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THE BEST YEARS : SENIORS : Special Pastime : The elderly help others, and themselves, when they reminisce. It helps put their lives in order.

May 24, 1990|NORMA BARZMAN

"I've always thought of the elderly as a great resource," says historian Keith Berwick, who has settled in Ojai. "They're a mine of information about the past."

"I was just up visiting my 87-year-old mother in Northern California," said Berwick, a one-time television interviewer and former UCLA history professor who is writing a book on the presidency. "My mother's stage name was Freda Wilson and she tells over and over about her acting days when she had a role in a play opposite a young actor who became movie star Fredric March. Each time she tells it, she comes up with richer detail. . . . At the same time older people give you valuable research material, they're doing something important for themselves."

Berwick is referring to the book "Aging and Mental Health" by Dr. Robert N. Butler and social worker Myrna Lewis, which postulates that the reminiscences of the aging are part of a normal life-review process. Constantly reflecting on the past is something, the authors write, we all need to do once we realize we won't be living forever. This is a way, they say, to resolve conflicts and get our lives in order.

When my husband was alive, especially the last year or so of his life, he told the story of Bossy Man over and over, until one of our grandchildren would complain, "I love the story of Bossy Man, but this is the third time today."

Our whole family loves the story of Bossy Man, the Chinese vegetable seller who used to make his rounds in a horse and wagon when my husband, Ben, was growing up in the Canadian Northwest.

Ben recounted how he overheard his parents in a late-night, worried-about-money discussion. He wanted to help, but what could an 8-year-old do?

Ben noticed that every time Bossy Man came by, the vegetable seller and Ben's mother stood at the back door and wrote the prices paid for the day's vegetables on the doorjamb. At the end of the week they would add up the amounts and she would pay him.

The following week, on the day before Bossy Man's arrival, little Ben dragged a chair to the doorjamb, climbed up and carefully erased the numbers scribbled there and wrote in amounts half as large.

Later, Ben's mother and Bossy Man totaled the daily figures. She was quite perplexed and asked him if he was absolutely sure the total was correct. To her, the amount seemed much too small. Bossy Man insisted in his broken English that what was written down was what she owed.

After a couple of weeks of this, Ben's mother and father, suspecting something, surprised Ben on the day when he was standing on a chair erasing numbers.

His father tried to explain to Ben how serious a mistake this was. Bossy Man was saving money to smuggle his wife and two sons into Canada from China, something that was difficult, not to mention illegal, since the Canadian Government had passed the Oriental Exclusion Act.

A few months later, Ben's father took Ben on a midnight adventure.

The two of them waited a long time on a dark, lonely stretch of beach, taking turns swinging a lantern. After what to a small boy seemed an eternity an answer came in the form of a blinking signal from a ship offshore.

Finally, a rowboat bearing a young woman and two boys about Ben's age appeared. It was Bossy Man's wife and children. Ben's father paid off the two "people smugglers" and hid the Chinese family under some sides of beef in the back of the truck.

As they approached the outskirts of Vancouver, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police stopped them. But Ben's father, a butcher, convinced them that he and his son were just coming back from a cattle buying trip.

It was around two in the morning when they pulled into a farm where a group of anxious Chinese farmers waited, among them Bossy Man. He ran to the truck. Ben watched as Bossy Man embraced his wife and children.

Ben had been ashamed of his father because during the Depression he couldn't get a job. By telling the story of Bossy Man, Ben was reminding himself that his father was a good man and not weak, that he and his father loved each other and that their exciting and fulfilling adventure was an expression of love.

Berwick says he believes that in the same way his mother is resolving old conflicts when she talks about her acting days.

"My mother seems to be trying to find meaning in her life and a sense of accomplishment. Not everyone can do it," Berwick said. "But those who can reminisce and acquire wisdom and serenity from resolving life conflicts are very fortunate."

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