Strange, Sweet Memories


Photo by Mats Hagwall on Unsplash

I am at my mother’s house today. This is the house where I grew up. The house where I learned to read. To write. To understand math.

This is the house in which I learned what it meant to be a member of a family. I was one of six children here. One of a group. I was part of a team.

Today I am here, having lunch with my Mom. She is old now. She doesn’t remember much. Her spirit is still here, still strong and still powerful. But she is only a shadow of the Mom I knew when I was young.

I stand in the kitchen. My arms are crossed. I look out the kitchen window.

I remember.

This was once the spot where I stood observing the power of my Mother. I stood here. She stood at the stove, apron around her waist, spatula in hand.

This is the spot where I stood and watched as the meatballs were browned. Where the sauce was stirred. Where the chicken was sauteed and the stew was simmered.

I stand in the kitchen.

I look out the window, across the yard. I see the aging shed as it now stands, and I see the slightly overgrown garden that sprawls across what used to be our lawn.

But I don’t see today. I don’t see the aging of this yard, of this land, of this house.

For some inexplicable reason, as I stand in this small spot, I see one small memory from my childhood. I see it clearly. I feel it in the skin of my feet. I smell it. I hear the sound of that one afternoon.

When I was a child, my identity was largely shaped by the ethnicity of my grandparents.

We were Italians.

We were a part of that land. A part of that heritage.

We honored our Italian heritage.

So. As a part of that shared experience, my Grandfather Giuseppe took all of us to the beach. I remember it as if it had happened an hour ago. My Grampa leading the way across the rocky outcroppings, bucket in hand. I remember following each of his steps. He lead us across the rocks, down toward the tidal pools.

I remember the smell and the feel of the slippery green weeds, and how it felt to lift them up. I remember the feel of the small snails clustered on the rocks under the weeds. I remember, so very clearly, how it felt to pull them up and plop them into my bucket.

This was joy. This was summer. This was food. This was family.

We used to gather up buckets of “periwinkles” and bring them home to eat. We felt that we were a part of the earth, a part of the sea, as we’d capture our tiny prey and place them in our small beach pails.

It was magic.

But it was everyday life, too.

So today, as I stood in my Mom’s kitchen, a half a century past the last time I stood here with a pail full of sea snails, I felt my heart melting and pounding in equal measure.

I stood there in our kitchen. I looked out the kitchen window.

I didn’t see the overgrown yard or the falling shed.

Instead, I saw my young and tender self, seated on an old wooden picnic table, a shining silver pin in my hand. I watched myself laughing as I used the straight pin to spear a tender morsel of seafood and pop it into my mouth.

And I felt the salty, briny, sandy bite of that little snail. I felt the sun beating down on the back of my neck. I remembered the laughter of my siblings, and I saw the smile of my Grampa, watching us as we ate these tiny sea creatures.

Today I stood in my mother’s kitchen. I looked out into the backyard. I felt the sand gritting between my teeth. I felt the warm laughter of my Grandfather as he helped me gather a bucket full of food.

I stood still.

I remembered the sound of the little shells as they fell at our feet. I remembered the way that that the tiny “doors” would stick to the soles of our sandy feet after we had eaten our fill.

I remembered.

There is joy and purpose and meaning in the smallest of moments.

Today I remembered the feeling of the periwinckles on my tongue.

Tonight I wonder what small and tender moments my own grandchildren will take from having known me.

Loving A Grandchild


(Baby Ellie as a newborn)

He is only 18 months old, this youngest member of our family. He is barely tall enough to peek out the front window when a car goes by.

He was born with twisted feet, and needed a lot of support to get up and walking. He wears the boots and bar at night, after a full year of wearing them day and night for months after his scary mid-pandemic birth.

But he is strong. He climbs on every available surface, moving chairs across the room so he can turn on lights and ceiling fans. He jumps, he rides his little train, he hops on and off the couch.

He is sweetly unaware that he had a difficult start on his journey toward mobility.

He doesn’t talk yet, but he points and gestures and makes the most intensely purposeful funny faces. Everyone knows exactly what it is that he is saying, even without a real word being uttered.

My grandson. My youngest grandchild.

There were moments before his birth where I honestly asked myself, “How can I possibly love this third child as deeply and intensely as I love his older siblings?” It didn’t seem possible to me; it truly didn’t. I had fallen so deeply in love with his older sister, even before she was born. She was our first grandchild, and I was still reeling from the sadness of my emptied nest.

She came into our lives; I retired from teaching to become her daily nurturing caregiver and I was filled with purpose and joy and a depth of love that shocked me to my core.

When her brother was born less than two years later, I was once again swept up in love and excitement. This little guy was added to my daily life and nothing could have made me happier. I was the delighted Nonni of two perfect little charges.

I hoped and trusted that I’d love this third one just as much; but before I met him, I wasn’t sure that would be possible.

But you know what? Even as I thought those traitorous thoughts, I remembered how I’d wondered the very same thing as I carried my own third child within my body. As a fertility patient, a struggling momma wanna-be, I had been intensely invested in the gestations of my first two children. There had been medications, injections, high-tech interventions….but we’d finally had our first two children. A girl and a boy. What could be more perfect?

So when at last I found myself pregnant with my deeply wanted but easily conceived third child, I wondered if I’d be able to love him with the same depth of emotion that I’d felt for his siblings. Without that sense of desperation, would he mean as much to me?

Then he was born. Easily, happily, more gently born that my older two, this one came to us with a smile and a sense of humor.

I adore all three of my kids, but my third was far easier to love than I’d feared.

He was my boy. My baby. My funny, silly, goofy, gentle loving son.

So when our little Max, our third grandchild, was born, I reminded myself to think of my own third child. I reminded myself that love has a way of working into our hearts when we can’t fully predict it.

And of course, of course, I was right.

Tonight we hosted a dinner for our kids. Our third child, our funny young Tim, came for dinner with his brand-new wife, a woman we’ve loved for years. I pulled my boy into my arms and was filled with the awareness of just how much I still love this wonderful kind young man. He was still my easy boy, my gift, my son.

I stepped back, and let him go to hug his Dad.

And my legs were suddenly encircled by two little arms. I looked down toward my knees. And grinning up at me, with eyes full of love, was our little Max. His dimples echoed those of his Uncle. His grin was just as delightful and just as full of joy.

I looked into his eyes, much darker than his Uncle’s, but matching those of his Mom and Dad. I reached down and lifted him into my arms. He leaned his cheek against mine, chuckled, and murmured, “yeah, ah, yeah.”

And I had to ask myself: why on earth would I have ever questioned just how much love I’d have for any little one who comes into my life?

I don’t know.

All I know is this: I may be foolish, but I am far beyond blessed.

Pruning My Way to Mental Health


Photo by Yoksel 🌿 Zok on Unsplash

About fifteen years ago, we put a chain link fence around a section of our yard. We’d finally gotten ourselves a puppy, and it had taken no time at all for him to convince us that if we didn’t have a fence, we’d have a happy hound dog rambling around the neighborhood chasing every chipmunk in sight.

He was not going to stay in place unless we fenced him in.

So that’s exactly what we did.

It was a good move, puppy-wise, but that fence was less than attractive. I didn’t like the ugly steel look of the fence around what had once been our son’s baseball field.

So I did what any frugal gardeners would do. I looked at what plants were already thriving in our yard, hoping for some transplants. I planted a nice little row of forsythia babies along the fence. They were free. They were super easy to grow. Their deep roots kept the dog from digging out, and the yellow flowers and arching branches of the bushes gave a new level of beauty to our mostly wild yard.

For the first five years or so, I was able to completely ignore the bushes as they grew.

After that, I learned to prune them a bit each early summer, in an effort to keep them from becoming overgrown.

But the dog got older, and eventually crossed that rainbow bridge. The little pups that came after him enjoyed the fenced yard, and the forsythia grew by leaps and bounds.

My back got older, my bones got achier, and the once lovely arches of my forsythia grew through the fence, and sent ever taller branches up toward the sky.

My yard felt increasingly out of control.

This morning I looked out there, and felt my anxiety rising.

EVERYTHING in my life feels out of control these days. Literally everything. This was simply one more item that I could not tame.

For a few minutes, I stood gazing out the window. The news was on, the Sunday morning blathering causing my heartbeat to increase even more.

I couldn’t take it another minute.

I took a deep breath and a long drink of water, then headed outside to the yard. Clippers in hand, I approached the giant row of tangled limbs. I had to tilt my head all the way back just to see the top branches.

I reached into the middle of the first bush, and blindly started to cut. I snipped and pulled and wrangled, piling each chopped branch onto a growing pile.

I was not careful. I was not subtle, or thoughtful, or mindful as I hacked into the wall of tangled green.

My muscles hurt, and my back maintained a steady beat of complaint. But I felt GOOD.

I had taken control. This was MY yard, dammit, and these were MY plants. I could hack them right to the ground if I chose to.

As I clipped and cleared, it occurred to me that I had become the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, faced with a giant wall of overgrown roses and thorns.

Like the Prince in that old classic, I was wielding my sword against an overgrown and thickly tangled mass of vegetation. I felt that I was facing an enemy.

OK, I wasn’t fighting actual thorns, but my arms were definitely getting scratched by the branches. The deeply tangled limbs were doing their best to push me out.

And while I wasn’t in pursuit of a sleeping Princess, I was in search of a sense of empowerment. My Sleeping Beauty was my suddenly dormant sense of control over the key parts of my life.

So I hacked and I slashed and I chopped. I unwound branches from the coils of the fence. I piled more and more branches into the pile of brush that we hope to burn in the winter.

I sweated, and I cursed and I thought, “I am pruning you out of my life, stupid social media posts.” I thought about my constant need to monitor the news as I cut down a giant chunk of wood. “Take that, stupid CNN!” I said it out loud as the huge lump of brush fell at my feet. “Go away, idiot elected officials who think we’re all stupid!”

I may have shouted that last one as I clipped back one twisted limb. I was picturing the image of an actual elected Congressperson using a giant gun to blow up a car labeled “socialism”.

My rage grew as my clippers snipped.

I was panting and furious by the time I stepped back and surveyed the damage.

I felt good.

I felt strong.

I felt vindicated.

I know that next spring there will be no lovely yellow flowers surrounding my fence. I understand that it will take some time for these bushes to reform and reassert themselves along the fenceline.

Just as I know that my mind will soon be crowded once again with the annoying buzz of political lies, endless ‘spin’, self-serving opinions and all the rest.

I don’t care.

For now, my muscles and I feel both exhausted and exhilarated. We have seized control of at least one of our foes. We have asserted our power over one small piece of our chaotic world.

The forsythia will be back, but for now, they must bow to the woman with the clippers.

It might not be much, but it’s enough for me.

Adjusting My Focus


Photo by Matthieu Pétiard on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling increasingly hopeless these days. I have been struggling with the realization that I have virtually no control over what will happen in my life in the next few years.

I can’t stop the climate crisis, no matter how many “plastic free” soaps I buy. I don’t have a way to slow or stop the Covid pandemic, other than wearing my mask and getting my shot. I can’t control the flow of lies that is sweeping the country, or the twisting of reality that I see every day on social media.

I can’t stop myself from aging. I can’t control the growth of the microscopic cancer cells in my breast. I can’t control the weather or the midterm elections or the price of gas or the supply chain.

I feel as if I am in the middle of a vortex of terrible outcomes, and that leaves me breathless with fear and sorrow.

So I am trying my best to adjust my focus. I am trying every day to look at life as if I were peering through the lens of an old 35 millimeter camera.

And I am finding that this shifting focus is both encouraging and enlightening.

Last night, at the end of a beautiful clear September day, I sat outside on my deck. I rested my head against the back of my chair, aware that we are in the waning days of summer. I lifted my eyes to the bright blue sky above me, and watched a line of clouds, beautiful and gentle, as they slowly drifted over our house.

And I started to think about the fact that those clouds look just exactly the same as the clouds that have drifted over my head for all of my 65 years. I have no doubt that they look just the same as the clouds that floated lightly over my parents and my grandparents and the grandparents who came before them.

No matter what wars rage below them, clouds continue to slip from west to east across this continent. In spite of the anger and fighting that goes on below them, clouds are formed and clouds are lifted and clouds are moved along the current of earth’s winds.

As my head rested on the back of my deck chair, I found myself comforted by the serene and distant movement of those clouds.

“When I die, ” I realized, “those clouds will not mourn. They will not react. They will continue to coalesce, and form and rise and float along the path that earth has created for them.”

I love that thought.

My focus had shifted, away from myself and my little life, to a wider and more expansive view, in which the survival of the earth seemed assured.

I was relieved and calmed by this wider focus.

This morning, after a night of intense thunderstorms and heavy rain, I went out onto my deck once again. I stood leaning on the bannister, a cup of hot coffee in one hand.

My yard is overgrown, slightly unkempt, and looking more like an emerging forest than a suburban garden.

It made me feel bad. It made me feel as if my world is out of control.

I stood there for a minute, feeling sad.

And then I noticed that one of my overgrown bushes was shaking. The branches were moving up and down, although there was no wind.

As I watched, a tiny chipmunk emerged from under the drooping leaves of a daylily. It’s nose was twitching rapidly, and it’s little hands were moving up and down. I leaned in a bit, to see what the little creature was doing.

I realized that as I stood watching, this bitty little animal was happily gorging on the berries of a sapling that I had considered to be a pest. I smiled a bit, and settled against the warm wood to watch.

As my eyes adjusted, I realized that most of the newly grown “forest” was shaking, and I saw chipmunks, squirrels and even one teensy mouse working swiftly and efficiently in my overgrown garden. They were gathering seeds, gathering berries, clearly feeling wonderful about life in general.

I had to smile.

My unrestrained and overgrown garden bed, which had seemed to me to be nothing more than an eyesore and a condemnation of my laziness, was actually a wonderfully stocked pantry for the many lives that share this bit of land with us.

My focus shifted again, from myself and other humans, to the tiny creatures with which we share our space.

So I am calmed. I am encouraged.

While I mourn for the struggles that we humans are enduring, my fear that life itself is meaningless has been assuaged.

I may be helpless to change the course of events around me, but the clouds will continue to float. The mice will continue to gather seeds.

Life beyond our reach will go on, and I find that to be enormously encouraging.

“Hope is the Thing With Feathers”


Some people say that millennials are lazy. They say that this generation wants everything simply handed to them, that they lack a work ethic, that they are naive and irresponsible.

Every generation seems to look on the one before it as archaic and uninformed, and the one after it as somehow less worthy than their parents.

I’ve never understood this tendency, and have often shrugged it off as a natural human need to believe that “we” are better than “they” are. Just one more self serving attempt to feel good about ourselves by criticizing anyone who is not in our tribe.

But I’ll tell you something, dear boomer team, it is the next generation of young adults that is my lifeline to a sense of hope for humanity.

We spent this past weekend at our son’s wedding to his wonderful life partner. It was a glorious event, in every possible way. We have already loved and cherished our daughter-in-law for a decade, long before she and our son progressed from good friends to lovers. The wedding itself was like a magical dream, complete with delicious and abundant food, a gorgeous lawn setting and lots of loving family.

But it was the unique and uplifting presence of the community of young friends that has restored my badly damaged faith in the human species.

Like a lot of you, I find myself overwhelmed with frustration every time I read the news or look at social media. “How have humans managed to last for so long,” I keep asking myself. “And do we deserve to keep going?”

It feels like the End of Days.

So let me describe my impressions and interactions with these amazing young people. Because after this weekend, I don’t think we are quite yet on the edge of doom.

My first thought is this: in spite of the fact that these kids are well educated and highly creative, there doesn’t seem to be a giant ego anywhere to be found. ALL of them cheer each other’s successes and share in each other’s achievements. They mourn each other’s losses. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of jealousy or envy or begrudging among them. That astonishes me.

My second impression is that they have a self-confidence and assurance that our generation mostly lacked at that young age. Here’s what I mean; we have known most of these kids for about ten years. We’ve seen them go through college, move into the work force or start careers in the arts. We’ve been there at musical festivals with them, at barbecues, at various birthdays and holidays. From the very first, all of them have been completely welcoming and non-judgmental of the “old folks”. They have been open in a way that has always surprised and delighted me. They talk to us with great sincerity about their dreams and hopes and about their fears, too. They hug us with so much warmth, and they are all quick to say, “I love you, Mamma Shiebs!”

It takes a great deal of self awareness to do that in your twenties, especially with people you see only a few times a year. Nevertheless, as soon as we arrive at any place where they are gathered, we are immediately embraced and taken into the heart of the group. When I’m with them, I feel profoundly respected, profoundly cared for and immensely safe.

That is an indescribable gift, don’t you think?

But the most impressive and inspiring feeling about spending time with these people is that when I am with them, I am able to let go of my fear that humanity will never learn from its mistakes, and that we will continue on the dangerous path that has lead to such dark times.

I say that because I watch these kids work so. hard. every. day; but I watch them do it with a mindfulness that we older folks lack. Some of them have professional careers as teachers or therapists. Some run small local businesses. Many of them have launched careers as artists which they supplement with part time jobs.

Unlike us, they don’t seem to feel that their self-worth comes from a big paycheck. They don’t measure their success by the number of “things” they buy or by the cost of those “things.” They work to pay for their lives, which they live mindfully and frugally.

They ask for nothing. Seriously. Birthdays and Christmases are about small, homemade gifts of food, or music or plants or hand knit scarves. They are about warmly worded letters and shared meals and laughing. They don’t want things. What items they do need, they mostly get second hand, proud of the money saved, the trash prevented and the environmental damage avoided.

Unlike us, they value people above material things. They grow a lot of their own food, share what they have with each other and with the community, make things for themselves and fix what is broken.

I don’t know how they do it, but they seem to understand that life is precious and that it’s meant to be enjoyed. They know that it is as important to recharge as it is to charge onward. They keep journals, write songs, paint and sculpt their feelings. I can’t imagine any of them working 60 hours a week at jobs they hate while missing time with the families they love. They have more sense than we do!

They are natural teachers, and they share their gentle wisdom with old folks like me, who learn from every interaction.

They are kind. When I am ranting about my personal or political opinions, they are quick to point out that everyone is allowed their own point of view. They listen to each other, and to everyone else, even when it’s hard. They speak up, even when it feels risky.

They are humble, and they remind us to be that way, too.

They have come of age in a time of war, a time of global climate crisis, a time of pandemics and racism and increasing poverty. They have come of age at a time in history when it is clear that the generation before them has failed to light the way. They are unlikely to find the level of financial security that many of us have, but instead of letting that lead them to despair, it has lead them to view life differently.

They give me such hope!

Last week I thought that humankind had run its course, and that we’d soon be descending into chaos.

This week I have hope that if they are given just the slightest chance, the next generation will provide the reset that our species so desperately needs.

“Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul……”

Thank you, young friends from North Adams, Massachusetts! You are the hope that my soul needed so much.

Aging in Place?


My mother is 91 years old. She is still happily living in the house she and my Dad bought in 1962.

She is dealing with dementia, some small health issues and increasing frailty.

But she is safe at home. In her chair, on her porch, surrounded by the walls that held our family of 8 for so many years.

In many ways she is incredibly lucky. I think that many people of her generation have always planned to “age in place”. To live and die in their one beloved home.

I understand that urge. I understand my Mom’s attachment to this place, to her anchor, to her best memories.

But as I make may way through this house, the place where I was raised and from which I launched my own life, I am swept with sadness.

I see images of my 5 siblings gathered around the kitchen table. I remember our arguments, our jokes, our little annoyances and our small joys. I see my Dad, so happy and proud, grinning at Mom as she served dinner to the brood.

My heart hurts.

And I wonder.

Is it really the best thing to stay in place until the end?

I ask this question as I find myself moving through my own house today. The house that my husband and I bought 31 years ago. The house where we raised our own three children into adulthood. A house, a home, filled with so many memories.

I love it here. I look out into my garden and remember that when we moved in here, there were no gardens. I am the one who planted the day lilies, the forsythia, the coreopsis and coneflower and phlox and lilac.

But.

Walking around this yard fills my heart with memories. And it makes me sad.

I walk by the backyard, now filled with blueberry bushes. I remember walking here with my baby boy, the first year that I ever planted my own tomatoes. That little guy, nearly a year old, loved to pick a fresh, warm tomato and bite into it as he stood there barefoot in the grass. I can still see him.

He turned 31 years old today, and I struggle to let go of the image of his golden haired smiling baby self.

I move around to the side of the house, remembering my baby child, my last born. I can see him throwing a baseball against the wall. I can hear myself yelling at him, complaining that he and his friends were cracking the siding.

I remember pets that are long gone.

I remember a sweet, tender, heartbreaking little boy from next door and I remember his shocking death at the tender age of 25.

So many sweet things happened here.

When I walk our dogs around the block, there are ghosts all around me. Ghosts of Halloweens past and birthday parties and giant storms. Ghosts of neighbors long gone, and children now grown.

Ghosts of young adults falling in love, and the tears that came with those experiences. Shadows of lessons learned and echoes of lessons lost.

Now my house is also filled with the memories of my grandchildren, who have spent so many days here in my care as their parents have gone to work. Another layer of ghosts pulling at my aging heart.

And I am beginning to wonder if I really want to “age in place.”

Paul and I have friends who have managed this part of life with more grace. Some have moved to new and excited places where they are creating their “next phase” lives on islands and in exotic foreign lands.

I watch them packing up their middle aged lives and moving on with joy.

And I am envious, and a little jealous and aware of the fact that if I had it to do over again, I would have sold this nice little house right after our children left it. I would have moved to a new place, to start a new life, to find my next steps.

For me, the idea of “aging in place” has lost a lot of its charms and now feels like an anchor that is holding me down.

Photo by Devon MacKay on Unsplash

Sitting on the Deck on a Summer Night


I am sitting outside, on our deck. The sun is slowly sinking behind the pine trees. The sky has gone from pale blue to a deep and peaceful navy.

I tilt my head back, breathing in the summer smells of pine needle and grass. A hermit thrush is singing in the oak tree right behind me.

This is a peaceful moment. A calm and gentle pause in the panic that has become our reality. I want to embrace it, to hold it against my stuttering heart, to use these smells and these sounds as a buffer against my fear.

But as hard as I try to block out the world, my memory jumps up and ambushes me. I find myself sitting on this quiet deck, with my eyes closed, fighting against the flood of tears.

I remember Paul and I sitting out here, a couple of months after we’d moved in. We were a young couple then, with a baby girl and a boy on the way. This was our first and only home. We sat outside on a beautiful summer night and we looked up at the stars. Every promise, every hope, every dream was right there in front of us. With our arms around each other, we we secure that our future would be joyful.

And I remember lying out here on this deck with my three young children, gazing up at the Perseid meteor showers, watching the magic as it appeared above us.

I remember parties and dinners out here on this deck. I remember my first collection of potted herbs, arranged carefully in the corner, catching the rain and filling the air with their nurturing fragrance.

I remember our first dog. I remember when that dog ate a pair of expensive hockey gloves. And I remember when he was too feeble to walk up and down the stairs of the deck into the yard we had so lovingly fenced in just for him.

I sit quietly on this deck, with the summer air hot and wet around me.

My mind wants to hold onto this moment, but it keeps wandering back to other summer days.

I remember how excited and happy we were to put a hot tub on this deck, and how many wonderful ice cold evenings were soothed in it’s hot embrace.

I remember.

The old hound dog is gone now, no longer in pain as he made his tender way down these steps. The hot tub is gone, it’s inner workings lost to a leak and the ravages of New England winters.

And those children are grown, up and out and on their own.

So I sit here, looking up sadly at the branches of the oak tree that has sprung up like magic in the place where my favorite white pine used to be. I look into the woods, and see that the clearing where I used to watch the hawks circling is now completely closed off by the branches of maples and birch.

It is a beautiful summer evening. I still have this sturdy deck and these lovely trees. I reach out with all my soul, looking for some peace and a sense of security.

I try.

But, missing the past, and the false sense of security that it gave me, I give up and go back inside.

Maybe the fall will bring me a better feeling of hope.

Time to Stop Blaming Myself


I grew up in an Italian Catholic family, which means that guilt is my middle name. I grew up feeling guilty for an unmade bed, a missed homework assignment, and a mean comment tossed out to one of my siblings.

I grew up feeling guilty for being a terrible athlete, even though I was a decent musician and writer. I grew up feeling that my testy moods were my fault, although I understood that the hormones of adolescence were the likely culprits.

As I grew into adulthood, I shifted my guilt feelings just a bit. I learned to feel bad about myself if I ate an ice cream cone, knowing that I might get fat (guilt) and not look as lovely as I was expected to look. I learned to feel a deep sense of guilt for every mistake, every emotional outburst and every weak moment experienced by my kids.

Guilt, a feeling of deep unworthiness, was my defining characteristic.

But you know what? I sort of got over that feeling, for the most part. At some point in my 50 year relationship with my husband, I realized that he wasn’t actually upset with me for gaining a pound, missing a bill, having a bad day. He accepted me. He didn’t expect perfection from me, and I slowly, slowly learned to let go of the same expectation of myself.

And being a mother changed my view of my worthiness, too. My kids were great. They were happy, healthy, loving and secure. They were far from perfect, but for some reason, that was OK with me. In return, my own lack of perfection as their mother didn’t make any of them look at me as if I was a bug under a shoe. Instead, they taught me to laugh at my cranky moments, to embrace my human mommy self and to accept the fact that life has some pretty rough edges.

I have been evolving for about 6 decades. You’d think I would be pretty secure by now, right?

Enter the thought of physical frailty, and I am right back in my most guilt wracked days of self-loathing.

You see, when I was growing up, we all admired those older folks who remained hale and hearty. My uncle, who cut down a giant oak tree in his yard at the age of 70, was a family hero. My Nana, who lived on her own until the age of 99, and who took no medications, was a superhero.

I thought, for some reason, that my own aging experience would be just like theirs. I keep active. I eat well. I am always learning and thinking.

I thought that would do it.

But when I found myself struggling with ongoing pain and fatigue, and eventually was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I immediately asked, “What did I do wrong to cause this?” It felt like my fault, although I have no idea why that is true.

In the past few years, I’ve added a minor heart issue and two unrelated blood disorders to my medical records. I am smart enough, and informed enough, to know that having an inherited blood disorder can’t be my fault. I understand that having a condition labelled “idiopathic” means that even the highly trained doctors I meet with have no idea why this has hit me.

I still feel responsible. Deep in my heart, I constantly ask myself, “If I had just gone to a pilates class, would this have happened?”

Now I find myself on the scary edge of the cancer world. I have a very early, well contained, breast cancer. I need a lumpectomy and radiation therapy. It’s fine. It’s not like, “real” cancer. It just has to be dealt with.

My treatment is slightly complicated by my blood issues, meaning that before I can be treated by the surgeon and sent on to the oncologist, I need to meet again with the hematologist. There will be some extra blood tests and some platelets transfused.

Not a biggie.

I’m not scared (although I’m not happy, either).

But I do feel guilty.

I know it’s stupid. I know it.

But as I lie awake at night, pondering the next few months, I find my thoughts running along a familiar track. “If you had just worked out more……” “if you didn’t drink alcohol……” “Why didn’t you become a vegan?”

I don’t understand this thinking at all.

When my family and friends run into health issues, I never, ever, ever blame them for their bad luck. I don’t.

So why do I blame me?

I don’t know.

But I do know that I need you guys to respond, and to tell me that at 65 years old, stuff happens. People get sick. They get injured.

It’s life.

It’s not my fault.

Right?

How Being Old Helps Me Get My Steps in Every Day


Photo by Kamil S on Unsplash

A few years ago I noticed that a lot of my friends were wearing big, rubber-encased watches. I saw those friends gazing at their watches as we strolled through various gardens and along a few beaches.

“This is a Fitbit!” one friend told me. “It measures my steps, keeps track of my heart rate, counts calories and reminds me to drink more water!” 

Oh.

As a confirmed non-athlete, I was unimpressed. 

Fast forward several years, however, and I found myself the slightly abashed owner of my own pink Fitbit. Covid was raging, and as a good Italian woman, I had spent several weeks trying to cook my way out of danger. I was, shall we say, getting chubby. Or to quote my adorable three-year-old grandson, I was “nice and squishy.” 

So I got a Fitbit. I vowed to slim down. I promised to count my steps.

If you are even a little bit aware of current fitness ideas, you will know that a “fit” person is supposed to take a minimum of 10,000 steps per day. With a Fitbit on one’s wrist, one can carefully plan where to walk in order to reach the magic number.

At first, the very idea of walking so much seemed out of reach. I mean, really? I live in a small house, how many steps could there be in the average day of an average old lady?

It seemed somewhat out of reach, I’ll be honest. I thought I’d have to go “hiking” in order to reach the magic number. My young, healthy sons told me about how they had to plan extra walks to make it that far. In the middle of the worst lock-down days, one of them even made a video of himself walking around and around in his own apartment, book in hand, just to get the last couple of hundred steps.

I thought that hitting 10,000 steps would be a major stretch for my aging, squishy self.

But, guess what? 

I underestimated the physical benefits of being old. I did not anticipate the wonderful impact of a wicked bad memory.

As it turns out, people my age take a whole boatload of extra steps every day. 

I’ll give you an example.

This morning, with my Fitbit on my wrist, I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen. I turned on the coffee pot, then realized that I had left my phone in my room. Back to the bedroom, where I noticed that my bed wasn’t made. Took care of that, went back to the kitchen for coffee. Remembered the phone again. Back to the bedroom. Decided to do laundry, so I grabbed the hamper and headed downstairs to the laundry room. Back to the kitchen, where I poured the coffee and sat down to sip. 

And I realized that I still didn’t have my phone. Back to the bedroom.

You get the idea, right? I took around 500 extra steps, just trying to grab my phone.

In the course of a single day, a nice mature person like myself might go into the bedroom five or six extra times. We might go all the way into the garage to take a chicken out of the freezer, then come back upstairs after leaving said chicken on top of the dryer. And down we go again.

So, see?

It is actually way easier for older people like me to hit 10,000 steps than it is for our 20 something kids to get that far. 

I might still be “squishy”, but you better believe I am getting way, way, WAY more than 10,000 steps a day just going through my day.

Grace Under Pressure?


You know, when I’m daydreaming and sort of just fantasizing about life, I picture myself as a person who would display enormous grace under pressure.

I imagine myself hearing scary news and reacting in a calm and measured way. “Well,” I imagine myself saying to my doctor, “I’m just so happy that I live in a time when there are good treatments for this disease.”

I see the looks that my dear family would share. “Isn’t she amazing?” I imagine them murmuring. “So brave.”

When I picture myself (too often these days) facing a world on fire, a world where the grid has gone down and the food supply chain is broken, I see a strong, brave woman. I see myself channeling my inner Ma Joad, bracing myself to face the danger with a sturdy back and an unflappable courage.

In my head, I am always serene but strong. I do not waver. I smile through the darkest moments. I rise above the challenges that face me, ready to take on any struggle in order to take care of those I love.

I am, of course, completely full of shit as far as this fantasy is concerned.

I know this because for the one and only time in my life (so far), I have a couple of minor medical issues facing me. I am not dying. I do not have a terminal illness. I sort of have more of an annoying few days of medical tests to make sure I don’t need some medical intervention.

Should be nothing.

But it’s something.

The reality of my life is this:

I am not a serene, calm, accepting older woman who is ready to take on any challenge. Instead, I am a scared, whiny, weepy mess of a woman who wants to curl up under my covers with a box of cookies and a glass of wine. I want my kids. I want my mommy. I want a boatload of m&ms.

I am disappointed in me, to be honest. I’m afraid that when the shit hits the proverbial fan, I won’t be the one to organize the neighbors into a rescue force. I won’t be the kind and wise lady who sets up a foraging team to feed the kids in town. I doubt that I’ll be the resilient leader who looks at the reality of the situation yet manages to stay hopeful in the face of disaster.

I suspect, to my chagrin, that if I get scary medical news in the next few weeks I’ll start whimpering and I won’t stop until I’m either all alone or no longer capable of whimpering.

I don’t want to be a horrible and wimpy aging human. I don’t.

But I’m not sure how to turn myself into the person I see in my head.

Any suggestions?