The bus was alive and rumbling loudly when I arrived at 6:30 a.m. - a monolithic thing, worthy of shame. Smiling, dried-apple lady faces were handing out paper bags packed with fresh bagels, cream cheese, bananas, homemade oatmeal cookies, and bottled water for breakfast. In a blur of sleepiness I took my bag and boarded the bus, shyly greeting watchful eyes as I veered toward the back. I was the newcomer, youngest of the group by at least 15 years and not a member of the Garden Club.
I felt lucky to land a seat by myself, in the rear! Organizing my travel bag, looking for the poetry book a friend sent me, stowing away my garden hat, and shifting into a comfortable position, I couldn't help but notice the eyes on me. Interested eyes, friendly eyes, welcoming eyes. I nestled down, burying myself into obscure and ethereal poems, head leaning against the plate glass window.
About an hour into my trip I glanced up; the others were napping, chatting, looking out the window at the rapids of the Susquehanna River. Sleepily, I allowed my eyes to close and take in the sounds. The start and stop of the engine heaving forward, the hum of polite chatter, rustling paper bags, the click-click of the bathroom door lock. It was all so innocuous, so pleasant. I allowed myself to fall asleep.
Heightened voices and the bus grinding into a parking spot woke me. We'd traveled over two hours for the garden tour: thirteen beautiful homes, all spruced up for seeing, shiny new planters burgeoning with rare grasses and flowers in compositions only seen in expensive architectural magazines.
What impressed me most vividly was not the lavish outdoor living spaces, extravagant ponds, magnificent fountains spilling into streams and pools, walled gardens, pine straw-laden wooded paths, original sculptures, and every flower known to mankind - but the people. The extraordinary wealth, privilege, position, and what that meant in the lives of the homes and gardens we had paid to tour. Photos of well-bred racehorses standing next to famous men and women, one-of-a-kind paintings and prized oriental rugs, the uppermost elite of our society poised with blonde-haired sons and daughters at wedding parties, hushed servants stockpiling dining tables with silver-trayed tea cookies and freshly squeezed lemonade.
By contrast, I noticed my group of elderly tourists reverently taking in the smallest of details, making notes into tiny, well-worn notebooks, dutifully donning the pale blue booties over dirty street shoes, sharing grateful exchanges and transparent smiles with our hostesses - with simple compliance, a gentle acceptance of what was. Throughout the day of well-paid for glimpses into the private lives of the privileged few, they solemnly pushed themselves to stumble up and down hills and cobbled walkways hour after hour, bodies moving slowly, with determination, feet sore, mouths parched from our supply of bottled water running out - all without the slightest murmur or complaint. At the end of the tour, finally comfortable atop our cheaply upholstered bus seats, they gaily exchanged notes and remembrances. Beads of sweat streamed down their calm faces, the large windows sealed shut in mid-June, for the air conditioner was broken and we were consigned to suffer the long trip home in unbearable heat.
I learned something this day. It wasn't the privileged few I admired most, but the aged, seasoned group I had traveled with. These people were the best small-town America had to offer. They were everything our modern society has forgotten: kind, patient, genteel, yielding, gracious, wise, and nearing the end of long, well-lived lives. What had begun as a carefully orchestrated, solo garden tour ended with unexpected insights into the very group I'd carefully avoided at the start. I charged myself guilty of sidelining, marginalizing, and pretending the elderly didn't really matter. Yet, at the end of the day, truth is I was humbled and proud to be amongst them.