Today would have been my mother’s 91st birthday. This photo was taken at Donegal Castle, Northern Ireland in June of 2004, just weeks before she surprised us all and broke our hearts by passing quite unexpectedly. She was 79. The cane you see is hers, by the way. I was only minding it.
In the intervening years I retired, became a grandmother, and qualified for Medicare. However, the biggest change is that before I turned sixty, people argued when I told them my age. “No! You can’t be that old!” Now when I state my age, they don’t argue. It hurts, you know?
It is with thoughts of that inevitable process of aging that I wrote this piece fifteen years ago. It first published in the Nevada Appeal on December 20, 2001.
I saw her again this morning. My sweet mother. She lives 500 miles away but there she was staring back at me from my bathroom mirror. It’s her all right; there’s no mistake.
Soft brown and gray curls, soft sags of skin, laugh lines, a few age spots. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and would introduce her to you proudly if she were standing beside me. It’s just that when she looks back at me from the bathroom mirror, it’s … well … unsettling.
So every day I spend a considerable amount of time pushing her back out of my way and finding myself, recreating the person who greets the world. The steps have become a ritual.
To my clean and exfoliated skin I apply a moisturizer with sunscreen. It’s my first line of defense, my armor against any further damage from the sun. Apparently those summers at the beach in Southern California 40 years ago have been burned into my skin as well as my memory.
Next, I sponge on the foundation. When you build a house it is the foundation that holds everything upright and straight, making it endure. This foundation just allows my little illusion to last throughout most of the day. And then concealer. It goes to work hiding dark under-eye circles from the wakeful nights that began when I became a mother in 1976. I have been collecting those little bags through 23 years, two children, colic, croup, curfews, and college.
My brows are alternately plucked and penciled, growing thickly where I do not want them, thinly where I do. Like the lawn. And of course it is made even more challenging by failing eyesight. Dime store glasses and a magnifying mirror aid in this task. Then eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara are applied to enhance what people used to tell me were my best features, but which now lie hidden behind bifocals.
Finally a bit of blush to mimic what I can no longer trust the sun nor my innocence to produce: a rosy glow, an embarrassed flush. I’m not sure the makeup conceals much. Perhaps it’s only an attempt to reveal the person I believe still resides in this middle-aged body — someone who was considered intelligent, creative, friendly, fun and — once upon a time — even cute.
It is getting harder to find that girl with each passing year. I suppose sometime in the future the law of diminishing returns will cause me to reassess how I spend my time.
Although I had an old auntie who put on a fresh coat of makeup every night before going to bed explaining, “If I died in my sleep, nobody would recognize me.” She lived to be 100.
Perhaps one day I’ll accept these little imperfections as battle scars, as medals of honor. Perhaps one day I can wear them as signs of survival and triumph. Perhaps someday. More likely though, as aching joints and old age creep in, I’ll just be grateful for the sunrise and breath. Merely being clean will be good enough.
And maybe one day when my mother isn’t around anymore, I will even find it comforting to see her in the mirror, to know she’s close and that I’ll always have something to remember her by. Right in front of me.
Not today though. Today I will color and curl my hair, carefully apply my makeup, and accomplish a nearly complete makeover each morning. I’ll look into the mirror and see myself again and not my mother. Once the transformation is complete, I’ll put on my control top pantyhose, my sensible shoes with the orthotics, and my bifocals. I’ll take my hormones, allergy pills, vitamins, extra calcium. Even ginkgo biloba, if I remember. I’ll check the mirror once more and walk out the door accepting the fact that someday my mother in the mirror will be moving in to stay. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life. Continue reading “Is that you, Mother? I didn’t expect you so soon”
Old age is sometimes referred to as a “Second Childhood.” Perhaps the thought is that we become carefree again as we conveniently forget our responsibilities. Unfortunately, it may also mean that once again, we are dependent on others for our care. Some of us will be forced to relinquish control of such simple tasks as dressing, eating, or going to the toilet. I think that’s what troubles me most as I age–that loss of control.
Of course, we can look to our parents and grandparents for examples of the paths our aging may take. My two grandmothers lived well into their 90s, although they’d lost most of their marbles by that time. My mom died at 79 of what I consider to be a broken heart, having watched and cared for my dad as he suffered an unknowable number of mini-strokes in the two years leading up to his death at 82. Nonetheless, we can’t see the particular road that lies ahead for us.
So I thought I’d share these notes, just in case I end up trapped inside an uncooperative mind and body.
When I visited an elderly friend in a nursing home after an accident, she didn’t have her teeth in. Imagine how demoralizing that would be. Moreover, she had no one to look after her and remind staff what she needed. So she was stuck. Toothless. While I don’t wear dentures (yet), you never know. So please, someone, bring me my teeth!
And please, DO NOT put my hair in a ponytail or pin it back with those childish plastic barrettes. I haven’t worn a ponytail since my twenties and for good reason. My thin, wispy hair makes for a ridiculous ponytail with the diameter of a pencil. Cut it short. Judi Dench short. Let it (finally) go grey, fine. But please, no ponytail, no barrettes.
Before you judge me for my vanity, let me say that my lovely sister-in-law wants someone to please (please, please…) remember to pencil in her eyebrows. Perhaps she’ll have them tattooed on before she forgets.
And if I’m confused or anxious, don’t give me drugs. Give me crayons. This simple remedy occurred to me a couple of years ago, while lying on the floor coloring and eating graham crackers with my then toddler granddaughter. I noticed how happy I felt. Contented, you know? Just a lazy, lovely activity with something and someone sweet. My mother enjoyed coloring too, and would often let housework go undone to spend a morning doodling away with me. Graham crackers and milk just add to the blissful experience. Any coloring book will do. Dora, Disney princesses, dinosaurs, I won’t care.
I want to believe that somewhere deep inside, a little nugget of my five-year-old self will still exist, remember, and calm right down.
So if you visit me at Happy Acres, I hope you bring me crayons and graham crackers. And please, make it the big boxes. I like to share.
My final column for the Nevada Appeal, all about how my husband and I looked to the future and decided to take a risk. Twice. Click on over to read more. Times are still a-changing
We now officially own no property. None. And until that check clears, we have no money either. Fingers crossed, breath held until Friday when we (hope to) sign on to the next house.
Now we’ve begun the monumental task of changing every address, utility, credit card, membership, DMV and voter registration, every insurance policy. Again. We just did this when we moved into the apartment in July, just not EVERY little thing since we knew (hoped) it would be temporary. For example, we didn’t order new checks with the apartment address. And since the next election isn’t until next year, we didn’t change our voter registration. We’re in a new county now too. So everything changes. I guess I even need a new library card.
This part isn’t fun. It’s tedious. There’s a reason we don’t do it very often.
In the first few years we were married (when we owned nothing, had nothing), we used to joke that we moved every time the apartment oven got dirty. In the forty years since, we have owned just three houses. Our joke has become that we stay until the house doubles in value. That’s held true so far, starting with the tiny $35K townhouse we bought in San Juan Capistrano that we sold two years later for $70K in 1977.
Whether or not this house can double in value is probably a matter of how long we can stay healthy and hold onto our marbles. I figure we’re good for about twenty years. That would take us to our mid-eighties. By then one or both of us will likely need to move into assisted living. Or memory care. Or the cemetery. But at least when that happens no one will expect me to fill out another change of address.
For those of you who’ve been following this downsizing-and-moving-closer-to-family adventure, the end is in sight! To recap, we had several reasons for starting this process. We are in our sixties, retired, and our old house no longer suited us. It was too big and hard to maintain. We wanted to move before we had to be moved. We wanted to be closer to our daughter and her family. We actually like our family and have missed being nearby. No, we aren’t quite ready for the old folks home, but to be honest, there will likely come a time when someone needs to check in on us. So close is good.
My wish list for this next house was pretty specific and included:
• Close to some shopping and other services, perhaps walking distance
• No steep hills which can be treacherous in winter
• Single level, no stairs, no basement
• Space for an office
• Guest room
• Sewing and craft space
• Space for husband’s workshop so he build and fix stuff
• Two baths. No more, no less
• Stall shower and double sinks in master bath
• Space to park our motor home
• Low maintenance landscaping
• Covered patio
• Open kitchen/family room combination
• Plantation shutters on windows
• Gas fireplace that lights with a wall switch or remote
I figured I’d have to compromise on a few things, but a girl should know what she’s looking for. Otherwise, like the late Yogi Berra says,
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
So when my daughter told me about a nearby open house last month, I went by myself, figuring I’d know pretty quickly if it had possibilities or not. As I followed the signs, I noticed that it was just a couple of streets away from our granddaughter’s school and around the corner from a playground. Not to mention walking distance to the drugstore, the library, and a couple of restaurants. As I parked I noted the three-car garage and no lawn, just lots of mature trees and shrubs. Nice.
The agent hosting the open house was one I’d met and liked at another house a few weeks before. That’s a sign, right?
The front room had a vaulted ceiling and big windows with plantation shutters. At the back was the open kitchen/family room combination with more plantation shutters and a gas fireplace. From there I stepped out onto a covered patio and a huge deck surrounded by more trees adding both privacy and shade. The big master bath has a stall shower, garden tub and double sinks. There were also two smaller bedrooms (guest and sewing!), a second bath with tub & shower, and an office. The laundry room led out to garage with plenty of space for my husband’s workshop in that third garage. And there was room for the motor home in the side yard.
I tried not to act too excited. The place wasn’t perfect and the price was at the top end of what we wanted to spend. It needed some paint (they loved forest green!), maybe new carpet, linoleum, kitchen counter tops and probably a list of other things that wouldn’t show up for a while, but I could actually see us in this house.
However, we were waiting for several contingency dominoes to fall on the sale of our old home. We couldn’t really make an offer. Still, I obsessed about this house. I lurked on Zillow for other houses, but found nothing even close. At long last our buyer firmed up and I felt like my husband should see the house. He agreed. He saw what I saw and wanted to start the offer/counter-offer dance immediately. Long story short–we got it! We’ll be home for the holidays. Whew.
So in the end we sold, donated or dumpstered about half our belongings. We found a lovely, one-story house with one-third less space on a smaller lot that pretty much met every item on my wish list. If I needed a sign that this was the right move, I think this is it.
Next steps? Coordinating the workmen installing new carpet and counter-tops and deciding what color paint will cover up that forest green.
Now that the house looks like it might actually be sold– and without any contingencies–the next round of decisions are keeping me up at night. That and the iced-coffee yesterday afternoon. And trying to finish The Martian before the movie comes out. It’s always something.
Anyway, I’ve been stalking houses on the Internet for months. I’ve walked and driven through neighborhoods. I crossed anything with two stories off my list as well as those out of my price range. I’ve been to open houses. I’ve probably seen hundreds of houses that simply won’t work for us.
The apartment we are in now is 1250 square feet, with two bedrooms and two baths, a great room, a laundry room and a single garage. Not bad for an apartment, but not for the long term. I find myself needing one more “away” space. There is neither space for our hobbies nor the little fix-it projects my husband likes. Places for sewing, scrapbooking, model trains, DIY-ing, and writing all go into figuring out just how big the next house should be. How many bedrooms and bathrooms? How many square feet? How much garage space? Is there space to park the motorhome?
We’re (only) in our sixties. This should be prime hobby-enjoying time. And even after 42 years of marriage, we are two different people with very different interests. We’ll need enough space to accommodate those activities. And enough personal space to avoid divorce.
The 3000 square feet of our old house—with its three levels and huge sloping lot– was just too big. This apartment is too small. So maybe something just under 2000 will be the sweet spot.
Stay tuned. I have a hunch that the Goldilocks of houses is just around the corner. Literally.
You’ve heard that the three rules of real estate are Location. Location. Location. I submit, however, that it’s not where you are, but who you’re with that’s most important. It’s the people with whom we choose to share our lives, the ones we see most often, that impact our happiness most.
So as my husband and I ponder our next move, one of the biggest decisions we face is simply where—as in which city—our next house will be. And because Nevada cities are widely spaced with miles (and miles) of open highway between, we’ll need to choose and not split the difference.
There are pros and cons for each choice.
Our doctors are in Carson City. My hairdresser. My friends. Our work history. As well as other connections like the Tamale Lady, my yoga class, masseuse, nail shop, book club, and walking buddies. We know the town. It’s small enough to negotiate north to south or east to west in 10-15 minutes. And at this stage of our lives—without jobs or the PTA–we’re not as likely to make new friends. Possible, yes, but not as likely.
Our daughter and her family have moved to Reno. (Add bonus points here.) We can help out with our granddaughter, volunteer at her school, share meals, day trips, and special events. Not that we see each other every day, just a couple of dinners a week, an occasional sleepover or shopping trip. This neighborhood is convenient to shopping, good restaurants, and the freeway. It’s closer to the airport. And seriously, we only see our doctors a few times a year. It’s easy enough to see friends or make hair or nail appointments on the same day.
I feel the scale tipping toward Reno. Today. Fortunately, we aren’t arguing about this. Yet. Northern Nevada has been our home for nearly forty years and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. We love the big blue skies over our heads, the Sierra Nevada out our windows, the change of seasons, and the companions we’ve chosen for the journey. Not a bad place to be. Not bad at all.
In our twenties we moved from our home near the ocean in Southern California to Carson City, a lovely town at the base of the Sierra Nevada. We were 500 miles from our friends and families, including our siblings and our parents. We knew no one. Our slates had been wiped clean of commitments and responsibilities, other than those required of new parents.
In the nearly forty years since, we made friends, raised two wonderful daughters, built a house, our careers, our lives. Together, we constructed a web of routines and relationships that supported us and bound us to a place. So this summer’s move to Reno, even though it’s less than an hour away, has disrupted things in somewhat surprising ways. The move once again wiped my slate clean, as if a zephyr had swept through and blown away everything we didn’t hold tight. Each other, our family, a few friends, a comfortable bed with those pricey, high-thread-count linens, and regular appointments with my hairdresser. You know, critical stuff.
We keep our two reasons for this move in mind: downsizing our home into something more manageable as we age and being close to our daughter. Okay granddaughter, but you understand. Still, I’ve had to let go of some things I enjoyed. Like the two-decades-long habit of weekly coffee with my pals. Or weekly walks with a friend on the trails around Carson. And leading Weight Watcher meetings and several volunteer gigs. But by giving up those things, I have time for others. As I did when I retired eight years ago, I’m rethinking priorities. I’ll try to only add back in the most important things. That’s the challenge. That’s the hope.
Here’s a partial list: Volunteer at my granddaughter’s school and have regular sleepovers with said granddaughter. Weekly family dinners and long walks most mornings. More reading. More writing. Coffee with friends now and then.
You know what? I can actually see daylight in my schedule. Breathing space. Elbow room. Except this Wednesday, of course, when I’ll drive down to Carson for coffee with my friends, have my hair done, go to yoga, and be back in Reno in time to pick up granddaughter from school. Yes, my life is still full, but only of the best possible stuff.