"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Old Women



It started in the beauty shop where Nancy, who has cut my hair and been my friend for over three decades, was just finishing with me. A sturdy old woman walked into the space with a look of mischievous expectation on her face, and dumped her purse and coat into the one empty chair. Nancy looked at her with an expression I'd seen before - Betty had shown up for her appointment at the wrong day and time.

In the course of the negotiations that resulted in Betty hanging around until Nancy could fit her in, I saw confidence, spunk and a spirit that seemed to make room for everything. Betty's substantial body, her quick wit, the smile that didn't once leave her face all stirred some deep longing I hadn't felt in a long time. We were left alone for a few minutes while Nancy went out into the waiting area to explain to her other client, this one 90, that she was early and would have to wait a bit.

I asked Betty how old she was - rude, I know, but I needed to know more than I needed to be sensitive, and I knew she'd tell me in no uncertain terms if she didn't want to tell me. "I'm 87," she answered with some pride in her voice.

As I left to the background music of Nancy's and Betty's laughter, I noticed the older woman who had shown up early. Tiny, perfect posture, immaculately groomed, she looked as fragile as Betty seemed indestructible. We made eye contact and she surprised me with a soft warm smile.

Driving home that day I found myself thinking about old women in general, and how for a while now I've longed to have one in my life. Not a mother, although I'd consider it a gift beyond measure if my relationship with mine had blossomed into something sustaining. More like a grandmother, a mentor, a role model to show me the way into this last, hopefully long, chapter of my life.

Demographically, I'm considered to be in early old age (or I will be in November when I step officially into a new decade).  I don't mind. Especially when I see women like Betty who get to later old age with so much style and life still radiating from them.

My fifties seem to have been about facing and accepting a new direction. Life is more about loss than acquisition, which offers amazing opportunities for gratitude and sunbeam focus on what remains. Forgiveness -  both of myself and of the people I share this journey with - has become more important than ever in order to move forward in gentle grace. Maybe tolerance is a better word - a greater willingness to live with the frailties of being human so that the time remaining can be lived as fully and joyfully as possible.

As I've studied old women in the weeks since that beauty shop encounter, I've observed that whatever they are is easy to see and know the minute you meet them. Somehow the layers of persona and protection have been worn away, and what's left is the purest manifestation of soul still held in a human body.

In New York we shared an elevator with an elfin woman, hunched hard into her walker, exuding quiet dignity with her permed gray hair and her perfect pink quilted robe with the wide Peter Pan collar trimmed in the tiniest edge of lace. Two much younger women stood with her, I guessed daughters, allowing her space and the freedom to get herself out of the elevator, while at the same time doing their best to help her without being obvious. I wanted to follow them onto their floor and ask questions, both of the older woman and of the youngers. What is it like for you to be this old? Do you see your future in this frail being? How do you live with the many losses and indignities of old age? Are you aware of the gift you have in the time you have together?

Grandma Dee, my biological father's mom, the one I knew for only a year, was 89 when we met for the second time. Our first meeting, when I was an infant, exists somewhere in my cells, but nowhere in my memory. She was sharp, independent, and a great story teller. The sadnesses of her life were acknowledged, but she wasn't willing to dwell there - instead spending our time together admiring the flowers around her retirement apartment, asking about my life, talking about memories of her husband whom she clearly still missed deeply even though he'd been gone for years.

It's her path I hope to follow into my own old old age. Living full tilt as long as possible, and when it is no longer possible, to leave as quickly and quietly as possible. She turned 90, then stopped returning calls and within the year was gone.

I'm still looking for a day-to-day grandmother. Still feel the need as though it were hunger or thirst. Perhaps Betty will show up for the wrong appointment again and I can ask.

25 comments:

Lavi said...

Looking to borrow a grandmother (if you don't mind that wording) sounds like an interesting endeavour. I understand that you are looking at elderly women, to see how they go through this age and how they embrace the problems it brings.

I also look for mentors in the people (and also older women) I meet and get to know. It's a journey of learning throughout our entire lives.

Well, all my small talk aside, I truly enjoyed your post and I wanted to thank you for sharing your feelings on this subject.

Jessica Nelson said...

I love, love older women! My grandmothers are amazing and I always feel like I have so much to learn from them, plus they have amazing stories. Hope you meet Betty again. :-)

Barb said...

Lovely Deb, this rumination about age and dignity. If I was just a little bit older I would be this person for you. But, I think I still have too much to learn myself to mentor you.

DJan said...

What a lovely and well written post. I also look at older women, now that 70 is creeping up on me. I sometimes wonder how old that woman is who strides up the path (could be 70, or 80, maybe older). Then I see the one who can barely walk even with a cane. And then I remember Marjan, who is 75 and hikes like she is in her twenties. I can't keep up, and wonder if health and fitness really is "use it or lose it."

Pam said...

Loved this post.Bear with me Deb,having much to say about it, as I've dwelt and pondered on this subject often.
I think many older women would be thrilled to think we feel this way about them, as I'm sure many feel quite useless and depressed at times. Other aged women seem fiesty and more than happy with their busy circle of friends and activites.
My own mother, in her mid-eighties is of the Grandma Dee variety "sharp and independent". She also uses every opportunity to volunteer her age, as many over eighty love to do,rightly so, because let's face it, it's an achievement. I am sure Betty was so pleased that you were interested enough to ask.
Like you, I wonder how I will go into the coming decades.
My fifties has been challenging squaring up to loss as family dissipate into different directions and locations.
My mother in law is my mentor with her quiet strength and determination and dignity. She is my role model for dealing with the losses and indignities of old age. While my mother's battle cry is "I don't have to accept this and will fight it tooth and nail!" my MIL's is "actually I do, and I will." Both very different women and part of trying to develop my own strengths is wondering how I will manage the inevitability of losing them both. Such a strong generation, and as you say Deb "whatever they are is easy to see and know the minute you meet them, the layers of persona and protection worn away".
At this stage of my life,I am sure I exude vulnerability.
There is an expression to "man up". I don't know what the equivilant is for women, but I am trying to learn it. As they say "getting older is not for sissies."
This post was so interesting. It seems many older women you meet Deb, are mentoring you without even knowing it. I am so pleased that you had a second chance to meet up with Grandma Dee.

B. WHITTINGTON said...

Funny you should write this because I love old women. Well old people in general but I know a lot more about women so I guess I favor the older women most.
For a time most of my stories were about old people and I became known as the writer who writes of old people.
I felt honored to be known as that although I've since branched out into writing other things and often using younger characters.
I may have been trying to duplicate the older women that have passed through my own life. My mom, my m-i-l, my grandma, his grandma. His Aunt Virginia who loved my first writings and encouraged me.
I think it's our nature as women to be nurturing and we look to other women for nurturing.
I hope you find a grandma, or another older woman to learn from and yes love. She might be waiting for you as much as you are waiting for her.
Blessings, B

Linda Myers said...

I watch the spirit of older women. I'm especially moved by the ones who age with grace. I hope I will be like that.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

You always get me thinking.

Just a thought, but there are probably lots of older women willing to answer your questions. Perhaps those in nursing homes? Or Assisted Living. Perhaps in need of someone to give lessons on how to write their memoirs?

Ann Best said...

Well, I'm almost 71 and getting old. That is, my body is step by step getting old! I know a 90 year old woman who thinks "young thoughts," as she says. I don't want to get physically frail, but if you live long enough, this will happen. I just hope I can age gracefully and with dignity.

What a beautiful post. I love how you saw those "old" women, and your reflective thoughts on the subject of aging.
Ann Carbine Best’s Long Journey Home

Wanda..... said...

Just today, I ran into an 85 year old lady, while buying groceries...she had dropped a box of cereal twice, I mentioned my fingers were the weakest part on me. She was so sweet, jovial and talkative... just hope to come across that way myself, when 85!

#1Nana said...

There was lots to think about in this post. I never really had grandparents and I think that is part of what motivates me to be present in the lives of my grandchildren even though they live in Texas and I in Oregon. Mentors are a gift at any age.

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

Deb,
This is one of the most beautiful posts I've ever read. Beautifully written, plus the content is fascinating. Of course I am a bit biased as I very much enjoy elderly women. Some of my closest friends are elderly. I find on those ladies such a solace. There is no jealousy, no competition, no distress. Slow paced moments to enjoy, and treasured stories to listen to.

I love your line: "the layers of persona and protection have been worn away, and what's left is the purest manifestation of soul." That pure essence is what I enjoy about my elderly friends.

Doris

Lilith said...

Lovely tribute to elderly women.

yaya said...

I was blessed to have my Grandparents live with us when I was little. Family history lessons are best when passed down verbally! I love older women and I'm just about in that catagory myself. I just hope I can shine as brightly as many of the lovely ladies I've met.. and when it's my time to go I hope people might notice the little loss of light.

colbymarshall said...

Good luck to you...my grandmother died at 63, my other doesn't get about, so I understand the thought.

Wanda said...

Okay...you have asked: Now watch for the answer....

Can't wait to hear!

Desiree said...

What a poignant and beautiful post, Deb! I have a wonderful Mother, now living thousands of miles across the ocean. I only knew one of my Grandmothers and had a lovely Mother-in-law, so I was blessed with super role models. But no one prepares us for getting old ourselves. At times, it is rather a rude awakening. I think Lavi has summed things up so well.

Linda Hoye said...

What a beautiful post, Deb! I too long for a grandmother, or even a mother. I lost my mom when I was only 26 so I don't know what it's like to have an older woman in my life. And I have missed what I have never had.

Terri Tiffany said...

This was lovely. I tend to look at old age in a sad way and you helped me take another glance, and I like what I see. Thank you!

Bernie said...

I do not know how to respond to this post. I have erased two long comments and I think I will just say that it was a lovely tribute to old women, but there is another side. And I am there.

Katie Gates said...

This a beautiful post. It's so important to have friends of ALL ages, I think. I'm lucky to have an LA friend who is my mother's age (though Mom's already 84 and Sue won't get there 'til June). They are quite different in some significant ways, but both are strong women.

Donna said...

I appreciated my grandmothers ange and grace because she was a magnificent 93 year old...totally "with-it" till the end. My own mother had cancer and dies at 77...much too young. Her prayer was always for quality of life...she had it!! She was like grandma and served humanity till her dying day. Two weeks before her death was Katrina. She helped plan a charity dinner from her death bed.
I can only hope to be like these two. Not sure of my memory though...I, too, forgot my haircut appointment this week and went a day early!!

LauraX said...

Love this Deb..."Life is more about loss than acquisition, which offers amazing opportunities for gratitude and sunbeam focus on what remains." Even here in the possible middle, 46, (who really knows when we've reached the middle!!!) I have found your words to be true.

gentle steps,
Laura

deborahjbarker said...

I only ever knew one grandma who came to live us when I was 16. She died when I was eighteen - on November 5th which over here is Guy Fawks night so we always say, "she went out with a bang!" She was a joker and a very strong woman and lived to 86. My own mother is now 85 and until recently danced three times a week at local ballroom tea-dances. She tailor-made her own clothes and wore high heels regularly. Maybe the high heels are the reason she now has a bad back and can't get out as often. Still, she gets the bus into town when she can!I speak to her almost daily.
Older women are 'us in the future'. In my late teens my good friend was a lady of 47 with whom I worked. I called her 'auntie Audrey' in jest but she was a source of advice and comfort through some very difficult times. This lady re-married soon after I moved away and sends me Christmas cards each year. Just this past month, she phoned me. She is now 82, has lost the love of her life but was so pleased to speak to me that I have vowed to visit her very soon. Your post makes me more determined to do that.
Thank you :-)

Kathryn Grace said...

Thank you for this. Now that you've asked for her out loud, I trust the grandmother you seek will come into your life.

I enjoyed reading the comments almost as much as your post, and I so wish Bernie had found a way to post her thoughts. Perhaps she'll keep thinking about it and return to do so.

Like her, quite often I delete everything I've written and post something, well in my case, something safe. Perhaps I'll leave it in next time.