Creation / Family / Ordinary Life

Surprised by Age

When I was visiting my daughter, her son Mason, who was seven, quietly took her aside and said, “Mom, could I ask White-haired Grandma to go to the park with me to watch me ride my bike? She could sit on the bench because she is so old and tired and there are benches there so she can sit.” He really emphasized the benches. (I’ve been white since my late 30s and have trouble seeing myself as others see me. The youth of my face used to be a surprise, even to myself, but as it fades – it is less so.) Sember said, “Well, I don’t know about calling her ‘sooo old’ – how would she feel about that?” Looking dismayed, he interrupted, “I wasn’t being mean. I just meant she could sit down to rest.” This was his dear kindness as he thought of how to involve me, with my limitations, in the things he loves.

“There sits Olav the mechanic on a chair in front of a computer screen with long shining columns of figures. None of them is red, as far as I can see. He has a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other. He must be twenty years younger than I am, but I’m no longer surprised when I realize that mature men are well below my own age.” p 69.

I just finished reading Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. He’s a Norwegian author who writes the sad, but good story of Trond Sander, a man who experienced tragic events as a boy but carried them deep, as if by not ever looking at them they would go away. Of course they didn’t and he was affected all his life. They resurfaced when he retired at age sixty-seven and was forced to honestly face his memories and make peace with them.

The quote is not so profound as all that, but it interested me that when Trond, steps into that store run by Olav, a man twenty years younger, he is able to acknowledge he is no longer middle-aged, he could not even be called mature. He is old. Both Petterson and my grandson are being truthful. This sharply jerks me because I don’t want to be a person surprised by the natural changes of aging. But often I am surprised and rueful. I don’t watch the evening news on television. Apart from its annoying sensationalism and lack of useful information – do you notice who is the target for advertising? Me. I am the grand-mother rubbing her sore, arthritic hands. I am the older woman struggling to ride her bike through a park. I am the allergy-ridden person sneezing in the garden. I am decidedly NOT the man thinking of romance as he gazes at the setting sun, his arm around a gray-haired woman. But I count some beautiful mentors among my friends, like my nonagenarian friend, Joan Vagt, whose wisdom helps me walk even if I cannot run as Hebrews 12 exhorts us to do: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Knowing Jesus as I do, I know it’s just fine for me to walk.

Surprised by a Sale
Early this spring, we went to an estate sale in a little Mississippi River town not far from Rochester. It was in a small home that belonged to a lady in her 90s who now lives in a care facility. She was a hoarder, but an interesting one. Some hoarders leave such a heartbreaking legacy of trash we can hardly bear to look because their hurts are like crates of elephants crammed floor to ceiling throughout the house and all you can do is park construction dumpsters outside and start hauling it out. Over the years this lady learned many different crafts and became skilled in them all. She must have completed thousands of projects for people she loved – I assume she loved them – knitting, crocheting, embroidering, sewing. There were rugs she had woven, afghans, armloads of yarn and wool, fabric by the ton. All sorts of knick-knacks, scrapbooks, candles, seasonal decorations, quilts. The inventory was so huge the family needed three separate weekends to open her home to garage-salers, dealers and collectors. I came on the last day after many had come and gone. Truckloads had already departed and still the amount of inventory was difficult to grasp.

I took home two skeins of red yarn woven together in an unfinished crocheted piece. This became a yarn bomb downtown, a scarf on the neck of one of the Mayo Brothers statues. I am afraid of hoarding and must have some idea of what can be done with it before I purchase. I couldn’t resist an old wooden stool for eight dollars. I love its worn smooth look and it fits right under the butcher block in the kitchen, and when pulled out it becomes an observation post for a visitor to rest in the midst of the kitchen’s maelstrom. Anita bought a large, white enamel pot perfect for dying wool, and a wool braided rug – the kind women used to make from worn out coats, suits and sweaters. Meticulously crafted, the braids are perfectly even, the rug lies flat without bulges or waves.

In an upstairs bedroom there were stacks of women’s undergarments dating back to the 1950s that gave me a little stun-buzz. Hanging from a curtain rod was a row of foundation garments. A lady’s corset for two dollars, like the kind my grandmother used to wear. I almost purchased it for the astonishing historical progress we’ve made as women…. Or have we? Now I think of it, we have even more costly and invasive methods of pulling in our stomachs and tightening our buns.
I think about my own collections in our attic, on my loaded bookshelves, on my computer. What is their value, their significance?

One day I will leave them and my hallucinations about how much meaning or money an estate sale will bring to my offspring. My office has stacks of notes, handwritten. Many drafts of my memoir. Bundles of letters from people I love. Dozens of handmade cd collections given by friends. And worse, much worse are the files on my computer. Photos by the thousand, archived emails, snippets of prose and quotes I can’t delete. If I could throw, delete, sell, steadily lighten the load so others don’t need to drag them to the dump, won’t I be giving my survivors a gift? I ponder this. Perhaps even if you’re young, you also need think about what you keep, what you don’t need, will never need. We have a friend who has saved string of all kinds over many years until it has become a fond joke for those of us who love and tease him. The ball has grown until the last I knew of it, it was too heavy to carry and almost too large to get out of the closet where it was stored. It’s a lesson I take personally. If it isn’t functional or beautiful (to me) get rid of it. Unwittingly, he helps me clean my closets and reorganize the old wardrobe downstairs. Thank you, Jack S.

Surprised by the Moon
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom
to impossible blossom,
to sweet impossible blossom.

-From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee

When you walk through giant revolving doors into the soaring architectural spaces supported by marble walls and floors with giant works of art at the Mayo Clinic, and look out on the perfect gardens and cityscapes that shimmer beyond fifteen stories of glass, it is no wonder you hope to meet an expert who will surely fix your ills. Sadly, some patients come to Mayo only to learn nothing can save them. They come with families, or friends, or a hired escort. They stand among crowds of employees hurrying to offices and labs. They move more slowly carrying appointment schedules and children in their arms. They are pushed in wheelchairs, dragging walkers and leaning on others. Into this universe of suffering and hope, I made my way to the banks of elevators that take me to the rheumatology department. Even the elevators suggest you are being lifted in the right direction – they are fast, noiseless and smooth. I paused in the main lobby to look over the edge at the cavernous crossroads below. Natural light from courtyards streamed across the vast formal space. There were comfortable seating areas among potted palms.

I paused because I heard music. There was a grand piano below me where a man played rippley smooth backup to a woman who probably looked like me – someone I wouldn’t ever want to hear, but I stood riveted because she was perfect. In her smoky Dinah Washington voice, she was singing songs I dislike because they are sentimental rubbish. “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars…waa, wah wa.” People of all sorts gathered. Bent forms in wheelchairs, white chemo-ed heads, pale faces with darkened eyes listened and mouthed the words along with her. Someone’s grandpa, or mother, or child. Nearly every person smiled and tapped a foot. Some wiped tears and blew their noses. They were as surprised as I to find this human dimension of sweetness – a diversion from suffering, softly reminiscent of a love or a life that was, perhaps, departing soon. Here, in the hard-surfaced beauty of the clinic, I listened in appreciation and surprise although this will never be my favorite kind of music. But isn’t this what I want but am too snotty to admit: that someone would fly us to the moon and love us even to the breakdown of body and mind in death?

I still want to grow, looking on small joys with more kindness toward myself and others than when I was a younger. I appreciate a capacity for impossible, even humorous beauty shining from unlikely places. It dislodges me from the numbness of life. Last Sunday I sat in front of a little girl who hummed very softly under her breath with exaggerated vibrato during the entire sermon. Inside I laughed and thanked God for such a child. Today I walked along the creek that winds through our neighborhood park and noticed a downed oak tree, but when I looked more closely, I saw it hadn’t fallen at all – it had been gnawed by an urban beaver who must have intended to drag it to the water. Shocking to consider how in a single night a mammal the size of a pillow pet can mow down a tree that would take me a week to chop with an axe. Farther along the bank on a shallow gravel bed some splashing caught my attention. I only identified them later, but there were about twenty white suckers maybe two pounds each; they were spawning. As they busily circled and thrashed, a throng of of tiny fish darted toward the bed gobbling fresh milt and roe. Jerem, our son, called me one day last fall, a year after they finally moved into their own house, as he was walking the dog down the country road – passing along their driveway lined with paper birch, bright layers of parchment, leaves glowing yellow among the blue spruce, crossing the wide ditch filled with waving cattails, awed by joy he said, “I still can’t believe we have all this to enjoy. Who would have thought?” All these gifts!

In spite of our cynicism, which can be a nasty business when dumped on people and the things they enjoy, we all have our affections, don’t we? I’ll bet I know exactly what you said the last time you saw a full moon because I’ve said it myself so many times. Didn’t you say, “Look at the moon!” as if you hadn’t seen the very same glistening orb rising over the trees a hundred times?

More reasons for loving Jesus and all He gives – not a weak, sentimental faith, not a saccharine or self-indulgent faith, but a strong sweet belief that roots us in creation. There is really none other who can actually “fly me (us) to the moon.”