BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
Dorothy Rungeling was already quite old when I first met her. Her arrival at Lookout Ridge was whispered about with anticipation. I was in high school, employed in the kitchen at the time, and even in a dining room full of grey heads the presence of a centenarian was something special.
She did not look well on first sight. She was recovering from some malady or another, and was weak and tired and had misplaced her hearing aids, and was being pushed around in a wheelchair. (In the five years I knew her, though, this was the only time I saw her so transported.)
This period of respite did not last long. Within several weeks she had reacquired her stamina and was soon a beloved resident. This was before I knew about her past life, and in the absence of information about her accomplishments my first judgments were based on her 100-year-old appearance.
Yet even before I knew that she was possibly the most interesting person in the room, I already thought she was the most interesting-looking person there. The pigment had long since left her hair, though it still somehow retained an off-white shimmer, almost a golden-straw in the right light. When she came down to dinner, having just awakened from a late-afternoon nap, the hair on the back of her head would stick up at a jaunty angle, only to settle back slowly to where it should have been as the meal progressed.
Her fingers were long and thin, and her skin was light and papery and allowed ribbons of blue veins to shine through. Her face was wrinkled, yes, but in a way that seemed as though each wrinkle had been placed in precisely the right spot.
Bits of her life reached me slowly. First I learned that she had been a pilot and raced planes. Then that she painted, rode horses, sailed, shot skeet, wrote books, played an armful of instruments, and golfed. Then that her mother had been a famous poet. Finally, I think, it came out that she had received the Order of Canada.
It was a combination of her age and abilities that made her so fascinating, a renaissance woman practically born during the Renaissance. Dot was in no hurry to tell people of these things, as anyone who knew her will say, and I learned much more about her by reading her books than I ever did by speaking to her. There are no literary pretensions in these stories. Dot was 90 when she started churning them out and they are written in the voice that she spoke.
“Had I been given my choice of the era in which to live, I could hardly have done better than to start my visit to this planet when I did—in 1911. What other age could have afforded such an opportunity to taste many different modes of life, a variety which no doubt could never have been duplicated in any other era in the past and perhaps never in the future,” she wrote.
As a teenager inclined to bemoan that the world had lost its wonder, I had no doubt that she was right. She had, as she said, “trimmed the wicks and filled the oil lamps,” as well as seen “the era of nuclear energy which supplies our homes with electricity to light up the house at the touch of a button.”
She was sanguine about what this meant, attributing the richness of her life largely to the “vast explosion of ideas and practises” to which she had access. But, as ever, she was perceptive enough to know that her own enthusiasm for the new world had its limits.
“There has been a loss of warmth, honesty, and loyalty among people. We have crime today that would have sent people running to lock their doors in the old days, doors which were normally left unlocked,” she said.
Her depiction of life as a child always had an element of magic to me. She once told me that the thing she missed most of the old days was the silence, and she echoed this in the closing story in one of her books.
“In the 1920s or ‘30s the sounds one was most likely to hear in the country were the farmer talking to his horse as they worked in the fields. The plough or the cultivator made no noise whatsoever. The horse’s feet made no noise. There was a wonderful blanket of silence in the countryside broken only by a bird bursting into song to let the world know how joyous he was, or a pheasant flying out from under cover because he was frightened by the proximity of the horse toiling in the field. As we reached the mid-1920s occasionally an automobile came down the road at a slow speed, but only occasionally. Perhaps one or two a day. A dog barked in the distance. A bell might ring at the house to summon the men from the fields for their dinner, or a hen might cackle to announce to the world that she had just laid an egg. But the point is that you could sit and actually listen to silence. If you have never experienced this then you just cannot imagine a pleasurable experience it is.”
This was ironic, of course, since a close friend of Dot’s described Dot’s latter-day hearing well when she said that Dot heard 25 percent of everything and filled in the other 75 percent as she saw fit.
Dot embodied the paradoxes of life. She loved the future and lamented the loss of the past. She never publicly pounded her own drum, but was privately proud and kept multiple copies of every news article in which she had been featured. She grew up with Quakers, but she was not religious. She was invariably kind, but sometimes she would, in the words of a close friend, “give someone a look and decide that she just did not like them.” She had countless friends and published books on her own life, but she was determinedly private and even her closest confidants knew not to pry. She was 106 and tired all the time; still, she wanted to live another decade.
I sent Dot letters when I was away, and tried to visit when I could, though more often than not she was sleeping when I knocked on her door. Many of our conversations instead happened when I caught her at the south end of the east wing, where she would often sit in the mid-morning sun that beamed through the end windows.
She slept there too, naturally, and since Dot’s hearing aids weren’t that effective, many times I was able to clomp right up without her noticing.
I had my camera with me on one of these mornings when Dot was dozing in the sun. I took my time focussing, trying as ever to make sure that my amateurish skill did not produce an amateurish image. I had thought that the snapping of the shutter would not wake her, but it did. She opened her eyes slowly, and looked over at me without offence, as if being awoken by a paparazzo was routine.
“Did you get a good picture?” she asked lazily. I said that I hoped that I had.
As it turned out, I did not get a good picture. A sudden flinch, an inexpertly squinted eye—one or the other resulted in a blurred print. Dot’s feet are in focus; her face is fuzzy.
I never did have the chance to get a better shot. It doesn’t matter. She’s clear in my mind. She always will be.