Many of us in this stage think about legacy, hoping to pass on hope, peace, love–you know, the big stuff! It occurred to me this week that what often motivates us, however, is a wish that younger folk like our grandchildren also catch a liking for some little thing we like.
This week, it was flying a kite. Among my fondest memories is kiting with our kids. It was never just about them; I loved the feel of the string in my own hand. It’s hard to describe the experience of a kite out as far as the string will go, dancing and pulling–oh how it tugs, wanting free I suppose–and hanging on because this is as free as it gets, but thank you, for the sense of wind and sky you’re giving me! I remember once when camping, lying on a blanket on my back for a long long time, flying a kite.
At any rate, I was aching for this and wanted to do it with the local grandkids. We bought a cheap kite that only ascended about ten feet and kept diving into my husband’s face when we tried to get it up (because we’d assembled it wrong–oh, the chronicles of aging!), which made me laugh a lot at his expense. A bit more money secured a great butterfly kite with a long tail of baby butterflies and the two youngest grandkids were along for another round and suddenly the wind was right, and there it was, all the way out, waving at us, and the eight-year-old girl was holding it and I was telling her to hang on tight because it was pulling and trying to get away, and I was saying, “Feel it? Isn’t it wonderful?” and she definitely felt it.
View of Georgia Strait from Fred Gringell Park, Tsawwassen. Photo by Eunice Sloan (eunicesloan.ca). Used by permission.
My friend Eunice visited last week. Three nights, three-and-a-half days. We’re friends from way back, probably since four or five. We went to the same church and school in Linden, Alberta. Her family moved to Drayton Valley when we were going into Grade Nine. We wrote letters. Over the years our lives overlapped at times, then opened to gaps — because of geography and life in general. In the last two decades, we’ve re-connected again.
Some months ago, circumstances brought us together for several hours. She noted later that we’d mostly talked about the past. The reason was probably my curiosity about our childhoods because I’m doing memoir writing. Plus, in any long acquaintance, the past remains the solid, continuous reference point.
This visit, with more hours at our disposal, we added new, current reference points to our repertoire. We picked strawberries. We viewed stained glass windows at Christ Church Cathedral and the coliseum-like public library in Vancouver. We lost and found (whew!) a cell phone. We wandered sites in Tsawwassen. We discovered treasure in the Thrift Store. She sat with us through the livestream of the funeral service of my husband’s niece in Paraguay. We talked. We talked about aging.
We agreed that we quite like this stage, not least because we’re freer to pursue things we really want to do. For Eunice, it’s the capture and expression of life via her camera.
I think her photo above encapsulates the visit. I’ve become fond of blue (what choice do I have, now living near water and mountains?) but it speaks to me of long friendship too — any friendship, for that matter — which is comprised of subtle and changing layers within a dynamic whole.
I just spent several hours filling out an author questionnaire for Turnstone Press, publisher of my next novel, All That Belongs. They need information to market my book. A long string of questions. Basically, who am I, what have I done, where have I lived, who do I know?
It wasn’t my favourite assignment of the week but of course I did it. It’s among the things you do after the euphoria of a manuscript’s acceptance wears off. But it felt peculiar, vulnerable, like taking a slow 360 degree scan of one’s life, to see if anything’s still relevant. Fortunately I have an up-to-date CV I could use for my publishing history. I was also glad I could think of several places across the country where a cluster of friends and relatives might be interested in me and my book. (Glad too for a big family.)
There were questions about the work itself. A description in my words? Themes? What do I think people will like about it? (So I can’t hide behind “I hope they’ll like it”?!)
What about its inspiration? This was my answer:
I clearly remember sitting in the sun near my local library when the character of Uncle Must–a mysterious and haunted man, a kind of Desert Father, equal parts faith and fear–dropped into my head. Then, like the narrator Catherine, I had to figure out who he was and what he wanted, and who she and the other characters who soon gathered around her were and what they wanted. I was interested in the whole concept of shame as well as how the past remains with us and what we do with its legacy when we would rather turn away than embrace.
Now I’m going to reward myself with a break and go read someone else!
Curious how, when the mind fixes on something in particular, it suddenly seems “everywhere.” So it was with resilience after last week’s post. Friend and fellow writer Loretta Willems, who lives just across the border in Bellingham, and I continued the conversation via email. She forwarded a Washington Post article, “How my mother prepared us to live without her.”
Loretta wrote (and gave me permission to quote),
It articulates what I have hoped to communicate in what I’ve written—the critical importance of laughter and fun and truly enjoying one’s children, giving them as much stability as possible. I had never thought of that gift of enjoying one’s children in terms of the concept of ‘resiliency’. For me it was to help them believe that life contains real goodness in spite of all the terrible things that can happen, faith that life is worth living in spite all the hardship that comes to us in the course of our lives.
This seems eminently transferable to the aging life. Predictability (aka routine). Slowing down to notice. (Yesterday, for one example, I was discouraged. I took my daily walk. In this town, people of all ages smile or greet when passing. Several smiles in, my day had changed.)
But for situations where resiliency seems inadequate, there’s grace, Loretta also reminded. “Grace and prayer…going into the darkness, acknowledging it, giving it voice then giving it to God. This time of life is not easy, but I am convinced that grace is real.” Yes. And as if to nail home the point that resilience isn’t enough, life not a pull-up-the-boots-alone affair, “Resilience is not a DIY endeavour” in The Globe and Mail began just then to bounce about the internet. Yes, again.
Last week I spoke of my pleasure in our children and grandchildren. I want to add that I sometimes watch the latter nine with a twinge of fear, because they have most of their lives ahead of them and who knows what will come their way?
Recently I was sent a photo of my grandmother Katherine (Quiring) Doerksen and her one-year-old daughter, taken in 1915, probably for her husband Johann, far away on the Russian front of the First World War, where he served with the Red Cross. I’m drawn to the face of my young grandmother, and what I see of both innocence and strength. I know what she didn’t know at the time of the photo, which is that the little girl will die at a year and two months, the husband and father still gone, the mother alone with her grief. I also know that she will get malaria, that the Russian Revolution is coming, that she will be poor, become an immigrant, bear another seven children, and lose a second child to death not long after arriving in Canada.
I’ve been reading Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age. I’m liking it; it’s gentle with stories and encouragement. One word I’m especially noticing is resilience. We need resilience for new stages, new situations. We can learn resilience and we can draw on what we’ve learned already. Although I didn’t know my grandmother well, my dad spoke of his mother with admiration and affection. She was said to have a deep faith in God. This must have been the resilience that carried her through her circumstances. I hope for resilience too in the last stages of my life, and for my grandchildren beginning to learn it in theirs.
Musings on motherhood popped like spring blossoms last weekend, but my favourite sentence of the ones I read came from Mary Karr: “Despite the lacy, sugar-spun horse hockey around this particular holiday, being somebody’s mama does crowbar your heart open in the deepest way.”
Yes it does.
I don’t think I say much here about being mother or grandmother. I’m not sure why. Certainly my children and their partners and families are a huge part of my life. And isn’t it the duty of grandparents to bore others with tales of their remarkable progeny?
That’s a stereotype, of course, but I’d like to avoid it anyway. I also believe having children/grandchildren is simply one way to contribute, one way to grow up, not an essential element in being human (or woman). Life, after all, has opportunity enough to wrench hearts into joy and challenge. The late Jean Vanier is just one example of that.
But it was Mother’s Day, and long ago three children crowbarred me open, so let me say for the record that they and their partners exist in that deep core where I’m most inarticulate and in awe, most reticent to speak (they’re their own story, after all), where I simply bleat “I love you,” hoping that will cover the worlds they are. They were gifts. Being done with the work they involved is also a gift. The grandchildren are a bonus, flitting about like butterflies in the spaces already cratered to the sun. If there’s work left, it’s the adjustment to receiving more than one gives.
First a tin of mushroom soup, then the wonderful willows at the Harrison Hot Springs resort, where we just spent a couple of days to celebrate my husband’s birthday. The rows of trees loaded with pink blossoms were gorgeous but I was compelled by the willows. Weeping willows. Like the soup, they swept me into a cluster of associations involving my mother, who’d once declared them her favourite tree, and an incident at a picnic site when my family of origin stopped enroute from Alberta to visit our grandparents in B.C.
My parents had their full quiver of eight children by then and we travelled in one car. Squished, we were, in every possible way that ten people can in a Chevrolet with two bench seats and a back window ledge. (No seat belts in those days.) As we kids exited the car, one after the other, a man watched. And counted. “Ma’am,” he said to our mother, “are all those children yours?”
They were. She claimed us proudly. Then we eight stood with her under the hanging fronds of a beautiful willow and Dad took a picture of us and she said it was her favourite tree.
I suppose it’s a kind of nostalgia, what the willows at Harrison reminded me of. Nostalgia has a tinge of the pejorative about it though, like weeds that catch one while swimming along in the moment. I resent the connotation. It’s a privilege to get old enough to be surprised by sightings that wind past into present, not to mire it but to layer it with gratitude and fondness for who we and others were.
While at Harrison, I sketched a willow to “see” it better, and back home, found the 1963 photo.
I’m in the back, in purple; second oldest of eight.
Last Saturday I found a quiet corner at the library and sat down with a pen and pad of paper to work on a personal mission statement.
I last did this 13 or 14 years ago while employed in editorial roles at our national denominational magazine. I taped the three phrases that I eventually distilled as a mission statement along the bottom of my computer. I often fell short of their ideals, of course, but they reminded me what I wanted to do and be in that place.
Although my core values haven’t really changed, my stage of life certainly has. I still write, but part-time, self-directed, and at home. My husband is retired and has health challenges. I have nine grandchildren. I’m 69.
Writing a mission statement is a process. There are helpful tools online — questions to ask about who I admire or might emulate, past successes, priorities and goals, contributions I can make. I recall that when I first did this exercise (probably after reading Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits), even before the one at my job, I was juggling writing projects with attention to the kids and household. Then I looked at women considerably older than me as models. Now I’m looking at women about my age or slightly older for examples of both positive aging and contribution. (For one, this shout-out to someone I know mainly through her blog: Sue Steiner. At 70, she began a blog to mark the year, planning 70, though well beyond that now, and each a gem that ends with questions for reflection.)
My statement isn’t formulated yet, but I did my pages of notes and reflections. A number of words have floated out of them for further rumination.
One day this week I bought and transferred fledgling geraniums and petunias into balcony pots. In the evening I realized I’d probably gone overboard with things, twice as many geraniums this year as last, besides a pretty over-wintered shrub, two trays of petunias, a tub of creamy yellow pansies, not to mention H’s roses and his soon-to-be potted tomatoes and likely (come Mother’s Day) a hanging basket or two. I remembered, too late obviously, that though these plants would grow into a glorious display, they would need to be watered and tended and tidied for months and months. I remembered their daily water would have to be carried from the kitchen sink and through the living room because there’s no tap out there. (Our balcony faces south and west; the sun absolutely devours the moisture.)
I blame spring. In our part of the world blossoms are blossoming, magnolia trees are heavy with flowers, it’s warm. And spring is impulsive, indiscriminate, extravagant. Spring is powerful and I responded as if over-powered. Even though I knew (if I’d stopped to think) that just beyond spring, summer would have to take care of all that bursting-forth and happiness, would have to bring it to maturity. Would have to be responsible. Manage it into the future and its final stages in fall.
I couldn’t help thinking about the commitments one takes on in the flush of youth or in ongoing or periodic bursts of ambition and energy. Partners, children, friendships, careers/vocations, projects, service. We start and there it is: we’re responsible. But no matter how old, we keep starting, because it’s spring and the call of the new and the potential for glorious is irresistible.
I was opening a tin of mushroom soup for lunch today when this warm wave of recollection washed over me. It concerned my parents at the age I am now, also living in an apartment, and my mom opening a tin of mushroom soup and plopping it into a pot, which she seemed to do rather frequently. Mushroom soup was easy and they liked it. Mom’s cooking was never inspired at the best of times (the apron pictured below happens to be mine but would have suited her as well), but she was always hospitable and in those years there was so much vitality in her and conversational liveliness made up for what the meal may have lacked.
I keep mushroom soup on the shelf as a quick casserole or sauce ingredient, but we seldom eat it otherwise. We don’t even care for it so I’m not sure why my husband suggested it today. And maybe putting my hand to the can opener on that kind of tin would have reminded me of Mom in any case, but I’m just back from four days in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, where we marked her 97th birthday, so she’s still on my mind. The vitality is almost done for, and dementia has only tightened its grip since I last visited (for the first time ever, she didn’t remember my name), but she managed sentences like “my children are my best possession” and “I love you.” So that’s something precious, though I can’t deny I wish better for her soon. I do, I really do, and I hope it’s alright to say so. In the meanwhile, though, my three sisters and I gathered to celebrate and we had a lot of fun together, including discussion of the pros and cons of our upbringing, and in all the present-tense moments of our time with her, we could tell that Mom was happy too.