Late one night teenagers drape the oak trees in the front yard with toilet paper, a benign suburban ritual. Clara watches from the guest room window and thinks she sees Nazi soldiers. She sits up all night, too terrified to wake us or to move. The next morning on the way to the airport, I reassure her and myself that it was an isolated flashback. Later, back in her Miami Beach apartment, Clara sees a little girl and an old man in her closet. She calls me one day and describes tall, pale-faced Hasidim dressed in black who loiter on her balcony. They shake their fingers at her, then follow her indoors and disturb her sleep. I fly down to rescue her from her visions, and me from my guilt.
Old age and decay permeate her neighborhood. On the street, I pass a woman in a large-brimmed straw hat, tight jeans over slim hips, spike-heeled shoes. I look back in shock at her sun-wizened face. In a coffee shop, an ancient, shrunken man sits precariously at the counter, his head almost in his bowl of oatmeal. Half of each spoonful falls back into the bowl, but he finally finishes. He climbs down from the stool, retrieves his walker, and creeps out into the hot sun.
Compared to these people, Clara looks vibrant. She introduces me to all her uninvited guests, on the balcony, in the closet, in the living room. In the middle of the night she calls me to the bedroom window to watch a wedding party in the parking lot next door. I can almost see it. Next morning, she describes the visitations to her doctor who, when she leaves the room, bluntly tells me that she is senile and it is time to find a nursing home. Another doctor, a psychiatrist, writes a prescription for an antipsychotic and tells her, “Clara, your eyes are playing tricks on you. These are hallucinations. Keep telling yourself, ‘They are not real.’ ” Clara smiles at him and nods. She knows they are real.
I spend weeks exploring nursing homes, rating them on every intuitive factor I can think of: the odor of urine; the number of patients in restraints; the loudness of their screams and moans, or the degree of their sedated silence — not knowing which is worse. I try to convince myself that I am making the right decision. Then Clara falls and is hospitalized; she can be released only into a skilled-nursing facility.
At the nursing home, I visit often and dutifully attend meetings of the family support group. I imagine a countersupport group of patients who gather and plan guerrilla tactics to subvert the efforts of their well-meaning and guilt-ridden children. The most ambulatory could hoard sleeping pills and laxatives, drop them into staff-room coffee urns, then plan their escapes. Whose side am I on? I listen to the stories of the group. Children in their fifties, sixties, even seventies, coping with heart conditions, dying spouses, and errant grandchildren, are at the same time trying to come to terms with the incarceration of their parents. The parents, despite their deterioration, still have the capacity to wound with their tongues. “Your hair looks like shit.” “You have a spot on your shirt.” “I know you wouldn’t do this to your own mother.”
When I leave, I walk down the hall past Clara and her companions, propped outside their rooms, faces painted like geisha dolls. I tell myself it will not happen to me. At other times, I think it is the way I want to go: sedated, lost in childhood memories or complete mindlessness. It remains to be seen whether my generation, with our aerobics, our gurus, and our endless attention to conscious living and dying, will face old age and death with any more equanimity than Clara’s.
We are sitting in the French brasserie with our friend A., visiting from Paris. A. and J. (both men around sixty) are affectionately insulting each other. J. tells the Moroccan waiter that A. is “un cretin.” A. turns to me (a woman of forty-five) and says, “How long have you been with J.? Twenty years? All your beauty is gone, and it was eaten up by this . . . killer.”
“You know what?” I say gamely. “It would be gone anyway.”
This insult by a man who used to lust after me is curiously objective: the bloom is off the plum, I’ve started to wither. It’s just a fact — nothing personal. Life’s slap in the face. (Maybe that’s why your mother used to slap you when you started bleeding — because life would slap you when you stopped.) I feel like someone who had a pile of shining money for twenty-five years, never spent it, and then it was stolen.
Young women shine with the fox fire of fertility. It’s a light kindled at puberty that dies out around menopause. I haven’t yet missed a period, but already men sniff at my skin and turn away. I don’t think it has anything to do with social prejudices or media images. A face lift wouldn’t fool them. (There is a smoky sexuality to older women that rises from the resin of experience and wisdom, but that’s a cultivated taste in men, not an instinctive one.)
When I was younger, I was bewildered by the effect my body had on men, as though my body had nothing to do with me. No one ever told me every woman is powerful. There were a few great beauties (my mother was one); the rest of us, before feminism, were so apologetic. We’d been brainwashed into thinking we were nothing, empty vessels waiting to be filled with value by a man, when all the time they were dying for what we had. I didn’t fully realize that power until a few years before it began to fade. For those few years, right around forty, I walked down the street thinking, yes, dammit. Look at me. You bet.
That power over men is serious power. I would teach girls to be fully conscious of it, and to value it. To “husband” it. And to use it. For they will lose it.
I stopped in a supermarket in Green Valley, Arizona, a town with extra street lanes for golf carts, well-landscaped villas, and lots and lots of senior citizens Snowbirds, we year-round Arizonans call them: detestable, creaky old creatures who drive banana-colored Cadillacs, vote horrible politicians into office, and leave when the weather gets too hot.
I headed for the checkout with my snacks. The line was four shopping carts deep, each cart full. I sighed, crossed my arms, and sank into my waiting-in-line posture. The elderly woman ahead of me said, “You’ve only got a couple of things? Come on, get in front of me.”
I took her up on her offer. The next woman, also a senior citizen, insisted I go ahead of her. The elderly man at the head of the line said, “I’ve got all day,” and smiled.
My father was forty-seven when I was born. Both my parents were the youngest in their families. My parents were old; my grandparents were old; my aunts and uncles were old. I think of the kisses old people forced on me. Their skin felt like the thin, rotting outer leaf of lettuce, their ear lobes like biscuit dough. The women lost their hair and tried desperate styles to hide their pink scalps; the men lost their sense and showed themselves at family gatherings.
Cancer, strokes, heart disease. By high school, I’d grown blasé about all such ailments. During my father’s open-heart surgery, in which he was given a 50 percent chance of survival, I did my social-studies homework.
In college, my Christmas break almost always meant a trip to the hospital for my father. In the middle of the night I’d hear rustling, then my mother would knock on my door. “I’m taking him in,” she’d say. When I went out to the family room, I’d find my father sitting in the recliner, his wispy hair on end, his broad hand pressed against his chest, his shiny shins poking out of his pajamas. “You don’t need to come,” my mother would say, attempting to protect me. But I knew what was what: getting old was ugly.
The last time I saw him alive, my father lay in bed, certain he was talking on a shortwave radio. “Over and out,” he repeated, his voice growing high. “Over and out.” He was distressed, unable to understand why someone wouldn’t sign him off. My “over and out” pacified him. They were my last words to my father. I picked up my bags and headed for the airport. When my father was younger, he could do math calculations faster than a calculator; before his death, he wore diapers and couldn’t recognize his children.
It wasn’t long after my stop in Green Valley that I was sitting in a coffee shop, mulling over my problems: my romantic life wasn’t going so well; I had papers due in my graduate courses; I had stacks of grading to finish. As I stood to leave, an elderly man stopped me. “Take this,” he said, and handed me an intricate mountain landscape drawn in felt-tip marker on a napkin. “You look like you need to be cheered up.”
I tacked that drawing over my desk. From time to time I puzzled over it. Here it was again: someone who didn’t seem to live behind a pane of glass like the rest of us do. He didn’t want to sleep with me or sell me something — he simply saw that I was sad.
Sometimes I find myself leaning toward an old person, charmed by a broad, sweet face and a shaky gesture; sometimes I’ll swear and blare my horn at an elderly driver who waits too long at a green light.
If someone offered me the chance to stay twenty-eight forever, I’d take it. But I would make this decision out of fear. If I could allow myself more optimism, I might find I’m waiting to become a person who is simply nicer and smarter than I am right now.
I sat there, slowly putting on my clothes. The two little girls screeching in the shower area were driving me nuts. On the way to their lockers, one of them pushed past me, tossing my towel from my locker door to my lap. I glowered at them. A few minutes later, curling the ends of my long gray hair, I heard one of them ask where something was, and the other respond, “I bet the old lady took it.”
I went back to their locker and chastised them for their rudeness. I started out of the locker room then went back.
“Some days it’s hard to be an old woman,” I said.
“Why?” one asked.
“I don’t know. It just is.” Shouldering my bag, I walked out to the car, eyes burning, and cried all the way home for my mother, just dead, and my sixty-year-old self.
Ruth R. Thone
Even though I sure don’t feel it, I know I’m over fifty because:
I am beginning to understand why Detroit sells big black Buicks.
I floss. Oh how I floss. After every meal. If I can’t floss after every meal, I don’t eat. I have the gums of a thirty-five-year-old.
I can admit that the reason others my age or younger have attained higher positions than I have is hard work and superior minds, not office politics, good looks, or dumb luck.
I don’t care if I ever learn how to program a VCR.
I have begun to look for, and to find, ways to slow down time rather than to speed it up: reading and writing, for example; traveling in strange lands; watching the subtlety of the seasons (especially from the perspective of a garden).
I know why crab grass should bother me, but I don’t let it.
My vacations are just as much fun when I return to an old, familiar place as when I visit a new, exciting one.
History and economics have come to seem important subjects of study, if still not particularly stimulating or engaging.
I cannot quite put out of my mind the thought that abandoning religion may have been a big mistake.
I no longer think of my past as prelude, leading on its own to something important. I realize now that there has been no prelude, just life itself, all along.
When no one is with me, I listen to country music on the car radio.
Summit, New Jersey
Sometimes I feed her a whole spoonful of life. I sit by her withered, bony form and give out my presence in drops, quick smiles, facile words, which she drinks in like a desert flower. For a brief moment she comes alive, knowing herself a grandmother again, mother of my mother, a source of life to me, who in some strange twist has become a source of life to her.
Sometimes I’ll even eat small bits of her chicken and latkes, and her four-foot, eight-inch form takes on size and pride and the look of a host. How odd it is that my eating her food gives her life — and that I do it so rarely, withholding my appetite as if to say, your greasy cooking is not good enough for me, a young and healthy woman who knows better.
Then I leave her. I walk down those marble steps, and I know she loses height and breadth as I disappear into my car and my self-important life. She returns to her chair by the window, where she has spent the past fifteen years watching the headlights in the night sky.
I live my life, withholding life from her, not a phone call for many months, not a visit for many more, as if to say, you may be mine by blood, but you are not mine by choice. Her life seeps out of her like water through a broken vase. I know I could patch the holes.
I see the gynecologist. I’m somewhere in menopause. He is all youth and cheer. I want him to know that I know my body is changing. I want him to know that I have made choices. I tell him about the painting my husband bought: nakedness soft as mother’s milk; mounded hips settling to earth; thighs spreading, mantling the crone vagina. My husband thought it sensual — as do I, now that my form rounds and mounds. I choose to glory in this softness. I choose to be done with angles and tautness.
The doctor says the walls of my vagina have thinned. I tell him I’ve been finding sex painful. He says he can give me a vaginal cream, an estrogen — Premarin. We go through the pros and cons, the indications and the contraindications. Then I remember my body is changing into its new form, its ancient form. Is this another passage to honor? If medical science can help you have a little more fun a little longer, he says, why not take advantage of it? I wonder if it is the masculine speaking. I think about being a cow, my calving years over, standing in a pasture, green under hoof, the sun warm on my back. . . .
San Diego, California
I lived at my grandmother’s house when I was little. As soon as I understood about growing up, I started getting ready to be like her: white hair in a net, wide hips, and good sense. These days, I see white hairs shining at me in the mirror. My hips are coming along, too.
I went to see Gran for the last time when she was in her eighties and I was twenty. The poor woman was living in a nursing home by then, and wanted an outing. I drove her all over the hot Tidewater in a yellow Chevy van, which echoed and whanged and rattled our bones. I didn’t tune in to her suggestions that we stop at a nice cool restaurant, so she didn’t eat that day. She didn’t exactly recover from that ride.
If only I’d remembered what it is to be an old lady! Somewhere between childhood, when I understood nothing else, and middle age, which forces me to know, I was distracted.
I’d like to have Gran back with me. I’d make tea with bourbon in it, and fat, soft sandwiches, and bring chairs out on the porch. She’d love my computer. We’d vote Democratic, read noble authors, make fun of the dog. We’d both have that thin white hair, these big wide hips. I wouldn’t need good sense if I had her.
My mother was prematurely gray; my earliest memories are of her beautiful snow-white hair. Since the age of thirty, I have inspected my roots each month to see how fast the white is marching — running would be more accurate — across my head. I would love to let it go natural so I could see what heredity had intended, but I’m in the theater; my work doesn’t call for a lot of salt-and-pepper thirty-six-year-olds.
I thought I was handling the aging process with aplomb until I discovered the six (I counted them) snow-white pubic hairs. Nothing in my life has prepared me for this. I can handle the fact that my knees are wearing out from three decades of dancing, I don’t mind that I’m beginning to get a few laugh lines — all right, wrinkles — around my eyes, or that my breasts are heading south. None of this disturbs me as much as these six white pubic hairs. Breasts and faces can be lifted, knees can be replaced, but these guys are here to stay. And I just know that they’re down there on little, teeny telephones calling in the reserves.
New York, New York
The wrinkles around my eyes don’t particularly trouble me — they are, after all, formed primarily from laughing, smiling, time spent with my face to the sun. The ones that do bother me are the sleep wrinkles, formed each night from the weight of my head smashing the side of my face into the pillow. Sleep wrinkles are generally vertical, and in advanced stages intersect the raylike laugh wrinkles, resulting in an unsightly tick-tack-toe effect. Though sleep wrinkles may seem to disappear each morning after a hot shower and dab of lotion, close observation reveals that the skin has indeed memorized its new fold. Each tiny crease will soon enough give way to a permanent pleat.
When I first discovered the sleep wrinkles at the age of twenty-six, I tried to train myself to sleep on my back — a practice advocated by ancient Oriental doctors to insure good health. But each morning I awoke on my side, face freshly creased, as if someone had been sitting on my head. My next strategy was to reposition the pillow so that it lay beneath my head. This tweaked my neck so far out of line that I ended up at the chiropractor’s office, too embarrassed to admit what I’d done. The only sure-fire solution was to wear a motorcycle helmet. It allowed me to sleep in any position I wanted — even face down — with the sides of my face touching nothing but soft foam rubber. Needless to say, I felt pretty ridiculous sleeping in a motorcycle helmet, and soon tossed it back into the closet, along with any notion of saving my face.
I was thirty-four on December first. I seem to be in an age warp. I’m a college sophomore. The other students are nearly young enough to be my children. Yet I don’t feel old.
My husband and I waited for a table at a Mexican restaurant tonight to celebrate one year of marriage. We were surrounded by a group of young people. The girls each wore enough makeup for three people, and skirts up to their asses. They wore their pretensions on their sleeves.
I remember when my only goal was to look good for the opposite sex. I loved when men ogled me. I don’t feel that way anymore. Looks are no longer something I can use as I once did to feel better about myself.
I once had a perfectly smooth, peaches-and-cream complexion, but at twenty-one I got acne from the speed prescribed by a doctor so that I could be thin. Faces grow splotchy with age. The skin thins out under the eyes.
My sister reads up on all the latest medical findings. She said, “Don’t get mad, but it’s age.” I was hoping to hear “chronic fatigue” or “yeast allergy.” Anything but the fact that I’m growing old.
People used to remark how beautiful I was. Now I hear it only from my husband. I think he says it because he thinks he has to. He’s four years, two months, and fourteen days younger than I am. Does he look around and lust after young, firm things in miniskirts? I hate this insecurity. I go to counseling but I am too afraid to let my counselor of many years know how narcissistic I am.
Waiting at that restaurant, I felt so out of place. I’m not young. I’m not old. I don’t fit in anywhere. I’d rather die than grow old. Am I supposed to be into shopping and Tupperware parties? Is the problem that I don’t have children and am no longer sure I even want them? I hate television and drugstore fiction. I’d rather clean the toilet than read Ladies’ Home Journal or gossip on the phone. This has come with the good passage of aging, the part that makes me know that I would never turn back. But the dark part looks in the mirror. It fears that others will confuse the outside with the inside; that it is only a matter of time before my husband will leave me for some young body; that without youth and beauty, I have nothing to give.
When I was a child, my sister died. My parents dealt with the pain and guilt by pretending she had never lived.
I am almost forty-five now, the father of year-old twin boys. If you could make their energy audible you would go deaf. On the day the boys were born, my father went into the hospital with the first symptoms of what turned out to be cancer. Four months later he was dead.
I can no more describe the experience of fatherhood than I can the experience of sex: words fail.
The first time one of my sons began giggling uncontrollably, it was a sound I’d never heard before. At night, when my wife and I lift two tired babies to our shoulders to carry them to their cribs, I am touched by sadness. We carefully mount the stairs in darkness, the house as peaceful as two sleeping cats. As we lay the babies down I think, we shall miss them while they sleep, it is time taken from us. We are, each of us, one day older, holding death back from one another.
Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
Twenty years ago I was a college student. My interests centered on living away from home for the first time, classes, parties, new friends. I was a sophomore in the true sense of the word: self-assured, opinionated, immature, and inexperienced. Then, without warning, sandwiched between T.S. Eliot and UConn basketball, my grandmother became terminally ill.
I visited her in the hospital. Her eyes receded into her head and her hair was stringy and wiry. Her bony hands had no grip. When I touched them, though, she smiled. “Hi, Nana,” was all I could manage.
“Mon Dieu,” she muttered, over and over again, while she stroked her forehead repeatedly with her hand.
She mumbled something that sounded like viens-ici, so I moved closer. I put my ear to her mouth. Her abdomen pushed and sucked, but only dry, stale air leaked from her mouth. I took a shallow breath. “I’m doing very well this semester, Nana,” I said, then moved away abruptly.
I was staring old age and imminent death in the face, feeling terrified of what was in store for me. How gracefully would I age? Would I suffer with terminal cancer too?
I just wanted to remember the times she had rocked me on her lap, when she made me French toast, sang French songs, and brushed my waist-length hair whenever I asked. She made me feel special, like I was the one she loved best. I didn’t know how to make her feel special, to feel loved, to tell her she’d be missed long after she was gone.
When it comes to facing old age and death, I haven’t progressed much past that awkward experience twenty years ago. I still don’t know how to act, what to say. I have learned that as a start, we should all say our I love you’s now, before we have to address them to a marble grave marker. But I haven’t had contact with my sister in more than a year.
Nancy M. Mudry