When Granny* first taught me how to eat an artichoke, I was perturbed that I had to go through all those layers of armor just to get to that mushroom cap of a heart.  Frankly, at 13, I thought the best part was the butter dipping.  Until last night, as I began instructing my own teenagers on the ‘art’ of eating one, I never realized how much artichokes remind me of old people: thin-skinned, thorny & tough on the outside, multi-layered, increasingly soft towards the middle, and way, down deep inside is a heart so delectable it is protected by a Fort Knox of cellulose.  

     “Artichokes,” the dictionary also tells me, “have a very, long growing season and prefer mild climates.”  Sounds like old folks to me.   On first glance, you really don’t want to get too close to them.  (The artichokes, that is).  The two I had purchased were hard as rocks & my youngest, in particular, was skeptical.  After steaming them, though, we began with the scrawny, meatless, tough outer stalks.   They were scaly and mottled with spots just like the skin of, yeah, you know.  My oldest marveled at the design & symmetry of their leaves as my youngest impatiently rolled her eyes.  “Ouch!” she said suddenly.  “You never said there were thorns on these!” 

     The truth is I had forgotten.  It’s funny how one forgets the barbs as time passes.  Now, we peeled our way deep towards the center where the petals are lighter and softer, and the flesh thicker with taste.  Down we dove, eating through the tender, inner layers, lined with purple edges that form a whitish curve inwards.  “Now grab hold of that section and pull,” I commanded.  My oldest tugged lightly.  “No.  Really pull it hard and kind of wiggle it.”  Suddenly it broke free. There was the carpet of white, cilia-like, thin fibers hovering tightly over the heart.  Indeed, it resembled a full crown of white hair.  “Is this the choke?  Will I choke if I eat it?” my youngest queried.   “Not if we scrape it away.” 

     Patiently, we took a spoon and carved the hairs away until the heart was smooth.  My oldest savored the morsel with a touch of lemon and salt and pronounced it, “Pretty good.”  My youngest, not overly fond of any vegetable, said it was, “Okay, but that sure is a lot of work for that little bit of food.”  Yes.  So is life.  So also is learning to appreciate the old folks among us.   Both are journeys well worth taking.  For the record,  I find them deliciously splendid and rich at heart!.  (The old folks that is.)  *From “Kissing Tomatoes,” by Helen Hudson.  http://www.helen-hudson.com)         


     When I was a kid and my grandmother said, “Straighten up and fly right!” It meant pull your shoulders back and act proud to be who you are.  When I was a teenager and she said it, I  recall coming up with this flippant remark:  “People don’t fly.  So it won’t do me any good to straighten up!”  If only I had noticed old people then, I might have paid closer attention.  But I didn’t.  They were a separate species and not on my radar at all.  

     I realize now that there are two kinds of slumpers:  teenagers, who haven’t yet grown used to their bodies and old people, who are getting tired of them.  However, I have discovered a little known secret about the older ones:  If you smile at them, they actually stand up straighter.  Here’s the problem.  Who smiles at them anymore?  

     Face it.  Getting old means getting less attention.  In fact, it’s so much less it borders on non-existent.  Old people are so used to being ignored that they are disappearing right before our eyes.  No, not like in primitive societies where they literally walked off into the wilderness when it was ‘time to go.’  In modern society, they do it in small steps.  It starts with that slump–a drawing in to their shell–perhaps so they won’t be bumped & jostled by all those young people rushing past them.  The voice gets softer, not just because it’s worn out, but because there’s no real reason to raise it anymore.  Who is listening?  

     This morning,  I noticed an older woman shuffling towards the supermarket a few feet ahead of me.  She had the slump and the slowed gait as she tentatively moved towards the large, heavy, glass door.  I realized that she was trying to estimate how much time she had to pull that door open before a young man coming towards her from the other side got there first.  She hesitated.  Smart woman.  He blammed through the door and would have flattened her if she hadn’t paused.  In fact, he didn’t even SEE her.  Quickly, I grabbed the door handle and held it for her.  For half a second she looked up, took a big breath and smiled.  “Oh, thank you dear,” she said.  As she continued on towards the shopping carts, I noticed she was actually standing taller.  I could hear Nat King Cole singing in my head:  Straighten Up And Fly Right.”  (http://www.helen-hudson.com)


     There is not one, single moment of one, single day that I would ever want to live over.  Not even the first kiss my husband gave me –that Malibu night, as waves crashed against the sand and my heart felt like a thousand stars imploding–could lure me back.   In fact, my memory of it may well be even more magical than the kiss actually was.  

     There is also no stage of life that I would ever want to return to, even briefly.  This ‘been there, done that’ realization, though, really didn’t come to me until later in life.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do wish I were a little quicker around the tennis court, kind of miss my thick, shiny, golden hair and I could do without this weird, skin-drooping shenanigans that’s going on.  But a teenager again?  You gotta be kidding me.  I’m raising two of them right now. 

     Nope.  I’m done with the Helpless, Hapless Years, the Naive ones, the Downright Jackass Period, the Relentless, Ever-Pursuing, Cocky, Confident years, the All-Knowing and even The Wonder Years.  Those chapters were fully covered in this particular textbook.  Go ahead and test me:  I have the memories intact.  But I would not want to re-live, re-work, or even re-read any of it anymore than I would want to go skydiving again.  (Did I mention the Dumb— Decade?). 

     Without those years, this now would not be now and I would not be me.  Believe it or not, I think I love the wrinkled, sagging me WAY more than I ever loved the bouncy, taut me.  It has nothing to do with ‘acceptance.’  I am not particularly accepting of the way time uses us up and flings us aside.  I pass a cemetary everyday after dropping the kids at school.  That’s all the reminder I need.   

     When I was five, my grandmother was the age I am now.  I thought she was SO old.  She would eventually come to live with me and my husband for the last 13 years of her life.  One afternoon, when she was in her nineties, I asked her, “Granny, do you ever wish you were young again?”  She looked at me like I was an idiot.  “Of course not,” she replied.  “Why do you ask?”  “Well,’ I continued, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of your aches and pains gone?”  “Oh, no, Dear,” she replied.  “Every stage of life brings its own aches and pains.”*  Indeed.  She wasn’t old at all.  She was timeless.  (*Excerpt from, “Kissing Tomatoes,” by Helen Hudson.  http://www.helen-hudson.com)


     My 13 year-old still likes me to tell her stories at night.  Trust me, after the first few years of doing this I ran out of ideas–and yet–somehow they still come.  Often they involve animals or mermaids (since I AM one), but ALWAYS they have a message.  This is NOT intentional on my part.  It just happens. 

     Recently my kids informed me that I ALWAYS have a message when I relate a conversation or tell a story.  Apparently, they would be happier WITHOUT one.  Unfortunately, it seems that asking me to share anything without a message is like telling me to shave my head, then go buy a hairbrush.  It just doesn’t make sense.  It seems my brain was pre-wired to search for meaning in all things no matter how mundane.  

     Maybe, even, it was Grandmother’s admonition that, “Everything happens for a reason.*  For example, when the volume quit some months back on our new TV set, I did put new batteries in the remote & fiddled with the knobs a few times.  It also occurred to me to call Best Buy & get someone out to fix it as it is still likely covered by the warranty.  However, I really didn’t feel like listening to “the options,” pressing the appropriate numbers, being caller #26 and sitting on hold.  So, I never dialed the number.  For the first couple of days I watched the weather channel  a few times with no sound.  That seemed kind of silly so I simply stopped turning the TV on at all.  If I wanted to know the weather, I just opened the door and went outside. 

     Despite my lack of connection with the world, however, I am aware that a volcano has erupted and spread ash over much of Europe, curtailing air traffic.  I am also aware that Tiger Woods is playing golf again.  Come to think of it, there is a rather funny connection between those two events, but I shall not relate that here.  It might give this message meaning and I can’t have that tonight. 

     I have a bedtime story to tell.  It will begin with, “Once upon a time, there was the most beautiful, little girl, perfect in every way except one:  she had no hair.  Her parents had hair.  Her friends had hair.  Why, even her little dog had hair.  She did, however, have one, treasured possession; the most exquisite, ebony hairbrush with the figure of a long-haired mermaid carved in the handle. . .(* Excerpt from, “Kissing Tomatoes,”    http://www.helen-hudson.com)


     When I was a teenager, you had your mouth washed out with soap if you used the “A” word.  Now I hear it almost daily, coming out of the mouths of baby boomers, but it stands for something else:  Alzheimer’s.  Statistics now say half a million people will be diagnosed with it this year alone.  As little as six months ago that ‘statistic’ was considerably lower.  What’s happening to us?  We’re losing our marbles at an alarming rate. 

     Somewhere along the road of “peace” and “free love” we got complacent.  We ‘did our thing’ and ‘found ourselves’ and now many of us, despite the transcendental meditation induced stupor of all things Beatle are losing those same ‘selves.’  The bell-bottom generation is bottoming out.  Some of their kids are already reserving spots in nursing homes and they’re not ‘gone’ yet.   So, when The Wall Street Journal (March 30) tells you things aren’t looking so good, you pay attention. 

     But I’ve been paying attention since 1982 when my grandmother moved in with my newlywed husband and me.  Granny, my best friend and Smith college graduate, was as loony as a tune the afternoon she walked through our front door carrying Alzheimer’s along with her suitcase.  She kissed tomatoes in the market, talked to the TV set when it wasn’t on and covered our house with Kleenex to protect us from evil spirits. 

     Within weeks of feeding her regular, healthy meals, insisting she exercise daily and getting her involved in the world again, she was beating us both at Scrabble.  It works.  Okay, so it took science & a slew of researchers the last 30 years to figure it out–but it works.  So before your kids start reading you nursing home brochures, do yourself a favor:  Flip off the TV.  Shut down the computer.  Push those last 3 doughnuts down the garbage disposal.  Walk out the door and start singing, “Here Comes The Sun.”  (Yeah, they’ve discovered music is good for us, too).   http://www.helen-hudson.com