Who’s Yo GrandMama?

Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger

Lately I have  become obsessed with my maternal ancestors.  Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood,  and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England  is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit

It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me.   Since there was no birth control  and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover,  because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common.  Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities.   All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists.  And don’t forget wars.  One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824)  lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.

Life was tough.  But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.

 

 

As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days.   At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no  radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing.  Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible  and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.

Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service.  Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day.  But really?  Internet?  This is a  problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.

My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories.   I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but  they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them.  The more  I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.

So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.

I hope it’s in the genes.

 

 

 

Old Love

Valentines Day.

Decadent  chocolates, diamond bracelets, elaborate valentines cards.    Young  lovers gazing  into each other’s eyes, dreaming of the perfect  love.

A beautiful reminder that in a troubled world, that somehow, somewhere, there is always  love.

But these images offer only  a shallow glimpse of  love. Oddly,  we  equate love with young love, with “being in love,”  while overlooking the most beautiful love of all, that of old love.  This  is not  the exhilarating  flush of new love.  It is  the  flame that flickers in the furious storm, yet  leaps to warm the trembling heart.

Old love has seen  glory and brokenness,  trust and  betrayal.  It has known exhilaration and endured  tedium. It has yielded to  the warm
embrace and recoiled at the jagged  word.  Through it all, it was always  love that  soothed  the chafing of the marital yoke.

The beauty of old love is not that of  the unfurling rosebud. Like the facets of a diamond, this love  is  patiently sculpted and refined over years.  It is  nurtured by the  light of understanding but  withers in the darkness of anger.  It  flourishes  on the rock of trust and crumbles on the shaky sands of deceit.

And old love is not  merely  finishing the race side by side.  Such is only a sad counterfeit born of pride, cowardice or simple inertia.  It is  a lifetime of  shared experiences, comfortable perhaps, but bereft of  joy.  The  heart well knows the difference.

Old love is longing for the other and yet  straining against the marital tether.  It is knowing everything yet nothing about the other.  It is  melding into the other yet retaining oneself.  It is  freely sharing,  families, children, sickness, possessions; all of  it, all of life.   It is unrelenting challenge; it is warm fulfillment.   It is at  once exhilarating and terrifying,

So to all  young lovers this Valentine’s Day:  Join  us if you will.  But know this:   Old love must be earned.  It will test your  strength and challenge your resolve. It will require your best and forgive your worst.   It will plumb your depths and expand your soul.  And  the rewards are beyond imagination for those who  stay the course.  

This blog is dedicated to my “old love” of 40 years.  Happy Valentines Day, Sweetheart. 

 

Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.

 

 

WHAT THE LITTLE DOG KNEW

Looking towards the lightIn a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot.  She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose.  Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology.  No one notices.  It’s  as if she’s invisible.

As nursing homes go, it’s a good one.  It’s so  clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings  expensive and inoffensive,  the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass.    Vivaldi plays  softly in the background. They try hard.  But it is still a nursing home.  Where no one wants to be.

A  small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then  suddenly pulls at his IMG_1147lead, resisting  his owner’s attempts to move forward.  The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair.   But the little dog is determined.  He sits  down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination.    After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head.  A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog.  Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence.  It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.

“Well, hello there!  And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again,  tongue hanging  sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently.  She reaches down and gently strokes his back.

She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”

“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.

“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”

“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.

Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap.  “Can he come back sometime?”

“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”

The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.

We tend to avoid  people who seem needy,  especially the elderly.  Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we  will become  entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time.  But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem.  And our gifts do not have to be big ones.  The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough.   In the words of  Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

 

 

Facing death: Life on Life’s Terms

 

 

autumn-832334__180Another friend died this week. We all die. But we don’t want to face it until we have to. We don’t like to think about the “D” word.

 

What does it mean to “face death, anyway?” I made a will in my 40s, I have a burial plot, a living trust, a living will, long-term care insurance, sufficient funds to take care of myself. I have downsized to a small single story, low maintenance house near friends, family and excellent health care. I’ve talked to the kids about my end-of-life wishes I’ve even made a half-hearted stab at planning my funeral. That should do it, right?

Not exactly.

In Psychological Reflections, C.S. Jung says, “ The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death since the end is now its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Both make one curve. “ (1)

Hard to hear. Especially in a society where youth is venerated and age discounted. Where we are inundated with products and services to “reverse the aging process,” both physically and mentally. Where “ascent and increase” are assumed to be lifelong.
And yet we die. We all die.
The great world religions offer hope and guidance for the passage. But increasingly in our materialistic culture, we have opted for our own belief systems that lead to a dead end. Literally. The payoff is that I get to live my life pretty much as I want without worrying too much about the consequences. And if that is what I believe, don’t I need to believe in constant increase,  unfolding, and ascent? Should’t I grab out of life all I can before it’s too late? Shouldn’t I make sure I’m first in line? Shouldn’t I camouflage any sign of aging ?
Except that we don’t continually ascend.  We don’t get stronger, more sexy, more “productive.“ We age. In spite of the best exercise programs, health spas, regenerating creams and mental gymnastics; we age, slowly and irreversibly. “Active retirement homes,” the current euphemism for nursing homes, are filled  with forgotten  parents, uncles, aunts, even children, while their relatives are busy acquiring and increasing, unknowingly and inevitably charting their own paths to the same fate.
I think this compulsion to hang on to our younger selves is what Jung meant when he said “not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. ” Because we “don’t want to die” we try to live as we have in the past, even though we know this behavior is futile, mostly unattractive, sometimes dangerous. We know there is a better way. As the number of people over 65 continues to rise dramatically, so does the attention to aging by the media, press, and social media. There is no shortage of information on aging.  And the messages almost universally follow the theme that life can be rewarding after 65. But not without work. And not without confronting the reality. Not without admitting to our inner selves that we are indeed on the downside of the curve. And speaking for myself, not without a strong faith.
There is a difference between maintaining health and self-delusion. I might want to consider a seniors class at the “Y” instead of skydiving or rock climbing. I need more rest these days, but that’s no excuse for avoiding exercise. Keeping my mind active is not just a hedge against mental deterioration; it makes me a more interesting, vibrant person. Becoming discouraged does not justify defeatism or anger. Asking for help does not make me a failure.
I don’t know how to do this. And I know it’s not easy. But every day is a day when I learn something new about the process. A day when one friend dies, and another celebrates 10 years cancer-free. When one friend is diagnosed with Alzheimers and another completes a degree program, long deferred. When one friend loses her sight and another discovers her dormant artistic talent. Each of us has a different path. Today I am blessed with good health, but I have no idea what lies ahead. Death is inevitable, but I have choices that will maximize my ability to engage and contribute as long as I squarely face life on life’s terms. And if I can accept that simple but challenging fact, I can choose to live every day to the fullest with hope for the future.

1. Rohr, Richard (2010-12-27). Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Kindle Location 1268). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition.

When life doesn’t get better

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–For some reason, I thought life always got better.

Alice Hoffman  in “Survival Lessons”

 

 

I did, too, Alice.    Until it didn’t.

This kind of thinking is irrational; I do know that.  The headlines scream pain and misery at me  daily.  Friends succumb to  terrifying disease, floods threaten, jobs are lost. But somehow..it’s not about me.  Not this time.  Until it is.

My thoughts crash in on me.  Is this the “new normal?” Will things  ever get better?  Or will they get worse?  Much worse?  The truth is,  no one knows.

But this I do know.  Increasingly my quality of life does not depend on what seemed so important  when I was in the midst of family and career responsibilities;  my street address, my bank account, who and what I knew,   my outward appearance.   Now what matters is my inner wealth: my friends, family,  my faith.  I am blessed that  I have learned to value solitude,  that  I have friends I can tell the truth, who will give me a hug and not judge or try to fix me.   I have learned to value simple things;   long walks in nature, afternoon naps  with a  small warm-tummy dog,  spring blossoms, the aroma of bread baking.

I have choices.  My pain, my trial, whatever it is – is not ALL of my life and never will be.  No matter where life lands me I can always choose where  to go in my mind.

And who knows.  It  could get better!

Hoffman, Alice (2013). Survival Lessons, Algonquin Books, Kindle Edition.