ENGRAVED BY TIME

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I think the most wonderful part of aging is owning the hard won character we build that so clearly defines the lives we have lived. One never knows what might become of young saplings or even full-grown trees. A simple downpour might do them in from the roots up. But old trees? You know where they stand. You can see how many branches they have sent out and how many have remained strong through storm after storm. Once the leaves fall, you can even appreciate the arc their paths have taken and the lengths they have gone to keep their balance.

A few days ago, I turned 63. When my grandmother was this age I asked her, “Gosh, Granny, what does it FEEL like to be SO old?” Her reply was shocking: “Oh, I don’t feel old. I feel just like I did in my 20’s. The difference is that other people treat me differently. That’s the only thing that lets me know I’m not young anymore.”

Well, I am glad to now be, ‘treated differently,’ because frankly, I am. Despite the many hats and faces I’ve worn over the last six decades, one thing remains true: my past choices have defined my character. Once the façade of youth passes, what you’ve been is who you are. Time engraves you choice-by-choice, line-by-line and ring-by-ring. It carries a poignancy that cannot be ignored because now you can almost count the grains of sand left in the top of the hourglass.

Shortly before he died last week at age 69, David Bowie told an interviewer: “Age doesn’t bother me. It’s the lack of years left that weighs far heavier on me than the age that I am.” I feel the same. There are fewer years ahead of me than behind. But it is a great and valuable gift to be reminded that nothing lasts forever. It keeps you reaching skyward.

 

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‘OLD LOOKING’ YOUNG

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Striding into my sixth decade, I have finally accepted the fact that I am no longer 21. Looking in the mirror has not convinced me because I still see my younger self in that reflection. I can do the math: my own daughter just turned 21. That wasn’t the clincher either. Even my husband insists that, “the obvious eludes (me).” So why, have I only come to this realization now? Well, if other people and Mother Nature weren’t constantly reminding me, I might still be oblivious. This week alone, these things happened:

1. the bag boy asked if I “needed help” carrying out the tiny sack that held only grapes and yogurt.
2. Looked at a photo of a trip I took last summer and recognized everyone in it except for ‘that woman with the gray hair.’ Then I put on my glasses.
3. In Pilates, the girl next to me admired my splits and asked for help after class. As we stood facing the mirror, I noticed that I might easily pass for her grandmother.
4. Realized that Menopause is already a distant memory.
5. Beamed to see that my muscles are strong from daily workouts, but frustrated that my skin flat-out refuses to hold on tight! It sags sleepily from my thighs and swings like small hammocks when I wave my arms.
6. Laughed REALLY hard when some dope said that “60 is the new 40.”
7. Realized that my husband and I don’t try to get our kids out of the house so we can have ‘alone’ time anymore. Instead, we strategize how we can see them more.
8. Calculated how many years the dog and I have left together. Wondered also, if she goes first, will I outlive another one?
9. Noticed that my AARP card is wrinkled.
10. Figured out that the “Lifetime Membership,” our gym offers is actually a lousy deal.

However, just as I accept the fact that I’m not a kid anymore, I feel like one again. I’m in Starbucks with my daughter when suddenly, the cute, long-haired barista who often serves me, turns to her and says: “Hey. I hope it’s cool with you that I’m dating your mom.” She goes wide-eyed. I look at him in utter disbelief. He, however, keeps such a straight face that for one brief moment. . .the obvious eludes me!

GET OFF THE ROAD, GRANDMA!

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Pushing my grocery cart towards the automatic doors, I can’t help but notice the older man just ahead of me.  He is tall and spry, and the bright, yellow sweater he wears sets off his sharp, new haircut.  I observe these details because when the automatic doors open, he doesn’t budge.    

“Waiting for the light to change, huh?” I laugh, making light of his hesitation.      

“Nope.  Just waiting for my wife,” he sighs.  “Apparently, I’m not allowed to drive anymore.”  The heavy loss of independence sits deep in his eyes.   

“It was just a little fender bender,” he explains.  “The guy ahead of me just stopped too fast.” 

His son took away his car keys.  Now he has to be driven everywhere like a school boy.  He’s mad but mostly he’s sad.  I would be, too.  No more jumping in the car on a moment’s whim and letting the world swirl past your windows.  From here on out he will just be a passenger.  I imagine him raising that son; the one who took his first steps as Dad looked on with pride.  Now that boy will watch him take these last ones.

Having seen my share of retirees motor through 4-way stop signs or suddenly stop for seemingly no reason, I get it.  Many shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.  Right now, there are one million licensed drivers over the age of 80!  And while one could say the same for teen drivers, statistics don’t lie:  drivers over 85 have four times the fatality rate of teenage motorists. 

At 17, I drove almost the entire California coastline in an old, Chevy Nova.  Still remember the hairpin turns approaching Big Sur, the scary, high cliffs where mammoth waves crashed on the rocks below.  It was a thrilling and heady ride and I was the master of my fate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  No wonder.  That’s where all those wild and free memories first ignited in us; the ones we thought would last and last with just a turn of the key.  I would like to believe that someday I will be in that one percent still cruising in their 90‘s with the top down.  Praying, of course, that I never hear: ‘Get off the road Grandma!’

 

 

DON’T DIE WITH THIS REGRET

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“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” is the regret most often heard from the lips of the dying.  Those were the findings of an Australian palliative nurse.  So, if this is true about us, does that mean the primary reason for our personal sufferings in life is because we are too fixated on pleasing others?  Can it also be the root of our obsession with youth and beauty?  Is this why so many people who should have rich and happy lives simply don’t?

 This morning I watched a boisterous group of three year-olds play, “Red light.  Green light.”  They had trouble getting started.  By the time the teacher had the last ones properly lined up, the first ones were already wriggling out of their places.  Some hopped on one foot, others giggled and twirled, and one little boy never did get in line.  Corralling them was like trying to stop 18 grasshoppers from twitching and leaping; an impossible feat.

 For the half hour that I watched, the teacher pleaded for them to “stand still,” “listen to me,” “don’t push Sally,” “stay on the blue line,” “get back in order,” “no talking,” and on and on.  When I left, I realized that of the 30 minutes they had for the game, they only actually played about 10 of them.  Maybe our lives are like that:  two-thirds of the time we align ourselves with the group, or are forced to.  The other third we try desperately to be our unique selves and navigate our independent joys.

 One would hope that with maturity, we ‘grow out of it.’  However, if that list of regrets is accurate, we just may not.  So, I wonder.  When my own children reach adulthood, will they have found the unique qualities which make them individuals and pursue them?  Or will they, like many, be so influenced by their peers and society that their own true selves get lost in the shuffle?

 My grandmother always said, “Example is the greatest teacher,” and she was a great one.  These days, though, the young take theirs from computer screens, not flesh and blood people.  They are better ‘talking’ with their thumbs than their voices.  So, what will be their dying regrets?  That they didn’t speak up?  In the end, maybe that is the very, same thing.

Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a non-fiction memoir of her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.

BEYOND THE BEND

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I visited a hospital twice this week:  first to see the newborn son of my handyman and then to sing to my ninety year-old, dear friend as he drew his last breaths.  Odd as it may seem to the reader, both were joyous events.  The first because I glimpsed the future in the face of that baby boy as his teary mother cradled him close.  The second because I reflected on all of the lives touched and forever changed by my friend of 35 years.  His life literally made others sing and both the Oak Ridge Boys and Vince Gill sang at his funeral.   

If you’ve read my previous musings, you know that I value age and all the baggage it bears.  The elderly have had their past while the young are still figuring out how to make it.  The beauty is they need each other:  having young people in their lives keeps the elderly hopeful; having older people in their lives keeps the young mindful. 

 As a kid being raised by my grandmother, I was forced into being around all those wrinkled, arthritic, slow-moving creatures.  Some were fascinating, like the crony of my great-grandmother who had a talking Myna bird.  Others just gave me the creeps.  All of them were full of yarns about the days gone by.  Their stories warned me where not to go in my own life, but they also gave me glimpses of where to seek joy on roads that I had not yet taken.  I figure if I’m really lucky, my own journey will last as long as theirs.  So I listen and watch.  They are me, someday.  

The poet, May Sarton, wrote this about aging:  “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It is a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” So, I am learning the ‘language’ as I go in hopes of discovering what lies for us all. . .beyond the bend. 

Here’s the thing:  I love learning from the young about new music, dances, technology and lingo.  However, If I were given the choice to hear one final, favorite melody in my life, I would not choose some current song downloaded on my iPod.  I would ask to hear Chopin played on a Steinway grand by well-seasoned hands.  That would be bliss.

 

    

CLEAN UP YOUR ACT!

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Life is messy.  I don’t care how many times you clean the kitchen or how well.  It just gets messy.  Maybe it’s bread crumbs or a smear of jelly.  Maybe it’s grease and pasta splattered across the stove.  Maybe you made a smoothie and forgot to put the top on tight.  But face it:  mess happens.  It happens in our kitchens and it happens in our lives. 

 It’s how we deal with them that matters.  I shared an apartment once with a gal whose idea of cleaning was to sweep stuff into a corner of the room and leave it.  Never mind that opening a door blew it all back again.  She felt she had done her part.  Funny thing is some people don’t even SEE the mess.  Others run around plucking imaginary hairs from the sofa cushions.  The rest of us are somewhere in between.

 When I was a teenager, my grandma used to say that she could always tell when I was getting sick by the way my room looked.  “If your clothes start piling up on the chair, I know you’re coming down with something.”  At the time I really thought she had a screw loose but boy was I wrong.  Even today, I can tell when I’m coming down with something simply by looking at the kitchen:  If the dog food isn’t quite rolled shut or the dishes start piling up or the counters aren’t wiped down after dinner—I’m likely coming down with something.  Guess you could say you know how I’m doing with one, quick glance at my kitchen.

 Lately, I’ve decided to put a new ‘twist’ to this.  Figuring there’s no time like the present, I am making myself ‘go forward’ instead of just ‘staying even.’  That means today I am going to pay ALL the bills and file ALL that paperwork.  I figure that way, tomorrow I’ll be even healthier!!  Oh, and in case you get the bug, too, remember:  if your oven has baked on grease, don’t reach for the Windex!

P. S.  I am posting this blog as a not so gentle reminder, just in case I decide to deviate from the above intentions.  

DON’T SIT THIS ONE OUT!

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No, he’s not my husband.  Five minutes before this photo was shot, I had never laid eyes on the man.  But let me explain.  It all began in 1968, as I was leaving for my first high school dance.  As I headed for the door, Granny called out:  “Now remember, Dear, dance with EVERY boy who asks you.”  Her feeling was that to ever say, “No, thank you,” would be crushing to a fellow who had worked his courage up to ask in the first place.  So, I did and in the years since, not only have I never ‘sat one out,’ I have even taken to doing the asking myself. 

 Such was the case last week as I shopped for produce at Whole Foods.  Somewhere between the flowers and the blueberries, music began to play; lovely, danceable music.  As I turned towards the musicians, I noticed an older gentleman standing off to the side keeping time with his foot.  I walked up and asked him to dance.  He said, “No, thank you.  I’m just here to listen to the band.” 

 Frankly, he took a bit of coaxing but within minutes we were moving to a song whose name I can’t remember.  By then, I had dropped my coat and shopping bag to the floor.  His shy smile began to beam as others stopped to watch us.  Emboldened, we began to widen our circle and grasped hands.  Neither of us had a clue as to what we were doing, nor did we follow any kind of actual step like the waltz or foxtrot.  We just danced, this complete stranger and I.  From the corner of my eye, shoppers stopped to smile, a grinning cashier paused at his register, and a little girl pointed us out to her mother in wonder. 

 Why does she ‘wonder’?  I ask myself.  Our brief lives should be filled with moments like these; times we simply drop what we are doing and move to the music.  Moments don’t just happen.  We make them come alive by risking and yes, dancing.  These moments become our memories.  If we don’t make them joyful, we are doomed to a bitter old age.  Besides, the music doesn’t play forever.  So, to Granny, ‘Thank you for that advice.’  And to Vernon, ‘Thank you for the dance!’

 Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a memoir of the 13 years her ‘advice-giving’ Granny descended into Alzheimer’s.

http://www.amazon.com/Kissing-Tomatoes-ebook/dp/B007CMNJKW