Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

Life changes as we enter new stages.  Thanksgiving Day with its two days of shopping and preparation now belong to my son and daughter-in-law.  They live in an upscale village within 30 minutes of New York City.  We were invited to dinner at 4 p.m, and both The Husband and I were looking forward to a quiet day.

dogphoto2Since we had no obligations for most of the day, we decided to join the volunteers at our church who serve a Thanksgiving lunch each year to those who look forward to a hot holiday meal. The church is building a new commercial kitchen, which was not completed in time for Thanksgiving, so the volunteers could offer only bagged lunches of fruit and cheese, cans of tuna and crackers and other small items that were not perishable. Our guests were grateful for the food but clearly missed the familiarity of a Thanksgiving meal.

This was our first time serving food at Thanksgiving though I have worked in church kitchens that provide meals to the hungry as part of their mission of caring for others for years. But I was always the busy Martha in the kitchen at these events. I was never Mary who chose to have a more spiritual experience. This year, since the business of passing out hot cider and brown bags adorned with  drawings of turkeys made by children at the church did not take much time, I joined a table for the meal. My lunch partner was Jim.

Jim is 87 and lives alone near Second Avenue in a third-floor walkup that is rent controlled. He and his sister moved their memories and possessions from their Staten Island childhood home to this apartment 50 years ago. Neither ever married. Jim, drafted for only a year, had a stint in the Philippines at the end of World War II. He then worked steadily as an unskilled laborer over the years. His last job, as a security guard at a famous New York newspaper, ended at the start of the 1990s when declining circulation at the paper forced the owners to cut jobs. He lost his sister 10 years later. Though Jim has an older brother, that relative and his children moved far away to an upstate New York city. Over time this family connection with its nieces and nephews and grand nieces and nephews has become mostly a memory.

Jim told me that he had always been a bit shy as a boy and that his father had been hard on his mother, sister and him, though never to his older brother. When Jim was 9 the family spent a memorable month in New Jersey with acquaintances from Staten Island who had a summer place. A stray dog “who wasn’t much of a dog” kept coming by and young Jim was allowed to keep him. Jim was certain that this dog, who needed him as much as Jim loved and needed the dog, would go home with them at the end of the summer. Jim learned later, that the day before they left for home in Staten Island, his father gave a man a few bucks to take the dog away. All he knew was that the dog had disappeared and his father told him that stray dogs always leave when they find a place with better food. Weeks later he learned from family friends who had also been in this New Jersey summer community that the dog had returned the day after Jim and his family left. The dog stayed on the porch of that summer shack for days until a full-time resident of the community took pity on the dog and brought it home. The dog still returned day after day, waiting Jim presumes, for Jim to return.

Fifty years ago, Jim adopted his first dog from a shelter. He told me how much all the dogs he had cared for over the years had meant to him. When his sister died 10 years ago, he still had his last dog. The routine of getting up and caring for his dog made the transition of no job and a solitary life much easier. Jim feels that his general good health at the age of 87 is due in large part to his commitment to walking his dog for hours every day in the park. “I took care of him and he took care of me” is how Jim put it. The last dog had to be put down five years ago when it was about 15 years old and could no longer walk.

Jim described his apartment as five real rooms but “I mostly live in one due to my boxes and stuff in the other four.” He watches television and ventured that he had seen shows about hoarders and guessed that he was probably one of those people. But, just like the people on those shows, Jim could not imagine parting with any of his memories.

Jim’s days are organized, he said, to prevent laziness. He gets up at the same time every day and does a little cleaning, takes a shower and shaves. Then he heads to a senior center where he has a hot breakfast and says hello to the regulars there. Jim doesn’t stay for the day though because “other people need it more” than he does. He feels that having more than two meals a day at the center would be taking more than his fair share.  So, he heads off for a walk through our city and often ends up at one of the Barnes and Nobles where he reads non-fiction in a comfortable chair for an hour or so, replacing the book where he can find it the next time he visits. Then he moves on.  He has a coffee and some french fries at a Burger King and then heads home to watch television. He took a painting class when he lost his last job and likes to go to museums and sometimes takes his sketch book and “tries his hand at copying the masters.” His favorite painter is Homer and he is attracted to his seascapes. Jim still keeps a land-line telephone because his sister-in-law used to call once a week but that hasn’t happened in a long time. But he keeps it just in case.

At the end of lunch, Jim told me the story of Hachiko, an Akita who lived with a professor who taught at the University of Tokyo. Every day the dog walked to the train with the professor and each evening was waiting at the station for his master to come home. One day, the professor died suddenly at work. For the next nine years or so, until the dog’s death, Hachiko returned to the station each evening, waiting for his master to return.  Jim told me that there were statues of Hachiko several places in Japan and bronze images of Hachiko’s paw prints at the exact location where the dog waited loyally for his master to return.

Jim said that the story of Hachiko reminded him of his first dog, the one who returned day after day when Jim’s father had given him away and moved the family back to Staten Island. I asked Jim why he didn’t get another dog after the death of his last dog, and he replied that it wouldn’t be fair to the dog since he was old now and might die and leave the dog to grieve.

Jim didn’t want or appear to need any more connection than that which we had shared briefly. I offered to meet him in the park for a walk with Asta, our 15-year-old Airedale, offered my card and asked if I could call on his land line to check up on him, but he is isolated now and has impenetrable boundaries. He said that he had his routine and that wouldn’t work out. He understands that some well-meaning person might want to remove his organized boxes of possessions and memories that occupy most of his apartment and are the primary source of comfort for him now that he is truly alone.

The Husband and I agreed on our way to our Thanksgiving Day feast with family that serving food to those who are alone or homeless on this day where families gather to connect and remember their shared histories would become our new Thanksgiving Day tradition. Jim had given me the gift of his memories on this day celebrated by families. And I understood spiritually how Mary had benefited from just being present, from witnessing and remembering the stories, even though Martha had done all the work.


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  • Mickey November 30, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Thank you, Patricia, may I call you Patricia?! That was a wonderful story. We can hope that your new friend is safe with his boxes of memories. I think, what about a dog he could visit or could visit with him so he wouldn’t be responsible, a situation like a visiting grandchild? But then he did say he has his routine. Wiping a tear away. Thank you, again.

  • Marcia S Kupferberg November 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

    What a great way to spend Thanksgiving. No surprise though. The author is an amazing person!!!

  • Andrea November 30, 2015 at 7:58 am

    I I often see young men and women (often couples) living on the streets in Manhatten. One such couple has a dog with them, living in front of my neighborhood theater since September. I always bring them food- sandwiches, soups ,water and a bag of dried dog food from the pet store across the street . I am a new dog lover, never having had pets growing up , but recently have acquired
    grand pups through my sons and daughter in laws. What a delightful relationship! Never have I enjoyed the autumn More than when Rudy the golden doodle and I are walking through Central Park in the early morning chasing squirrels and admiring the dazzling colors of the leaves . No incessant chattering- just nature ,Rudy and I. Against my husbands better judgement I offered to walk this homeless dog once and he did not want to go with me at all. He looked at me with his sad beautiful brown eyes as if to say thank you,ate the food I brought him and laid down on the dirty blanket on the street with his owners . i have been consumed with worry about this dog-what happens when it gets really cold, where will he go? Will his human companions be able to continue to care for him? I have more empathy for the dog than I have for the humans. Those feelings confuse me.

  • Andrea November 30, 2015 at 12:52 am

    I had dogs growing up but never had the resposibility of caring for them. Now my sons are married and they Both have dogs that have become my grand pups. I have learned what unconditional love truly is. I walk in the park for hours with Rudy the doodle and we communicate more with each other than I ever could with some of the women that yack on incessantly about nothing. I enjoy the idea that I am needed for the care and well being of this pet but they are quite self sufficient and I can leave them home for an hour or so without feeling guilty. And the greeting I get upon my return is a feeling like no other!! The sheer joy and all because I AM HOME!! Can you beat that?? My husband is happy when I come home too but he has never jumped up licked my face and humped my leg!!!!
    The park was particularly gorgeous and warm this fall season and I don’t think I have ever enjoyed more than I have with Rudy.

  • Deborah Robinson November 29, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    What a wonderful new Thanksgiving tradition!
    Hopefully, this article will remind others that dogs are not
    disposal objects to be left by the road side,but animals who
    are deeply devoted to their owners, who they consider,
    their family.
    Unfortunately there are thousand of dogs and cats left in
    animal shelters as I write this post. Please if you are
    considering a pet for you or your family please don’t shop, adopt.
    Shelter dogs are not broken. They’ve simply experienced
    more of life. If they were human, we’d call them wise. They
    would be the ones with the tales to tell, and the stories to write.
    The ones dealt a bad hand, and responded with courage. Do not
    Pity a shelter dog. Adopt One❤️
    Deborah Robinson

    and commitments to