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Posts Tagged ‘aging’

troop-beverly-hills-web
Troop Beverly Hills was one of my favourite movies when I was my daughter’s age (or perhaps a little bit older). Shelley Long plays Phyllis Neffler, a spoiled, rich Beverly Hills mom who decides to become the leader for her daughter’s Wilderness Girls troop. It’s comedic genius.
Anyway, last year it occurred to me that my daughter would probably enjoy it (and, therefore, I would get to watch it with her and wow her with my ability to recite entire passages verbatim). ‎So I tracked down a DVD copy and it’s become a regular addition to movie night at our house. ‎ And it’s nice to see that real classics can pass the test of time and really, it’s not that old.
Tonight my daughter has a friend ‎over for a sleep over and I asked if they wanted to watch it.
“Yes, yes, can we?” my daughter said, turning to her friend.
“It’s such a great movie. It’s from the 1980s but it’s still really good. And don’t worry, even though it’s old it’s not in black and white or anything.”
Ouch.

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‎The phone rang three times, and then four. After it got to five I waited for the voicemail to click on. I heard a cough, a throat clear and then my grandfather’s booming voice came on the line. For a moment I was confused. Hello? Is that you? Then I clued in to the fact that it was the answering machine, he had just recorded a new message.

I smiled, listening to him. I wondered why he’d done a new message. The old one had been there for years; I’ve heard it so many times I could recite it by heart. I was lost in my own thoughts and almost missed it. He got to the part where he said he wasn’t home and my heart caught in my throat when he said both their names. His name and my grandmother’s name.

The old recording just said “we’re not here.” Safe, simple, basic. The new one made me catch my breath. She’s not home because she doesn’t live there anymore. She’s not home because she lives at what could nicely be called a retirement home. She’s not home.

It got to the end of the recording and I waited for the beep, still wrapped up in her name. She’s not home. ‎ I left my message, passed along some information to firm up our plans to go down to visit for Thanksgiving. We’ll bring the turkey and sides if he could take care of picking up a couple of pies. We’ll be there between 3 and 4pm, depending on how long it takes for the bird to cook. We’ll try to eat around 5:00. And then I hung up, put the phone back in the cradle and ‎leaned back against the kitchen counter. She’s not home.‎

As it does so often now, it suddenly occurred to me how much she would have hated that recording. If she were still who she was before and not who she is now, she would have made him redo it. She would have told him it’s not nice to cough on the answering machine recording and he would need to record it again. He would then have to read through the instructions again, commenting on how small the print is on everything these days, and he would have to do it again. Because she said so.

That’s the way she was. She had a way of doing things that was so capable, so competent, so inherently right that it wouldn’t even occur to you to question it. You wanted to please her; wanted to do things just right so she would lean over and give you a hug. I remembered the hours I spent on a little stool in the kitchen, pulled up close to the counter so I could see what she was doing and if I was lucky enough, help.

There was a certain crystal dish for the pickles and another, almost identical for something else. But of course you would never put the pickles in the dish that was meant for something else. Those dishes used to sit in a cabinet in their living room but now they are at my house, in the back of one of my kitchen cabinets. He keeps cleaning things out, selling what he can and giving away what no one will pay for. He doesn’t know where he’s going to go, or when, but he’s determined not to leave us with a big mess when he goes wherever it is he’s going to go, whenever he goes. I snagged the pickle (and other) dishes early on. My dinner parties usually involve a bbq on the back deck and the pickles are served right from the jar, the lid cracked open if I’m feeling particularly “hostessy,” but I couldn’t bear the thought of the pickle dish being in some stranger’s house. Goodness only knows what they would put in it, nuts or some other such nonsense.

She would hate that.

Every time we go visit her at “the home” as we call it, the little word “the” in front of “home” saying all that needs to be said about it, I look around and see things she would hate. Not that it’s a bad place, they do the best they can, but she would hate the mismatched sheets and people in slippers all day. She would hate that she needs help to do things. She would hate the way my grandfather talks almost constantly, filling in all of the spaces that she use to fill with her stories and her laughter. I know he does it so maybe we won’t notice how little she says, how easily she gets lost, can’t keep up with the conversation. I know why he does it, love him a little bit more because I know why he does it, but she would hate it.

And when we go down for Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday she will sit quietly on the couch, trying to participate, asking a question here or there but she won’t go anywhere near the kitchen. That’s where it always hits me the most. I will be in there, trying to find her wisk to stir the gravy or the right pot to cook the potatoes and she will be in the living room. What I wouldn’t give for her to come around the corner and ask me what I’m looking for, while effortlessly digging out the potato pot and kissing me on the head. She would have done it better.

But now she’s not home. And she would hate that.

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My mom was in town recently and we took advantage and headed out one afternoon for a girls day. Along with my daughter we took the train downtown for a theatre production of the Wizard of Oz.

It was exactly the kind of thing we would have done when I was a child, when my grandmother was visiting from out of town. And it struck me, sitting there in the darkened theatre, that I am now in the middle.

I am now the one who plans the outings and makes the arrangements. As my grandmother always did before her, my mom is now the one who pays for the tickets and comes along for the show. My daughter now sits where I once sat, dangling her legs in the chair, eyes wide with excitement while watching the show.

And I have to admit, the realization made me kind of sad.

In the middle.

I’m old enough to know that the magic on the stage is really just strings and lights. I know that people get old, made even more obvious by the very absence of my grandmother who, in my heart, should be there with us. Of course my mind knows that’s impossible, so limited are her abilities now that she finds it difficult to do the most routine tasks.

I wonder if my mom is thinking the same thing, remembering when it was her in the middle with her mother beside her.

From where I am in the middle I am surrounded by both the future and the past. It is a beautiful thing, to see this invisible thread, tying together generations of women in my family, but it is also the very definition of bittersweet.

I struggle to focus more on the sweet than the bitter, my predisposition to find the negative rearing its ugly head. I find it hard to take a moment to enjoy it. In the middle I feel the need to manage. I am the one in charge of our schedule, the tickets, the plans. I can feel the weight of it on my shoulders. It’s my job to ensure everything goes right, that everyone has fun, that we make memories to carry with us.

But what I’d really like to do is sit and swing my feet on the chair and have someone ask if I want an ice cream. To go back to a time when my biggest job was holding someone’s hand to cross the street. A time when I didn’t fully comprehend that people get old, and sick, and stop being able to come to the show.

I know there’s no point wishing to go back; time will keep marching on and eventually we all move with it, taking our new spots in the order of things. And maybe one day I will be lucky enough to sit in the spot where my mom sits now, enjoying a show with my daughter and grand-daughter.

And I will look over at my daughter, taking her turn in the middle, and I will remember how difficult it was to be there.

So I will offer to hold the tickets.

And I will ask her if she wants an ice cream.

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I turned my chair around, away from the table so it was facing the dance floor. I wanted a better view. There’s something so inherently entertaining about watching other people dance. Not professional dancers, not even particularly good dancers, just dancers.

Their limbs were loosened by a few rounds from the open bar and the bottles of wine placed on each table. Invigorated by the cheers of those around them, forgetting the limitations of their bodies. They would all be feeling it in the morning. The aching heads and tight muscles, the vague memories of an ill-advised attempt at the splits.

In university we coined the phrase “full points boy” to describe those who readily took to the dance floor, aware that what they lacked in skill, they made up for in enthusiasm. Their eyes would dart quickly across the crowd, making sure they weren’t doing anything too outlandish, too crazy, too much. Just enough to fit in, barely enough to get noticed. We gave them ‘full points’ for their effort, realizing even then that effort can make up for skill on so many levels. .

I sat in my chair, feet rebelling against the tights and heels that the occasion dictated. My dress, just a smidge too tight and my nails, freshly painted but already starting to chip on one finger.

A few hours earlier I stood in front of the mirror, trying to make room on the bathroom counter for my little makeup bag amongst the tiny toothbrushes and pink toothpaste smudges. One by one I took bits of makeup out of the bag, hoping they would work wonders on the pale skin, dark circles and dull eyes that looked back at me.

When I reached the bottom of the bag I sighed. No tricks left up my sleeve; this was as good as it was going to get. I thought briefly about the dozens of other women who, right in that moment, were doing the exact same thing. Wishing for the face that used to look back at them, wondering what happened to that girl. Choosing a hairstyle based on how much time was available before someone else needed in the bathroom, picking a dress dictated by which one you could get by without ironing, deciding on a lipstick because it was the only one you could find at the bottom of the duffle bag you refer to as a purse.

I sat in my chair, listening to the music and starting to smile. A man on the dance floor did a surprisingly-effective imitation of Gangnam Style. If only our kids could see us now; the room would be filled with hundreds of eyes simultaneously rolling.

The song ended and the next one started. I tapped my aching foot, adjusted my dress a bit to allow for a little more wiggle room and made my way to the dance floor.

It’s never going to be perfect; but I give myself full points for trying.

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I coloured my hair on the weekend. Me, who has had the same hair colour since birth (with the exception of a few highlights here and there). I decided I needed to try something different for awhile.

It’s not permanent, just one of those temporary dyes that washes out in six weeks. I may have been ready for a change but I can only do a little bit of crazy at a time.

As I stood in my bathroom, hands covered in flimsy plastic gloves, continually squinting at the instructions to make sure I was doing it correctly, I tried not to dig too deeply into my psyche.

It’s not a big deal, I told myself. People do this all the time. I just need something different; just a little something different.

When I was done slopping the goop through my hair I had to sit on the side of the tub and wait. It’s like the “time out” period; I was forced to sit there and think about what I’d done.

Ten minutes to wonder how it was going to look. Ten minutes to run through what I would do if it ended up blue or purple or if it made all my hair fall out. Ten minutes to come to the realization that this little change really isn’t going to change anything.
But it is a change I can control. I didn’t have to wait or wish or wonder; I decided to do it and I did. All it took was a trip to the grocery store and, let’s be honest, I’m there at least twice a week anyway. In between perusing the toothpaste and grabbing a roll of pre-made cookie dough (yes, I’m that kind of mother) I just took five minutes to ponder the difference between “hazelnut” and “cappuccino” and that was it. Decision made.

And at the end of it all, I rinsed, conditioned, dried, styled, looked in the mirror and smiled. It looks good. Different but still me. Proof that change can happen, and every little step in the right direction counts for something.

Not bad for ten minutes.

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For almost an entire week I told myself it wasn’t what it looked like. It was just a trick of the eye; a combination of bad lighting and a poor angle. There was no way it could be what it appeared to be. No way.

Until I discovered that it was.

My first grey hair.

I saw it first about a week ago and convinced myself that it was just really blonde. I have learned that being a redhead means having all kinds of crazy shades in my hair – all the way from black to platinum blonde – so I didn’t think much of it.

But every time I looked in the mirror my eyes were automatically drawn to it until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to know, for good or bad.

Why I chose that particular moment, standing not in the privacy of my own bathroom at home but rather in a public washroom at my office, I’ll never know. I just decided I had to know. It couldn’t wait one minute longer.

So I leaned over the sink and stuck my face as close to the mirror as it would go. And there it was, right there in the middle of my part, right there in the front. Looking closely there was really no way I could deny it. It wasn’t platinum blonde but rather an almost shiny white colour. I couldn’t pretend any longer.

And then I did what any self-respecting person would do in my situation.

I pulled it out.

I know you’re not supposed to pull them out, but seriously? Maybe there are people out there with more self-restraint (and self-esteem) than me but they certainly aren’t any people I know.

So there I stood, the hair in my hand, in a public washroom where one of my coworkers could barge in at any moment. And I didn’t know what to do. For some reason it didn’t feel right to throw it away. Instead I turned, walked out the door and down the hallway with it still clutched in my hand.

Down the hall, through two more doors until I was back in my office, sitting in my chair. I pulled out an envelope, stuck the grey hair in it, sealed it and tucked it in my purse.

I have no idea why.

What am I going to do with this thing? Carry it around in my purse for months? Yeah, that’s not creepy or anything. But something about it seemed so monumental that I couldn’t throw it out. A little part of me wants to tape it in a scrapbook, a baby book of getting older, if you will. Then I would have somewhere to keep track of all of these things, first grey hair, first day wearing reading glasses, first hot flash. All of these things that mean I’m getting older. How come there’s no scrapbook for those things?

Because we’ve been taught that getting older is something to dread, not celebrate; something to hide, not flaunt. And I’ve been a good student, I’ve lapped up all of those lessons and filed them away, so ingrained that I’m not ready to see this as a positive.

Instead, years of hair dye and root touch-ups flashed before my eyes. There is nothing graceful about my vision of getting older and I hate myself for it.

I wish I could have left that first grey hair right where it was, not caring who saw it, a badge of some kind, earned over the years.

But I couldn’t.

So it sits in an envelope in my purse, maybe waiting for a day when looking at it won’t make me sad.

Or maybe just waiting to be joined by grey hair number two?

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I saw my grandmother last weekend and it was fine.

When we got there she was already at home; my grandfather had already picked her up and brought her home so it was just like it always was.  We sat around in the living room and chatted; we had drinks; we ate dinner.  The kids played in the other room.  We had dessert.  It was fine.

Then, after everyone was finished their dessert and we were just sitting around my grandfather said “well, I guess it’s time to take you back.”

It hung there in the room.  The knowledge that she doesn’t live in that house anymore, not really.  It was exactly what everyone had been tip-toeing around all evening and it couldn’t be ignored any longer.

She said, “I guess so” and everyone sighed a little.  She wasn’t putting up a fuss, we wouldn’t have to deal with a situation where she fought going back, fought leaving this house, fought the place where she now lives.  Whether she actually felt that way, we’ll never know.  Maybe she was just making things easier, easier for all of us, easier for her family which, in a way, is what she had done all of her life.  I like to think that’s what she was doing because that would mean she’s still in there.  The grandmother I know is still somewhere inside the woman that I recognize less and less each time I see her.

It was fine.

We all got up from the table and milled around, not really knowing what to do with ourselves.

It was fine until I stood in the hallway and watched her putting on her shoes and her jacket.

Then it wasn’t fine anymore.

I had to turn away; ashamed at myself for not being able to deal with it.  I had agreed with the decision that she needed to move into that place and now I had to deal with the reality of that decision.

We all gave her a hug and my grandfather helped her into the car; and she was gone.

It was fine. I was fine.  Or so I kept telling myself.

We cleaned up the kitchen, putting away the leftovers, making my grandfather up some dinners he could warm up.  I tried not to think about him sitting at the kitchen table eating them by himself.  He came back from dropping her, we chatted briefly and I wrestled up the kids and all of their toys that were now spread over three rooms of the house.  It was time to go.

It was fine.

I made it as far as the highway.  Then I lost it.

It wasn’t fine anymore.

I started sobbing, quietly, I didn’t want the kids to hear.  I didn’t want to have to explain why I was crying.  When I had spoken to them at the time my grandmother moved I tried to be upbeat, focusing on the positive.  That was last week.  There in the car, speeding down the dark highway I couldn’t focus on the positive.  It wasn’t fine.  I needed to be sad.  I needed to cry.

My husband took one hand off the steering wheel and reached over in the darkness to take my hand.  He knew it wasn’t fine.  He had been through the same thing with his grandparents and he got it.  He knew.  It was okay with him that I wasn’t fine.  I didn’t have to pretend with him.  I cried most of the way home and it felt good.  It felt good to get it out, to feel the tears drying on my cheeks.  It felt good to hurt.  But it still wasn’t fine.

I told myself I didn’t need to write about it.  That there, in the car on that highway I had gotten it all out.

Obviously I was wrong because here I sit, one week later, on a quiet Saturday morning and I’m writing about it. I guess the tears weren’t enough.  I should have known.  After all this time I should have known there would need to be words.

It’s still not fine; it’s the kind of situation that will never be fine.

But now that there are words, it feels a little bit better.

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