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facts & arguments

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It's not like me to put off getting free money: After a small lottery win, once, I popped in to collect the cheque the very next day. But in this case, my sister, a retired director of education, had been bugging me for months.

"It'll take a least a year for you to get your portion of the dough," she said. "Get the lard out. You're not getting any younger, you know."

Oh, I knew. Still, I waited until five months before the deadline and then, after googling where the Den of Senility would be located, I put on my brave face and made the five-minute journey.

I opened the door. What is this place? No lines snaking up, down or around; no ticket machine spouting out numbers from 1 to 101; no hordes of pushing, frustrating people. It was all very civilized – and quiet. At first, it reminded me of a library, but then it dawned on me: It was more like a morgue.

I slowed down my pace, adjusted my mindset to the newfound peace and, as a good almost-senior should, sat down straight-backed to fill in the necessary papers.

The completed applications in hand, I approached the first desk. A smiley-faced, slightly overweight woman greeted me and asked if she could help. I told her I had forms to submit, and she explained that this was the place to apply for the seniors' allowance.

"Yes, that's why I'm here," I replied.

Her smiley face dropped flat onto her ample bosom. She asked me for my health card and proceeded to check her computer for secret details of my social insurance number and personal info. She actually did a double take, and I was relieved to see that she believed I'd told the truth.

Very politely, she requested I take a seat, so I chose front row centre for quick access to the next station.

Patience is a trait I have seriously tried to work on, but after perusing a couple of dry pamphlets I began focusing on the people.

An elderly man with a head covered in frothy white hair was helping a woman with a walker. Thoughts of my father came to mind. Born with a head of thick, curly hair, he'd taken pride in the little that remained for most of his life. According to him, four years of wearing a helmet during the war had left him bare. In another tale he added to the drama, telling us that two bullets had come at him from different angles, making the faint V on his scalp. All this sounded very plausible to four adoring children.

The woman with the walker turned my thoughts to my mother. Although not born a natural Walker, Bette (Bette Boop to my Dad) showed remarkable resilience after a troubled childhood, and passed on to her children an example of unconditional love and support. When I complained that I didn't like the name Walker because in school I was always one of the last to be called for anything, she calmly told me that the day would come when I could change my name with marriage. My mother was always right, and in this case she hit the mark twice.

A shaky hand fluttered near me. I turned and saw a man's face, filled with quiet resignation. In my mind's eye, his face faded and an image formed of my Uncle Tim, standing tall in his army uniform. After his years in the Korean War, Parkinson's disease changed Tim's life. One day, he showed up at our house with a parcel of steaks wrapped in paper stamped Property of Canadian Army. He insisted we burn the wrappings so no evidence of his pilferage remained.

An overweight woman at the end of my row had a small oxygen tank strapped to her back. As she laboured for breath, memories of my Aunt Bernice came clear. A force in motion, Bernice wore a perpetual smile and greeted everyone with a huge bear hug. Believe me, hugs from this big woman could take your breath away. Every year she flew to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, carrying an exquisitely hand-stitched mask wrapped in tissue paper. And every year she made colourful costumes for the Ice Capades, and when her turn came she skated gracefully to the waltzes.

There I sat. I looked, I thought, I remembered. Three-quarters of my remarkable life was over – as a Walker, a Snyder and an Arnold.

My dreams of living in Europe have been fulfilled, and now I have the luxury of once again living near my two children. The years are marked with each inch of my grandchildren's growth. Perhaps one of them will inherit my skill at pie-making.

I wondered what the universe has in store for this fast-approaching-senior citizen. Who knows?

But I will take the words of the smiley-face receptionist with me: "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."

I will, if I can.

Sharlene Walker-Snyder-Arnold lives in Burlington, Ont.