Doris, "Who was that nice woman I was talking to?" She doesn't remember her grandchildren, and sometimes forgets that she was married. Yet she lives alone in a single-family house. She drives her golf cart to get groceries, mail things, and go to the bank. The community keeps an eye on her, she is invited for dinner at different people's homes, and she goes to concerts and other events.

All sorts of Christian enrichment are readily available. Concerts, trips to symphonies, sing-alongs around the piano, dinners, Bible studies.

I think the thing that struck me the most, though, is the grace with which these people - the cousins (all ages 80+) and the rest of the Advent Christian Village community - are dealing with aging and end-of-life issues. There is neither humor nor grieving with the failures that are happening. The failures are just accommodated as they keep on living, worshiping, and supporting each other. The second thing that impressed me was that these are her people. I don't remember meeting any of them before, although I have known the names of "Bud & Donna," "Leon & Shirley," and so on. But not just the cousins -- Bobby Crocker and a couple dozen others whose names I cannot remember - - they all, already, know and love Nana, and it's almost as if they've been waiting for her to come back for fifty years.

I'm going to pick Nana up at the end of the week. I am dying to know what she thinks of the place after her visit. As for me, though.... Well, I am very impressed, somewhat in awe.


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