What’s it like being old? I asked my grandma this loaded question when she was 80, plus or minus :).
I don’t feel old, she answered thoughtfully. And then I look in the mirror, and I think: who’s that old lady? I don’t FEEL old, she repeated. On the inside, I’m still a young woman. And then I realise: I’m 80…
How, I wondered then, could she not feel as old as she was? As she looked? As her birdbone body indicated? But these days it makes a lot more sense. 😏 Inside, I don’t feel age. On a link a friend sent me recently, a woman was laughing at aging, explaining dryly that you don’t get to practice being old. While there are, as she noted wryly, ‘warning signs,’ it ‘kind of creeps up on you.’
Yup. It shore do. It seems to be creeping from my toes (broken, arthritic darlings) to my head (greying and often shaking in frustration at the indignities of this death watch called aging)…
When my old ladies, as I call them still — my great-aunts, my grandmothers — would tell stories of being young, I would sit as still as possible. Sometimes, if I didn’t move and didn’t make a peep, they would forget I was there and just be sisters together. Aunt Ina would bemoan her miserable marriage, and Grandma would talk about how Grandpa fooled around w/ ‘a wall-eyed hussy.’
I went to the café where they were having breakfast, she remembered. I stood by their booth and I was going to stab the hussy with a fork. I had it in my hand. But the sheriff came, she went on, and took her by the arm, assuring young Emmie that ‘the hussy’ wasn’t worth it.
And once again, my imagination would fail me. I just couldn’t see, in the blue-haired grandmother rocking in her velour recliner, the passionately angry woman my tiny grandmother was once. I had no concept of the lives these once-young, now elderly women had lived — before me, before my childhood. To me, they were (as we are now for the children in our lives) bulwarks of safety, of stability. In my itinerant childhood, they were rare constants: always there, providing home, place, roots.
But I can see that my own nieces, my sons, the ‘youngers’ in my life — as my grandmother would call us — have no idea of who their own elders (me, my 3 sisters, their uncles and grandparents and older family) were at 16, at 20, even at 30. Should I tell them about gambling in Monaco? Reminisce about dancing crazily at Embassy parties? Regale them with stories of our misspent youths, our tragedies and triumphs? Do those stories have anything to do w/ them? Any more than the story of my grandfather’s infidelity does w/ me? How much of history belongs to the young?
When my other grandmother, on her deathbed, confessed that she wished she had followed her sister to California, and hadn’t succumbed to the pressures of her parents, her pastor, to marry my widowed grandfather (who came complete with toddler son and pre-school daughter in tow), I sat stunned.
How could this elderly, dying woman bemoan her life? Rich in family, as stable as the rock foundation of her tiny northside house, what other dreams might she have cherished? How could she tell me, a young woman weighing her own possible marriage, that her husband was a failure as a provider? That my own father was like his? My father who supported us just fine, thank you — even in style, at points in my childhood. And why was that important, anyway?
She was the postmaster (postmistress?) of her small town post office. Took up china painting in her 70s, and swept every award in every category at the State Fair. On the board of club after club: I remember going w/ her to a meeting of the Ateloka Club, held at a tea room restaurant in the old money area of our town. There were 15+ women, each dressed like Grandmother, in lavender and silver and the shadowy neutrals of Victorian widowhood. I remember nothing of the meeting except my Aunt Alene reading the minutes. Only my mental snapshot of a table of blue-haired old ladies around a U-shaped group of tables remains.
But when I look at pictures of the young Elsie, she was beautiful. Perhaps it wasn’t the fashion, her tall dark beauty. But w/ her masses of brunette hair braided around that finely chiseled face, she was beautiful. Who of us could see that in the marcelled silver curls framing her stern Grandmother face? Who could imagine passion igniting for this pillar of temperance and propriety?
Once all of these — my great-aunts, my grandmothers, and now my mother’s sisters — were as disbelieving as I was that old age would catch them, grinding them fine in its ratcheted teeth. Like the tray of old snapshots on my bookcase, or the box beneath my study chair, there were pictures for each of them. Some of these even remain. In the picture of them reclining together on the grass, my great-aunt Bonnie and Grandma are young girls. Bonnie’s shadowed eyes hint at the minx she was — well into her 80s. And Grandma’s straight brows suggest, even that early, just how stubborn she could be. Stubborn enough to leave two husbands — one a drunk, the other an abuser — and make a life for herself and her four daughters. Independent enough to move into a house w/ the two younger girls, and figure out how to support them all, With only an 8th grade education, by the way. She became a cleaning lady, playing to her slightly OCD strengths.
To see the women they would become in these two girls, think of the pictures of them etched into my heart and brain, as I do: the two women I loved like my own mother, who made me cornbread and creamed turnips and rhubarb cobbler and corn w/ milk and bacon. Who taught me how to do laundry and how to plant a garden and how to value the different birds on the feeder outside the screened porch. Who slipped me money out of their own meagre bounty, when I walked the three blocks from my college adulthood back into my childhood. Who ran a red flag up the clothesline to let me know I had a phone call — a red flag I could see from my phone-less efficiency apartment around the corner. Old photos of them are like messages in bottles, from a past so dimly distant I still have a hard time fathoming it…
There are pictures of me as a girl, and when I look at them, I wonder: what do they tell about who I am becoming? My sister had old family photos copied for Christmas one year. She made each of us an album, with a picture on the album cover that she said was true to how she saw us. In mine, I’m sitting in a batik bikini in the tide on the island of Phuket, where we summered. I am the slender, rail-thin boyish girl I was until I had my two sons. Hair wet, looking up at my mother, probably, behind the capturing camera. And I can see none of who I am today.
But someday, perhaps one of my two great-nieces will look at it and wonder who I was, what I dreamed, what I wanted out of life. She may trace the unmarked face of that girl who looks fearlessly into the camera, and try to find in it the great-aunt she knows. Should I leave her a message in a bottle…?