Perils and Pleasures of This Kind Devotion

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.

“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”

Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”

“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”

Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.

“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.

“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.

Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure.  She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.

Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.

Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.

Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or  anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself.  They took long, dawdling drives like two  tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.

Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.

Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.

That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.

******

The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.

And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series.  Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”

Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.

It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.

People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.

“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.

“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”

“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”

“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.

“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.

Kayla shook her head–what a character she was  while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.

Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”

“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.

On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?

She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.

Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.

And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.

******

The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.

It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?

Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.

Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”

“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.

Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”

Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.

“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”

“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”

“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”

Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”

“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.

“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She  felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.

“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”

Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”

“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.

“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”

The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.

“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”

“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”

“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”

Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.

“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”

Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.

“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”

“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.

Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”

“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”

Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.

“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”

“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”

She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.

******

The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.

My (Very Loose) Plan for Becoming an Old Woman

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A mosey about the neighborhood with the real me; cannot keep me from daily power walking! (No, not my medium-sized mansion in background)

I was struck today by this thought: I may at times, with a sideways glance, look for a way around the inevitability of aging.

This lit up my thinking recently after trying to find a decent and authentic photo for my Facebook account. They tended to look a bit pasty, and as if some stealthy tilling was done along jaw, neck and eyes and then hadn’t tidied up well afterward. I gave up and used the one that is above. It’s authentic–I adore being outdoors! Plus I like seasonal photos. And it’s casual, my basic style these days. And not posed, really, a simple smile. I have a couple that I call my “semi-glamour shots” and they are kind of stagy/cheesy, as if I am expecting to appear on the jacket of a bestselling book shortly. I even took one of me at the computer. Well, that’s where I am much of each day, working on writing. (Pros must photograph those lovely other authors.)

But this was only the first of the triggers for my current ruminations about having once been younger (for quite a good amount of time) and getting older (I am so pleased I made it). And finally, what comes next (hold on awhile as I cram a lot more into my living). But I will get to the other reasons this matter visited me. (It’s not another essay on health issues.)

I realize this thought–that I may be avoiding the reality of aging–is not shocking in youth-centric societies. At least, US culture daily accosts us with a barrage of messages stating that appearing or even acting over the age of 30 or so (i.e., an adult)–or is it now 21?–is undesirable. Perhaps one day to seem more akin to a crime. This brings to mind the seventies film, “Soylent Green”, that disturbing sci fi story that determines various people quite expendable, primarily the aging. Charlton Heston did a bang-up job as our film hero in that year of 2022 (five years away…), a time when overpopulation, environmental crises, and food shortages are deemed of paramount importance. Sound familiar? I read there may be a new version coming out for our pessimistic pleasure.

We are, one has to agree, exhorted to be young– please fake the appearance. Until one’s dying breath, if possible. Our looks, habits, clothing, interests. People remain socially more visible until we start to age discernibly, so the goal is to fool the human eye. (Though I heard someone remark that by late thirties she felt already less visible, was called “Ma’m” as if verging on matronly so required the kid gloves of customer service reserved for older adults). But I am not needing or seeking public scrutiny so this is a relief in the end. I have shone and tarnished, have often rejuvenated and been laissez faire. It’s important how I feel about my life, not the best shot. Yet this culture insists that, as a woman, I am not expected to allow myself to age gradually, naturally and without rancor. It is admittedly a pressure I half-yield to some days. And then I consider that men have so few demands in this regard. I’m for a more level playing field. We are persons first and last, are we not? My husband isn’t forever young, either, and it doesn’t concern him much, if at all.

If it was only young people who were making these rules I might have more conversations with them about it all. I do recall once vividly thinking that “over thirty” was the end and there were moments I did not expect or desire to pass that line. Little did I know that this was the actual start of vaster and better beginnings. But I might ask today’s kids why age seems such a clear marker of human acceptability as well as desirability–and what do their ages actually mean to them in reality, and also to me? How does this impact our respective perceptions, except to bring into focus that we all are at blurred crossroads of one sort or another? But it’s not just young folks, it’s all of us. And it’s such big business, the attempt to stall one’s aging. Companies scheme and undoubtedly shout hurrah as they make their products a little more affordable to a greater population. I personally shop for bargains in face moisturizer but if Lancome (not even close to the most expensive brands) gets cheaper…well, there you go. If only we spent as much time on our insides as we do our outsides. Hopefully, we do, a vast amount more.

Growing up with parents who were older than almost anyone else’s when I was born was not a big deal.  I rarely gave their age a thought. They were busy, ambitious, thoughtful persons until they died at 83 (Dad) and 93 (Mom). I did feel there was a more “ageless” atmosphere at home than in many of my friends. It might have been also due to being last to get born; my oldest sister was thirteen at the time. The age span was fine; it was what I knew.

My parents entertained and my father taught private string lessons after his day job and Mom did alterations on the side so all ages came and went. I was as at ease with older people as I was with younger, perhaps more so. I early learned how to be conversational and courteous as I served coffee and cookies at bridge parties. But I also was included in discussions around a dinner table with astute grown-ups, many of whom were scientists, musicians and educators. Later, I could identify as well with them as with my funky or firebrand friends. It seemed a good thing. Adult interchanges were interesting, whether or not I agreed with or fully comprehended topics. I could ask probing questions; I could offer opinions and be counted.

That inter-generational style of living was repeated, though, in many friends’ homes, as well. We were not as segregated as we are now. Family dinners with as many as possible were common. The truly old were respected, beloved, looked after. They were not left to their own devices or shunted off willy-nilly. Who could afford fancy nursing homes? Who even sought them? They weren’t another part of the big business of aging yet. People took care of their own.

My parents seemed and appeared fine to me in their fifties when I became a teen and far beyond. Their hair was always grayer, then white by the time I hit 21–but there is an early grey-to-whiter hair gene. One niece had long, lovely and mostly white hair by late thirties or so. Others got a characteristic white streak in their twenties. That gene skipped me, the only one to yet have some auburn brown hair striated with silver. Siblings razz me about it. (And by the way, have others noticed young women are lately stripping their hair of natural pigment, then coloring it white-to-silver?–What is that about? A practice run? We older gals should be flattered to be so imitated.)

The parents we had did not grouse about aging. They did not tell me to beware the gnarly ills that awaited me. They were not complainers, true, but they also were lively spirits. I recall my dad sailing a small craft for the first time again in decades when in his sixties. He played tennis with me in his fifties. He took up photography when I was a teen, engaged and bored us with his indexed slide shows of travels they–and we–loved to take whether across the ocean or around the bend. They made music, designed attire, invented games, volunteered at church and elsewhere, went pop-up-camper-style camping until early seventies. I got breathless trying to keep up even though I ran close to the same pace. Their health was problematic at times. Heart disease is the family affair, but that didn’t slow them for long. And they remained lucid as they aged, luckily. How they enriched peoples’ lives, as their friends did, as well.

So what was undesirable, what was wrong with getting older? I truly didn’t see it a liability. We each had our own place, skills and talents and energy and caring to spread around. It wasn’t near what you’d term idyllic. I am not all that nostalgic; there were several trials and losses. They were people who carried burdens, too, as we all can do.

But now I am beginning to think of aging differently. For one thing, my husband has begun to speak of retirement, not yet but sometime in the not-so-distant future. Five years. Perhaps. I stopped working awhile back but he’s a tad younger than I am. It’s a shock to hear him say it, however. From the start of his then-unplanned career when only  20 and still in college he has had a passion for engineering, later landing in management with expertise in quality assurance. I’m not sure how he does the long hours he does. It can worry me. I left my career as a counselor at 63; now I am looking towards 67. It took us awhile to get here. We are supposedly going to soon just hang out together… until those sunset days and nights wind down? Seems like someone else’s story line at times–and will until it materializes in full. I am big on not borrowing from the future when we can inhabit only this moment.

I mentioned a second reason the light bulb went on about avoiding aging: one of our daughters just landed a nice chaplaincy job in management. It’s at a fine assisted living facility. It struck me that she is close to the age, early forties, when I finally left my position managing a thriving home care department in a senior services agency. Whereas she may be edging toward a pinnacle of her career. It seems funny it ended up like this.

I felt pretty young back then. My 350-plus older clients were often frail, with serious health crises and multiple life stressors. I had a calling for that work in much the same way our daughter does. But she is a chaplain while I was just a somewhat besieged mother and wife needing work, then discovered a knack for human services (but still wrote in ragged snippets of time). I fast took to the work as they were some of “my people”; i.e., familiar to me after years of enjoying many older aunts and uncles, my parents, neighbors and family friends. I found myself eagerly absorbing their colorful life stories and worrying about them after work. I wanted to help make their lives safer, more comfortable and valued so they could remain at home if they desired. It was a privilege and it altered my direction; it felt as if God had drawn me to service. My next work was with high risk, addicted, mentally ill youth and adults and it, too, was a passionate commitment. But I never forgot those older adults who gave as much or more than they required of me. I think of them, still, long after they’ve gone. Muse that I’m so close to the ages they were when I was with them.

Now here I am, smack in that part of the process forward and it is like entering some foreign portal I hadn’t mapped out.

When I got the news of her great job I checked out the place she will be working. It looks swanky to me. It is very different from the places I saw while visiting various   homes to assess my clients’ needs. The text states it is “a life plan community”–it was previously called a “continuing care retirement community”. It serves a few hundred people. I studied the attractive grounds and wondered at the money it cost, marveled at the diverse services, the recreational options. The gym was chock full of cheerful persons with pleasing wrinkles and crowned with gleaming white hair. They looked classy on stationary bikes, vigorous in the bright swimming pool. The lawns are very green, houses and apartments uniformly in good taste–it’s clear why people gravitate to such a place. I can see how it might stay a fear of fragility.

It’s a great place for our daughter to work, I’m sure. Still, the lifestyle it espouses alternately fascinates, perplexes and repels me. Plus I could not afford it, I’m sure. But would I want to live there? Set apart from a greater cross section of people? In such an organized and pristine environment? My innermost being resists it. I would rather have a refuge of unbridled countryside and the grit and creative vibrancy of a city–each close to the other as possible, as it is now. Retirement community settings appear limiting to me–at least now– whereas to others they may appear to abound in happy, healthy options at one’s back and call.

But mostly, it seems exclusive and finally lonelier. I want to be all hands and feet in the greater realm of living until I can truly no longer be so. And then, who knows? I might even live in an RV, a studio apartment downtown or in a small room at the edge of a grown child’s abode. I hope to not be an aggravating burden to myself or others; I’d hate to leave this world with a bad reputation.

Alright, the rest of it may be that I don’t yet want to think about where this aging business will take me. It appears to be a bigger jog in the journey. I do know I don’t want to fake it. Nor make it more or less than what it is, another movement through a short time on a small planet. I don’t need to be anything more than who I am, just a better version, I hope. I barely feel much older than I did a couple decades ago except for a monitored, repaired ticker. Surprisingly, I even feel a great deal  better despite those telltale lines on my face that reveal my life. An elderly woman told me once that is a marker of aging: our deepest personhood not matching up with external changes.

I will get to the end, whatever that is.  Right now I never feel as if there is enough time to explore all that captures my scanning attention. There are people to admire and love and learn from, many of whom I do not even yet know. There are scads of books to read and stories to write (I can barely keep up with either), forest trails to hike, bodies of water to get wet in, visual art to make. Places that might use my hands, some care. And, ah, music to bring into heart and mind, to hum and sing. Today I bought two new CDs and played them at a good volume as I wrote, then danced about a few times. I have a mind to put on a long swingy dress and videotape the swooping about, pretending to be an interpretive modern (or let’s say “contemporary”) dancer again. For my children and grandchildren. So they’re assured I have always managed to have fun–and they remember to do so, too.

Life is a place I’ve made a decent, often very good, home and aging seems simply one more thing to accommodate. I am not one for the prosaic as much as for invention. I may not change much of anything. And I am more apt to plan for today, not tomorrow.  I have had personal experience with life being taken in a flash and then having it returned just in time. Best to take it a step at a time, see what unfolds, what I can do. Soul, heart, mind and health the priorities. Broaden those horizons as I move right along. Being old will feel like me, likely with all white hair.

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My sort of “semi-glamour” shot–ok, I know, it doesn’t qualify. There have to be more pretentious ones…(My Gravatar looks fancier!) But subject would benefit from retouch at the least; perhaps teeth capped, a vigorous hair brushing with full-on color, Botox, jawline and neck fix-all according to “Cease Aging Now” experts. I hereby protest! Will go on as is!
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Just kidding, here it is, a dubious semi-glam shot. Not so fancy! A bit of a hair trim (shows off the white; stays unruly by itself, just a tad snazzier. Fully 66. Cheers to all from the 1960s: we protested and braved new paths, fought, dreamed, achieved and stumbled, raised families, labored long and hard, and a great many of us have survived!
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Fave but current second best choice for fb picture, perhaps move to first choice if winter’s blast goes on: having fun outdoors, authentic while incognito. No ageism accepted no matter what faces I show! Let’s all just be people together. 🙂

Graduation Night at Hearth and Vine

Photo by George Brassai
Photo by George Brassai

Something is going to happen; I feel it. I can tell that even from the kitchen where I’m held hostage by Father and the crew. I want to know what it will be, the surprise, and keep taking a look. I stand on tiptoe to peer out a small foggy window in the swinging doors but can barely see. He nabs me now, says never mind, keep your nose out of other people’s business, we have many things to do in here. As if I can do much. I do know how to just stack up and put dishes in the dishwasher, he says, and carry things. That’s true. I’ve been doing it ever since I could walk, the carrying part, even if just a wooden spoon or egg beater. That’s the restaurant business, he says, cook, carry, wash, repeat. I don’t cook yet. I’m only eleven and you have to be over eighteen to be trusted with beef fillet and trout and new potatoes and french green beans. And certainly desserts. As if these are rare and fantastic things. The last, okay, yes.

I’d rather be out there. In the dining room where the band is playing, people eating and talking all at once. It’s not the usual crowd. It’s my sister’s graduation party. Father closed the restaurant to all outsiders for the night. He says, No one can get in except for showing their invitations, not tonight and he told Mother to stand guard at the reception area by the sign in and seating book we usually keep. This time it’s a special one for Heidi, my big sister. I don’t know why it’s all that important even is she is leaving high school. Don’t we want paying guests, too? We’re in this by ourselves, paying for flowers and special lights, not just food but music, too. You’d think she was being crowned Queen of Something Remarkable. Mother purses her lips at me when I bring any of this up and shakes her head as if I am asking too many questions again.

But it’s not like we’re super rich or she’s a debutante, exactly. You can’t be a debutante in Millside, PA. I know, I read the New York Times that Father gets first thing every morning. I wait until he’s done on the week-end to snatch the good parts he ignores. Like sometimes the society page because I am nosy, Father is correct, but also gardening and crossword pages.

“What do you know, anyway, this is as good as any New York ‘Deb Ball’,” Heidi said last week, laughing at me. “But you’re just my kid sister, you have no real rights yet and little understanding of the important things. Go play with dolls a couple more years, Lissa.”

Which gets me, as she knows. I don’t play with dolls anymore but she doesn’t care, she’s so busy with “important things.” I play chess when Father has time, and I play piano when I can’t get out of it. I take dance classes, of course; who doesn’t around here? It’s okay, so far, especially the tap dancing part. I swim a lot at the river in summer; that’s soon coming up. But mostly I read, take care of Duke our black standard poodle, go to school and study and help when I have to at our restaurant, Hearth and Vine.

Like tonight. I carry a huge chilled glass bowl of fruit compote to Fritz, the head waiter, then quite a few empty water pitchers to Ann, my second cousin who works here for special events, and then I slip out, supposedly to check on the state of the white linens on two small buffet tables.

I see them again. Heidi and Rodney. He’s squeezing her awful tight and she giggles, her head back but then he steals a kiss on her neck and she pulls her chin down and looks to the side. She doesn’t see me. They’ve been going together for about eight months now. That’s just about how long she hasn’t much talked to me unless I distract her with a pinch on her forearm or a really smart question she wants to answer. I could get to know more about Rodney but the main thing is that he is an ace swimmer and he knows a lot about cards. And card tricks. He can entertain us for quite a while when he comes over. Then Heidi starts to tap her foot against the coffee table and Father says a lot of Hmmm and I need a smoke and then I almost got that one and then Rodney turns his attention to Mother but she just faintly smiles and shrugs and goes on with embroidery work and from time to time glancing at a gardening book open on a side table.

What the parents want to know is what is he going to do with his life? Besides go to  Penn State and study political science. Is he going to make a decent living, I hear Father say to Heidi, as if she could even know. She’s not thinking about anyone making a living, she’s thinking about what dresses she’s going to design and sew before summer is gone. Heidi has a heap of fabric and scraps. She ought to make me a quilt out of but likely never will get to it. Shes got the touch with the Singer.

The one thing she did tell me around the time Rodney popped into sight was she doesn’t really want to teach English to “snotty nosed kids who just pick on each other and swap silly notes” even if she is going to have to get a practical teaching degree at Penn State.

“I wish I could start my own house of fashion,” she said, staring out her bedroom window at three colorful rugs airing on the clothes line.

“Are you kidding? Who’d buy those odd, sometimes boring dresses except people in Millside–because they know you and want to be nice?”

She fell silent for quite a while and I realized I shouldn’t have made fun of her. She was my annoying big sister and I didn’t think her dresses were awful, just not what I might wear, and she can be stuck up and has it out for me most of the time but this doesn’t mean she has no feelings.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

“If you had a dream, you’d get what I mean–but you’re too young to know very much. But the true fact is, I so want to be a designer!”

The force of her words got to me. “I do so have a dream. I want to be chess champion of the fifth and sixth graders this summer at camp.” I fiddled with a pencil I’d been using for homework and it tapped the paper a few times, hard.

“Stop, you’re such a nuisance! And you will be, I suspect.”

“Anyway, I think you should design your fashions if that’s what you really, honestly, truly want.”

She lay back on my bed beside me and looked over. “You think so? You think I’m good enough to do that?”

“Sure you are.” I rubbed out the math answer I’d put down without thinking and out a new one down. “Anyone can see that. I just like to bug you.”

“Rodney can’t see it.”

“Well, Rodney’s a dimwit sometimes. Why do you listen to him?”

She stretched her arms above her head of thick, fluffy blonde hair. “Because. He’s my boyfriend, I guess.”

“Uh, not a good reason.” I started on the next monotonous math problem. “These are boring.”

“That’s your favorite word.”

She laughed and ruffled my just cropped red hair. It felt comforting, good, but I didn’t say anything. She sat up straight, then pushed herself off.

“You might be right, Lissa. I’ll think on it.”

“A first! One point, my side.”

I eyed her as she left my room, her deep green skirt following her like swaying summer grass with feet. It surprised me that she had said that last part, and I wondered how much she did want to do something different, how Rodney felt about it. He seemed to think they were teammates in all things. I thought he was nice enough, a bit tiring except for the card stuff. But it wasn’t any of my business.

So now I slink around and watch the best dancers, peek at my sister and her boyfriend.

And wait.

“Melissa Sue, back in the kitchen, I need you to help bring out more hard rolls and put them on the tables. Father is on a tear about the Bolognese sauce and the rest of us have to get ready to help serve.”

Mother is wide-eyed and flushed, typical at times like this. She yanks at my sweater sleeve. I pull it back but follow and steal another glance at the dancers. I’d like to join them. Heidi has her eyes closed. Rodney does, too, then opens them and glances at me and waves but I pretend I don’t notice, I don’t know why.

******

It is getting late. I know this without looking at a clock. I’m tired and so are my parents but they smiled in the kitchen last time I checked. Everyone has eaten the main courses, at last. The waiters–some extra family members, too–have cleared things away, the band is starting up with some quiet pieces. In a little while there will be coffee and our amazing burnt almond torte, nothing like it for toppers.

There are sixty almost-grown-up-kids out there, many moving away from tables to the springy outdoors for fresh air. I slip away from Mother’s reach, pause beside the French doors. The sky has cleared up; stars wink away. Earlier it rained enough that Heidi was up in arms about how no one would be able to enjoy the night on the best part of our scrumptious Hearth and Vine restaurant: the wide terrace that wraps around three sides. I see her and Rodney wedged between three other couples, a laughing circle of fancy dresses and dark suits, the guys patting their stomachs as if proud of something great they’ve done, the girls pulling out little mirrors from clutches to perfect their hair or lipstick. They are all talking a lot.

One girl pulls in her stomach as I walk by, presses her shoulders back so her chest rises up and whispers loudly at me.  Poor Leanne, always loud despite her trying not to be.

“Do I look five pounds fatter after your father’s meal? Gads. But it was so good, right? You look considerably prettier in that navy and polka dot dress, by the way.”

“You look… really okay. Yes, the food is always great here.” I grin at her, then hurry past.

“Oh, there’s Lissa.” My sister steps out of the circle. “Can you go get my purse? It’s at our table, by the stage.”

She frowns. I hesitate, thinking she might say more but she turns back. Everyone seems gleeful, chattering, laughing, looking out over the half-acre of lawn that was freshly mowed this morning. I think the flowers on the terrace are especially good and pat a bunch of white and yellow daisies in a big blue pot as I pass. Every now and then I think about what I would like to do different here. I enjoy cooking but what I like more is this old stately building and lawn. I guess I can’t be a Hearth and Vine gardener, that would be strange and silly. Especially for The Future Chess Champion of All Time. But I feel happy I helped pick out new potted flowers and then watered them early this morning.

It was for my sister this time. For Heidi, who’s leaving in three months. And it all looks and feels entirely delicious.

I race in undetected by Mother, who is talking to a real waiter in his tidy white and black uniform. There’s the purse, a blue shiny number with a rhinestone clasp, Heidi told me, but it looks like diamonds. I snatch it and place it under my arm, step toward the terrace.

“What are you up to, dear?”

“Nothing, Mother, taking this to Heidi.”

“Is she still with Rodney?”

I look up at her face, see the faintest lines of worry deepen around her taut mouth.

“Yeah. Of course.”

She nods and sends me off with a little pat on the back. I’m relieved she didn’t say anything about bedtime yet. There are the tortes, mainly, but also some speeches, Father said.

I hand off the purse to Heidi and she tucks it under her armpit, presses her hands together as if she’s a Chinese lady. This time her circle is talking about colleges close and far and who is leaving the state. I notice Rodney has his arm around Heidi and she looks down at his hand on her shoulder as if, well, she might want to flick it off. But won’t, due to excellent manners.

From the long stone balustrade, I can see the piercing stars above and clumps of teenagers who already act like they’re closer to my parents’ age than mine, and also the innards of the restaurant. It makes a good number of pictures when I frame them with my hands, ones I’d like to keep awhile. The music ripples outward with swift notes and the crowd starts to dance even on the terrace, some cheek to cheek, lips whispering things special and secret. I wonder what it’s like to be held that close and the thought makes me squirm. I notice Rodney is trying to kiss my sister again.

Once Heidi taught me how to dance a waltz to a scratchy record Father has; we broke down giggling often but I caught on. Then we swooped about, the easy-to-follow rhythm and silky classical notes making us glide about as if we were ladies-in-training from another time and place. Then I started to tap dance like a maniac and that got her going, too, so we tapped our way onto the porch and then down the sidewalk to the drugstore on Tenth and Hale. Just for the heck of it. Because it was summer and we liked it and why not? Old man Jenkins clapped for us; he was smoking his pipe as he whiled away the afternoon on a bench under the store’s white and blue striped awning. Everything was shining. It’s one of the best memories I have so far.

******

Suddenly the music stops. There’s an announcement over the microphone for all to come inside. I can see waiters and even Mother serving the torte and getting ready to pour steaming coffee from silver carafes but I don’t want to go in. I notice Heidi smooth the waist of her slim grey-blue dress with its unusual cuffs and collar–it’s unlike other girls’ attire but several have complimented her. She pushes her wavy bangs away from her eyes. Turns to study the glowing emerald yard, eyes not even registering me. She opens her purse and takes something small and white out but I’m too far away to make out what it is. She stares hard at it. Rodney has gone on, his arm linked in a buddy’s. Just as I’m about to run up to her, she moves through a terrace doorway and into the darkened room alone as others gather stage front.

Father is saying something about how lovely it is that all could come together for this celebration of one door closing but the next leads to others even better, exciting to enter. He thinks he’s a regular MC, and maybe he does have flare because everyone is rapt as he gestures, smiles and gabs. He invites the graduating class to come on up and say a few words if they want to, nothing formal, just what they think of graduating or where they’re headed now. A half-dozen do and I close my heavy eyelids, lean back in a chair against a wall. I so want my serving of burnt almond torte but maybe it can wait until tomorrow.

“Hi kids, so glad you’re here. I’d like to say a few things, too.”

My eyes pop open. I stand up.

Heidi clears her throat. “First off, Father, this was a wonderful way to close my senior year, thank you! I wasn’t so sure at first, I mean, having my own party in my family’s restaurant seemed…a little tacky! I was thinking a gala affair would be far more ‘gala’ elsewhere.” She laughed and others joined in but some called out It’s perfect, the food is great and Father bowed slightly and walked off the stage. “I’ve been so lucky. I see that now. I have far better than standard parents, that’s for sure. And such loyal friends. And a little sister who is smart, good-hearted and a tad wild–“she points at me but I hang my head low so no one finds me–“just how I like her.”

I am getting scared. This does not sound like my sister Heidi; it’s like another person crept into her skin. She isn’t this straight forward about things and she never praises me, certainly not in public. I want to shrink into a dusty corner. I wonder if she stole some wine or if she’s feeling crazed by all the celebrating and leaving for Penn State before too long.

“Anyway, I thought this was as good a time as any to share something amazing.”

She looks over the crowd, locating Mother and Father who are standing mid-way in the clots of partiers, fully attentive. I look for Rodney and see him to the left of stage steps, one foot on the top step, one foot getting ready to join it.

“I have here–” she shakily opens something up in her hands and it is a creased piece of paper, like typing paper–“I have here a letter. It’s from a place that means a lot to me. It holds information that will change my life. It’s an admission letter. And more.”

Rodney steps forward, strides right up to her. She sees him but ignores him as he puts his arm around her shoulders as if he owns her so it’s his news, too. I feel her stiffen and wonder if others do, too, as they whisper among themselves. Penn State is old news, what’s the fuss here?

But I take a deep breath. Something is going to happen; there should be a drum roll.

“It’s from Pratt Institute. To study art and fashion design in Brooklyn, New York! I am not going to study teaching at Penn State. I have this letter right here that says I’m being awarded a major scholarship from Pratt Institute!”

She holds out the letter to the crowd, proof of a miracle.

Rodney gapes at her, then falls away as if a gust of wind tore him away. Heidi is smiling hugely, for her rose red lips have told a beautiful story. Our parents start forward, hands to mouths. The crowd murmurs. Some mouthy guy shouts, “You can’t do that, don’t be a traitor to Penn!”

So I head toward my sister. She’s standing there, her small face falling, and I am pushing and prying my way though dense globs of kids, trying to get to her before our Father does or Rodney says something bad or stupid or my sister faints from nerves.

“Excuse me, excuse me please!” I plunge on until I get to the stage steps and gallop up to be with Heidi.

She looks down at me with surprise. Then takes my hand. Squeezes it three times for I love you. I stand on my tiptoes to the microphone and shout into it so my voice rings and echoes.

“Hooray for Heidi! She’s going to be a fashion designer! Come on, give my sister a round of applause, ladies and gents!”

For a full five seconds I think no one will do this small, very necessary and kind thing. That my sister will stand there forever frozen, feeling small and let down, embarrassed and sad she ever had the courage to reveal so publicly–her friends and classmates, boyfriend and family–her surprising news. That she will fear she disappoints our parents, too. But I know better. Our parents will be proud of her very soon if they aren’t quite yet. How can they not know her?

Then at last applause amps up, the hoots and hollers and cheers. The re-energized band strikes up a peppy tune. That’s when my parents join us. They take hold of our free hands and lift them up. We stand there together in victory. Look out at our wonderful place with lights and food and friends. When they start to hug her, though, I try to make a getaway.

And then Heidi does it.

“I just want to say here and now that if it wasn’t for my little sister, Melissa, I wouldn’t have even applied. I had this crazy dream but she just told me to go for it. So thank you, Lissa. You’re truly the best.”

I look at her sky-blue eyes filling up and that’s my cue. I can see the tortes sitting like regal sugar-stuffed creations on their white and silver plates and grab the mike and say with a flourish: “Guess what? It’s finally dessert time, a crowning achievement of our fab restaurant!”

Heidi bends down to me and says, “You should do PR work, Lissa.”

I don’t even know what she means, but I can tell it’s another compliment

Another cheer goes up and they chant my name along with Heidi’s. I have to say it’s a stupendous ending to one more successful night at Hearth and Vine. Rodney might not agree. But then, he left before the grand finale. He’ll never know the half of it, poor dope.