Archive | June, 2012

Notes from a Caretaker

24 Jun

Last night I made dinner as I usually do, cooking baked macaroni and barbequed pork sandwiches because the menu is one of my mom’s favorites. Then I set the table, calling her into dinner from her bedroom at the back of the house.

“Who’s missing tonight?” she asked cheerily as she came into the dining area on her mobility scooter, surveying the dinner table.

“What?” I asked.

“You’ve set the table for only two. What about Rosie and Daddy and Jackie…?”

It was as though she had thrown freezing water into my face. Because those people – her father and two sisters – had died a couple of decades ago.

If you want to know the reason I haven’t been writing my blog lately, that’s why. My mom recently turned ninety and she seems to be rapidly dropping all her marbles. I’ve taken care of her for ten years now because she suffers from arthritis in most parts of her body, particularly in her knees, and she has become almost immobile. I moved back from New York City to care for her because she had suffered a debilitating fall, and when I thought about it back then I never imagined that I’d be doing it a decade later.

Ten years.

Ten years of being butler, driver, parlor maid and cook. Ten years of being turned into that most woeful of professions, not to mention one of the least paid – the care-giver. Ten years of being estranged from my friends (she doesn’t like visitors), ten years of making beds and cleaning toilets, of eating at five o’clock in the afternoon (because she has always eaten at five o’clock in the afternoon), and going to bed at 7:30 from sheer boredom. Worst of all I’ve been years out of the job market, neglecting my own retirement needs. I used to be able to go into town and stay overnight with friends, or go away for a weekend. Not anymore.

Recently I went to the movies. I was gone for no more than three hours. When I returned home, I found her terrified. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I was alone all afternoon, and no one called me – not even Mother.” Do I need to mention that her mother died in 1971? Does this mean that I can’t even go to the movies now?

The only thing that made the situation remotely tolerable in these last ten years was the fact that she had remained witty, sharp and intellectually stimulating. She read a book a day and devoured the news magazines, all the while railing vigorously against those bastard Republicans. She swore like a sailor – in fact, she was a sailor, having been in the Navy WAVES during World War II.

I convinced myself that the situation was good for my writing career, and indeed produced two modest best sellers during this time, all the while supplementing my income with museum and exhibit design – work I could do from home. But recently, along with the economy, my writing career has lost its traction. It seems like I am being slowly strangled here at home and my concentration suffers because of it. My life used to be a rich tapestry of color and design; now it’s a gray, disheveled bathmat. As a result, I go through bouts of resentful anger and depression that almost kill me, because now that she’s losing her mind, the only pleasure I could take from the situation is disappearing along with it.

As Stevie Smith might say, “…not waving, but drowning.”

And I’m terrified.

Bette Davis, Aging and Apologies

15 Jun

Apologies for the gap in posting. My mother’s been ill, and I’ve been swamped with writing assignments and projects. I thought I’d post an oldie but a goodie on aging and Bette Davis. I’ll be back soon, I promise. 

I Remember Nothing is Nora Ephron’s latest collection of essays.  I like Nora’s writings better than her movies, because she instinctively brings up the very same things I’ve been wondering about and then proceeds to give her riff on the subjects at hand.  In I Remember Nothing, she is mainly wondering about getting old.

I’ve been wondering about that a lot lately, too.

For those of you who read my blogs, you’ve learned that I just turned 61.  This is a fact that gives me considerable pause.  How did I ever get this old?  What happened to my forties – hell, what happened to my fifties?   They seem to have dropped effortlessly into the great oozy haze of my past, from which I can extract individual memories but to which I can no longer assign an exact time frame.  Everything seems to have happened yesterday, or the day before.  Or maybe earlier this morning.  Sometimes when I’m writing a check I will fill in the day and month correctly, but in the space for the year I’ll write 1987.

Really?  Is that the year where I’ve been marooned for the last two-and-a-half decades?  It seems about right.  I think that’s just about the time when I hit that oil slick and have been sliding giddily toward death ever since.

But here’s the funny thing – I don’t feel old at all.  In fact, I’ve never been more in touch with my younger self than I am now.  It’s weird.

Let me try to explain.  Yes, I certainly feel the effects of aging on my physical self.  I have attacks of psoriatic arthritis mainly in my feet, and sometimes my left knee, that are true miseries in their own right.  When they occur, I hobble about like Walter Brennan playing Grandpappy Amos in “The Real McCoys” (other 61-year olds will understand that reference; anyone younger – forget it).

Everyone has told you all along how miserable aging can be, that your body and mind become frailer and that the old coot looking back at you from the mirror is actually – gasp! – you.   Or that the youngest person in your life has just turned 44, and you begin to mentally calculate that if s/he is that old, then that makes you – Oh, my God!  I do remember one thing from my fifties – I was able to tell people my true age and everybody would rush in to compliment me on how young and fresh I seemed, and how no one would ever guess – !  Now when I tell someone my true age all you can hear is the crickets. (In tepid response, I have banned flash photography from my life – the cruelest reminder of your age that has ever been invented.)

“Old age isn’t for sissies!” Bette Davis used to proclaim in interviews, and that’s certainly true.

But no one tells you how fun it can be.  Things that bothered you for years don’t bother you anymore.  You are finally out of that dog-eat-dog competition that passes for youth; and it’s not that you can’t compete anymore, it’s that you don’t care to.  The only thing with whom you’re competing is yourself and your own expectations.  The great job, the great house, the great car, the great restaurants are nice to have but not if it means that you’re working only to pay for them.  Who owns who at that point?  Somehow, by 60, you internalize all this.

I used to always accept invitations to parties because I actively feared that if I turned it down I’d never be asked back.  Now I’ve learned that wherever I am is where the party is.  I don’t have to be surrounded by merriment to be merry.  And people ask me back because they genuinely like to have me around.  (Of course, there are some people that have, regrettably, banned me irreversibly from their lives because something in my character genuinely irritates or intimidates them; well, my response to that is – tough titties.  I’m not going to put on a disguise anymore just so you’ll like me better.)

Simply, I don’t have the energy anymore to be something I’m not.  And that’s the most fun thing about aging that no one ever tells you about.  You don’t go around like a whirling dervish anymore, trying on this mood, playing with that attitude, taking up this belief, or assuming that pose.   You think instead – and truly believe it – that this is who I am. This is what 61 looks like.

Note to the rest of the world:  Deal with it.

All of this, of course, is manna for a writer.  Being 61 actually means that I have real human truths and emotions to write about, things that happened to me personally, incidents and observations that I can exploit in a myriad of ways.  I don’t have to experience things second hand in books or films anymore.  I have sinned, I have raged, I have triumphed, I have shone, I have succeeded, and I have failed – and it’s all grist for my personal mill.  I’ve become my own emotional and experiential Wikipedia and my writing only grows better because of it.

Pearl Buck believed that a writer had to be at least 30 before they had anything serious to say.  For me, I was in my 50s, but I’m a slow learner.  Maybe you’re 30 and have learned all you need to learn to become a great writer; and I say unto you – mazel tov!  But for those of you, like me, who clung to every belief that was forced on you until you had to shed it almost by force, here’s the good news:  By 60, nature does it all for you.

And the best thing of all…?  I can write what I want to write.  When I worked at That Entertainment Company for many years, I was forced to write for their characters, all the while making sure that nothing new (or interesting) was ever done to them.  It was exhausting.  Writing is hard enough to do when you actually like what you’re doing, but not when you despise it.  At 61, I’ve earned the right to tell my own stories and every day is like a gift given.  I can make what I want to out of it.  (Believe me, that was certainly not true when I was young.  Youth may be wasted on the young, as George Bernard Shaw said, but I’m damned well not going to waste my old age, too.)

I have to end this with an absolutely true story.  When I attended my first mystery writers conference in Toronto, I knew I had found the right place for me to be at that time in my life.  Know why?  Because the author who won “Best First Novel” at the conference used a walker to go claim his trophy.

Isn’t that great?

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