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.
We spent Christmas week in Toronto with second Son and his family, and Daughter joined us a few days too. We had a wonderful time.
I made these paperclip-and-felt skates at Pioneer Girls more than 55 years ago; they hang on the Christmas tree every year.
One afternoon, the agenda included skating. How many years had it been since last I skated? Twenty? I practically grew up on skates but this gradually faded from my adult life, perhaps because my husband comes from Paraguay and had not learned to skate.
The rented skates weren’t perfectly straight and I was wobbly at first but slowly I gained my skating legs, and there we were, representatives of three generations rounding an outdoor Toronto rink, snow falling lightly, the air perfectly crisp but not too cold. Every circle I took enlarged the happiness in me, this lovely activity in the lovely winter air like a breeze tugging me back to hours skating on a rink just like this one in a small Alberta town, round and round and round, perfecting my strokes and crossovers and stops and everything else.
“Hey, look, Mom can skate backwards!” Son called, as if he could hardly believe it. Then I watched him circle and power about and honestly, I was amazed at his prowess. And I found myself repeatedly praising the eight-year-old because of how much she’s advanced in her skating skills.
And so it goes, I thought, when families get together: we’re mutually astonished. That the old can still manage this or that, that adult children who just yesterday were learning (and needed help, right?) are so incredibly competent, that the little ones are bounding up behind us. It’s as if we really can’t believe any of it.
There are people like fashion editor Anna Wintour, who incidentally is nearly 69 and thus older than I am, who find a “look” for their hair (at 14 in her case) and stick with it the rest of their lives, along with the twice-daily blow dries scheduled to maintain it.
There are other people, like myself, who are more like flies, who when in want out and when out want in, who may be genuinely fond of their hair but wish it was long when it’s short and… Some of you may know what I mean.
Which probably has more to do with personality than aging except that… remember perms? Back in the day when the afro affected everyone’s style? Even after that, perms stuck around a while and were perfectly okay. Since I’m trying to grow my hair a little longer and it continuously flopped over my forehead and hung limply (the humidity, people say) I figured it could use some body, and then I spotted a photo of me at late 30ish and… well doesn’t she look nice, her hair sitting so thick and full against her collar, the front saying put, all that body. So I booked a perm.
Okay, it’s not super tight but I forgot that at late 30ish I was dark-haired. I forgot how much perms pull the whole mass up. Emerging from the chemical fumes, I thought Barbara Bush (minus the pearls) was looking back at me from the mirror. I’ve never met an older woman with a halo of soft white curls I didn’t like but still — confession time — my own inner ageism reacted. I feel I’ve aged myself too much and it bothers me. I wish it didn’t but it does.
The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer startles: Grim Reaper in cowl and robe, track shoes and wrist weights, face set in the grinning grimace of skulls and fitness obsessives, going at it on a treadmill.
Ehrenreich was startled too, some years ago, by a report that “the immune system actually abets the growth and spread of tumors, which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists.” The body carries conflict within it, and try as we might to manage and alter this, we can’t ultimately control the outcome or forestall death. I couldn’t follow all the technicalities of Ehrenreich’s argument, nor do I share all her views about life and death, but the question she raises is spot on: how much of our lives should be given to living longer when we have “other, often more consequential things to do.” She takes on the medical complex, anti-aging nostrums, and fitness and wellness industries which tempt us with essentially futile illusions of control. (Ehrenreich’s not called “a veteran muckraker” for nothing.)
I admire the nearly 77-year-old Ehrenreich’s recent revolt against screenings, exams, smears etc. urged upon her for “prevention” and her feisty resistance to faddish longevity diets and self-denial practiced by her demographic, where “health is indistinguishable from virtue.” She eats well, she says, exercises because it feels good when she does, and will seek medical help for an urgent problem but is no longer interested in looking for problems undetectable to her. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die,” she writes, old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”
The six-year-old granddaughter asked what a heart attack was which got us talking about the function of the heart to pump blood to every part of the body. To illustrate, I showed her the veins on my hand. They’re raised and bluish and easy to see. Then we looked at her hand where there are vein-lines too, but narrow and deep under smooth skin, barely visible.
“Mine aren’t __” she began, and I could tell she was searching for a word that meant hers were better without saying so exactly. “Sticking out as much,” I supplied.
Attraction has a hierarchy when it comes to hands: young beats old. The girl’s hands are so perfectly contained and formed, so perfectly new, so clearly superior. They aroused wistfulness in me.
I remembered something, though, a couple of lines from George Orwell’s 1984 that I once copied into my notebook of quotes. Just before arrest, Winston has a moment of insight about the old washerwoman he sees in the yard below. Never before had it occurred to him that her work-rough turnip-like body could be beautiful:
“But it was so, and…why not? [Her] body…bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?”
Conversation early this morning:
He: “Today’s your blog day.”
Me: “I don’t know what to write. I feel like I should mention ‘it’ but I don’t really want to. What does it have to do with aging?”
He: “It’s our new reality.”
Right. So if I’m aiming to be specific and personal here, yes, I guess I probably should. Though it’s not a “new reality” as much as “been there before” (though not for more than 15 years by now) and we’re not at all thrilled to be back, because each occurrence is, in its way, new and unknown and this one rather grimmer than the ones before.
So what’s this “it” I hate to talk about? Husband H. has been diagnosed with a (new) cancer metastasized to the bones. This is, at the moment, the focus of our lives, the context within which we age and look back on our accumulated pasts and forward to an uncertain future.
One of the songs he likes to listen to as he rests is “Day by Day” (“and with each passing moment, strength I find to meet my trials here…”) That’s our new mantra for the new reality of appointments, scans, biopsy, palliation/treatment meds (about which experts are optimistic), resting, and otherwise carrying on with as much normalcy as possible. Day by day…
P.S. The Ireland trip mentioned here cancelled for now.
Because I’ll be visiting Ireland with our daughter, I searched out Irish writers whom Eleanor Wachtel of “Writers and Company” may have interviewed. I listened to a delightful conversation with Nuala O’Faolain, which led me on to O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. The book is engrossing, and the memory of her physical voice enhanced my experience of her voice in print.
Halfway through the book I googled Nuala O’Faolain about something and was shocked to discover she died in 2008. I tried to believe it through the rest of the book. How was it possible, hadn’t I just heard her speak? I have no trouble reading the words of dead writers, that wasn’t it, but there’s nothing so alive and living, so uniquely another person, it seems to me, as their literal voice. And so I’d believed her alive as I read, though she wasn’t any more, and I felt sad about that and had to adjust to it.
Something similar happened a few days ago when our granddaughter showed me a special storybook her other grandmother, who recently died, had recorded some years ago. Hearing that wonderful, vital-sounding voice again was, as our son puts it, “surreal,” for in it she’s alive. But actually she’s gone, and immediately grief plunks into the space between those two realities.
Most of us dislike our voices when we hear them recorded. We’re not used to hearing them as others do. Then along comes thinning, drying, and loss of flexibility in the aging voice box. But never mind all that, today I feel gratitude for voice, for the livingness in the voices of others and the aliveness of me in mine.
Nearly a week after writing last week’s post, I discovered I hadn’t pressed the “publish” button. I’ll blame aging — now a convenient excuse for almost anything.
It also explains why I’m here again, in short order, trying to stay reasonably close to my every-Wednesday Chronicles intention. But also to say that I’ll skip next week’s because we’ll be away again. In Paraguay!
A couple of posts ago I wrote about missing my siblings. I’m not the only one. Husband H. is the youngest of ten and his remaining five siblings all live in the Chaco, Paraguay. The brother next in age celebrates his 50th wedding anniversary next week and another brother reminded by phone that everyone there is getting older and wondered when we would visit.
So, we decided we would. But we didn’t give ourselves much time to prepare. Since it’ll be hot and there’s a fest to attend, a summer dress was a first quick priority. I recorded in my journal how that day went, cartoon style as inspired by Carrie Snyder (though she can draw). To summarize: current dresses in stores too short, current knees on me too wrinkled.
When I muttered aloud what the mirror kept telling me, a young salesperson replied that all knees are like that. Nope, I thought, these are definitely not the knees of my youth!
Last fall I got a cold which turned into a persistent, horrible cough that made my lungs hurt so much I found myself at Emergency one night. Since we’d just returned from a holiday in Europe, the medical people responded with a cautionary scan to check for a clot, which can develop during long air travel. There was no clot and all proved well, and eventually my cough got better too.
But the scan picked up something described as “ground glass” or “white shadow” along the bottom of the lung. My doctor, who’s scrupulous, wanted it checked further. I took a breath test and had a follow-up visit with a specialist in respiratory medicine. He said the breath test results were good news and the shadow/glass probably nothing to be concerned about. Except that he wanted one additional scan and blood test done.
I wondered aloud whether this was necessary. He promised we wouldn’t go further, it was only to be sure. My kids tell me I should be glad, but I’m ambivalent. It feels like over-doctoring; I think of the expense. (Being Canadian, I don’t pay directly, but everyone pays for everyone via taxes.) As a relatively recent migrant to B.C. I’m remembering a recent news item in the media here, illustrated by an editorial cartoon in our local paper, The Delta Optimist: