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This Sandpoint senior hits all the right notes

It has been six months since I introduced you to a Light in the Maze, an elder whose life shines brightly so others can be encouraged. In December, I bring you two “Lights.” Today you will meet a 90-year-old piano player who still energizes people. On Christmas Day, you will meet a very active 97-year-old peace advocate.

The other day, Mary Ellen Black invited me to sit down at her sophisticated electronic keyboard. Mary Ellen was getting ready to head to the Sandpoint Senior Center to play her regular Saturday afternoon seniors dance gig. But she wanted me to dabble in a bit of the keyboard’s magic.

As she leaned over my shoulder, I quickly saw how her eyes, clouded by macular degeneration, forced her fingers to find their own way along the buttons and knobs of the keyboard. Mary Ellen’s close-up vision is mostly gone, but it doesn’t stop her from reveling in the power of music.

Her fingers have memorized the piano keyboard. After all, she began playing one-finger ditties at age 3. Mary Ellen learned to play the piano by ear. (I wonder how great she could have become if she learned to play by “hand.”)

She first played in public at age 14, and she hasn’t stopped her public piano life. In the mid-1960’s, she played weekend gigs for five years at a resort restaurant in Priest Lake, Idaho. People still remind her how they enjoyed not only her upbeat dancing music, but also how she carried herself as a “lovely lady.”

In 1972, she and some other Sandpoint musicians began playing at the nursing home in town. They rarely turned down an invitation to play at various Bonner County “hot spots” also.

She and her friends played together until 2002. Actually, some group members have died and others had to quit for various reasons.

(As I write this, I must also mention another Sandpoint musician, Evelyn McIntire. At almost 90 herself, she also continues to bring musical joy to residents of nursing homes. She, too, is a Light in the Maze whose story deserves to be told. Perhaps another time.)

For many years, only Mary Ellen and her guitar-playing friend, Gil, played for the residents of Sandpoint’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I was often in those places when the music broke out and people gathered. I saw what Mary Ellen has seen over and over again.

Residents who were wheeled into the music room tired and disinterested would quickly perk up when they heard an old favorite song from their past. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” is almost guaranteed to wake up the spirit of the most lethargic resident.

I’ve seen it happen because of Mary Ellen’s high-energy piano playing and Gil’s guitar-strumming.

Now, they play only twice a month at the Saturday dances held at the Sandpoint Senior Center. But her eyes sparkle when she talks of the folks in their late 80s and early 90s who come nearly every Saturday to dance with each other and just enjoy each other’s company.

Like Mary Ellen, most of these folks have been widowed at some time in their lives. At their elder ages, they know the ups-and-downs of life. They know that they need to adjust to whatever happens to them.

I only hope they also know what an inspiration they are to others who watch them with a mixture of high respect and awe as they enjoy themselves.

As I visit with Mary Ellen in her small apartment, I am struck by an obvious similarity between her and all the “Lights” in my life. It is their common attitude of gratitude. Plus, from her gratitude bubbles a gentle, enjoyable brand of humor that helps keeps Mary Ellen’s life balanced.

Do you have a Light in the Maze in your life? I hope you do.



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