IT SHOULD NEVER BE ABOUT AGE BUT RATHER---ABOUT HEART.
I saw her for the first time in 1994…a tiny doll-like woman walking quite regally in my direction. I recall how she looked at me and smiled so sweetly-- as if—at that moment—we were old friends.
A bond developed between us immediately and, after that, when we met, we communicated through clasped hands and shared smiles. Sometimes she accompanied me as I walked down the narrow alley to begin my morning exercise.
People always stared, probably wondering what a diminutive Chinese woman--- who spoke no English--- could possibly share with a tall American female--- who spoke no Chinese. Once, I was surprised to find her blocks away from the Alley-- in a small market-- buying vegetables. Alone, always alone, she walked everywhere, as she had apparently done for years.
When several weeks passed without seeing my little friend, I needed to know why. I asked my Hotel’s translator to join me as I began knocking on doors in the small Alley neighborhood. I quickly learned from one neighbor that my little friend was 93 years old and her name was Li Shumen. The neighbor volunteered to take me to my friend’s house.
My interpreter and I followed the neighbor down a winding path, past several empty buildings, then around a make-shift shed and…there she was…sitting on a small stool, washing lettuce. Surprised to see us but always the perfect hostess, Li Shuwen invited us inside her one room-- but orderly-- home.
After pulling out folding chairs for each of us, she sat nearby…looking as if she was posing for a portrait…with her tiny hands folded ever-so-neatly in her lap, her back perfectly-straight, and her incredibly-small feet crossed at the ankles.
She eagerly-responded to my questions as they passed through the interpreter. I was touched by the many hardships, painful experiences, and years of loneliness she had endured. Her answers were offered with a simple openness that touched my heart.
Born in Human Province in 1905, Li Shuwen remembered her feet being bound when she was three years old and, at the age of four, how she learned to sew clothes. By the time she turned five, all her spare hours were spent with her father, helping to care for their farm. She never learned to read and write and, even today, is unable to write her name. In response to my question about her favorite childhood memories…she said: “I only remember working.”
A pre-arranged marriage united Li Shuwen with a stranger. She gave birth to two children at home, without ever having seen a doctor, visited a hospital, or taken medicine of any kind. She seemed shocked when I asked if love had provided strength through the difficulties of her life. “No one ever said “I love you” to me and I never spoke those words to anyone, not even to my children.”
I apologized for forgetting about the differences in our cultures but—silently-- I knew that-- for me—it was so important to say and hear those words—as well as feel their meaning.
When questioned about the secret to having lived so long, my little friend seemed suddenly shy and a little modest…saying there was no secret. She mentioned raising a grandson from birth and teaching him that life required much and must be lived by a strict moral code: You must work hard; be kind to others; and always be honest.
So…my dear little friend had not been born into a rich, famous, or even educated lifestyle. She had never traveled, enjoyed modern conveniences, or even tasted ice cream.
But, as I stared at this incredibly-resilient yet simple woman…her secret was clear. My friend, Li Shuwen possessed a quality so rare---many of the most powerful figures in the world would sell their souls to possess it---and that is: Peace of Mind.
As we said our good-byes, I reached out to hug this amazing treasure and whisper the words no one had ever said to her: “I love you, my friend.”