She was 81 years old, and a freshman in college. She surprised me then, and inspires me today.
My very first day of college, many years ago now, we all assembled in the coliseum for chapel. I attended a small Christian school in Texas, one of the few schools in the country to still require daily attendance at chapel (basically a brief, informal worship service). On the opening day of school the mood was cheerful as friends greeted each other after summer break, and those of us who were freshmen tried not to show our awe and anxiety as we searched for a seat or a familiar face in a sea of thousands.
The marching band played a spritely processional as a parade of flags filled the floor of the coliseum. Each flag represented a home country for the international students, carried by one of the students from that land. It was a mesmerizing and impressive display, as if the whole world had stopped by.
Soon the announcements began. The voice over the loudspeaker boomed: “We’d like to introduce to you our oldest freshman this year. Innes, please stand up. She is 81 years old and starting her freshman year as an English Literature major.” Cheers and applause filled the stadium as Innes stood, waving her arm and smiling. She was talking, but her greeting was drowned out by the enthusiastic crowd. She was tall, with straight silvery gray hair. She wore a simple dress of blue and white cotton, not too different from those that my grandmother used to make for herself. She seemed strong, energetic and happy.
What a strange thing, I thought, to start college at eighty-one. Was she thinking of working after she got this degree, when she was already past retirement age? Why was she doing this?
Innes became a familiar figure on campus. I didn’t have any classes with her, but many freshmen classes were held in the same few buildings, so we passed often in the halls and stairwells. Frequently I saw her in the women’s bathroom of the student center just before or after chapel. Near the mailboxes and the cafeteria, it was a huge and often crowded restroom. A large area was given to a wall of mirrors with a long counter in front of it. We would set our purses and backpacks on the dry counter to fix our hair and makeup. When Innes was there, she never hesitated to speak to anyone with an easy friendliness.
“Your hair is so beautiful. It’s such a lovely color,” she would say to someone brushing out their hair. Or “Your purse is falling. Here, I caught it. What a pretty bag.” Her German accent was noticeable but not thick, and her cheerful compliments easily accepted by the young girls that surrounded her.
One day someone asked Innes what brought her to college. “Vell,” she answered, “I sent all of my children to college. And all of my life I wanted to go to college. Now that they are grown up, I decided it was time that I go to school!” She laughed. “I love it here. This is a great place.”
On a warm day in October, Innes was wearing a short sleeved cotton dress. As she washed her hands at the sink I noticed something for the first time. Across her forearm was a faded blue tattoo, a long string of numbers.
At seventeen years old, I was remarkably young and foolish. But I knew what that was.
I wanted to go up and hug Innes, but I was too shy. I quietly left the bathroom, deep in thought. That tattoo was a mark from a concentration camp. She was a Survivor. That meant that when she was a young woman, she was not fixing her hair and wearing pretty clothes, or worrying about seeing a certain boy on the way to the next class. She had spent her youth slaving away in a prison camp, starving, being beaten and tortured, and every other horrible thing that men have conceived to do to other people. Innes had survived all of that, and somehow she now managed to be cheerful to others who surely didn’t appreciate the comfortable lives they had. And…she was genuinely happy!
Innes graduated a semester before I did, surrounded by a crowd of children and grandchildren. She beamed and waved as they again announced her name, this time as the oldest graduate. The next semester, I met the young man who would become my husband. His first semester was my last, so he missed Innes. But he’s heard the story and felt her influence.
I learned from Innes that you are never too old to reinvent yourself, and it is never, ever too late to follow your dreams.
Innes was not afraid to start over, and because of her, I have discovered that I have the courage to reinvent myself too. I am not the reader of my life, but the author. When it is time to write a new chapter, or a whole new volume, I open the first blank page and dedicate it to Innes.