Wednesday, April 6, 2011
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.