Becoming the Matriarch

Getting old is a weird thing. When you’re very young, the old seem to be a fixture; after all, you never saw them when they were young. As far as you know, they were always old. Oh, you do see photos, perhaps, but those photos seem to have little to do with the old folks in your life. All you really know is that you are young and they are old.

In fact, it often seems as if they were born old, as if old is what they were supposed to be, when the truth is, you were born young. Still, despite what we learn of history, whether our personal history or world history, it seems as if the world begins when we are born.

As time goes on, we do get a sense of the progression of life. We grow older, learn to walk and talk, and eventually we go to school. Sometimes we get younger brothers and sisters, and we are puffed up with our oldness. We try so hard to grow up, especially if we have an older sibling, because we want to be as old as they are. We want their privileges, such as they are. And then, the big birthday comes, and even though we are a year older, so is the sibling.

And so the years pass.

Then one day you wake to the realization that you are the old generation. In the back of your mind there’s still the image of the world you were born into, where you were young and the old were old. So how is it possible that the world has suddenly become inverted?

After Jeff died, I was afraid of growing old alone, but now I’ve gotten used to the idea, and although the thought of being old doesn’t worry me, being old and feeble does. Luckily, I have been able to bypass the feebleness for now (though with my wonky knees, sometimes I sense a less than active future).

I am confused, though. How can I be the matriarch of my family — the oldest living female? There are cousins somewhere who are older than I am, but for the most part, everyone who is older than me — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older brother — are all gone now.

And I am now that old woman who so mystified me when I was young.

To be honest, many of my youthful years seem to have disappeared, not just out of sight but out of mind, so perhaps the truth is what I once sensed about other elders — that I am a fixture; that I did in fact appear on this earth as an old woman. And there’s no one who was alive when I was born to tell me otherwise.

With any luck, I will continue to grow older, and if enough years pass, I will look back to this time as a relatively youthful one. The ninety-year old woman I sit with says I am just a kid, so perhaps I really am still relatively youthful.

But none of that mitigates the very real fact that I am not only the oldest living female in my family, I’m also the oldest of anyone, male or female.

Does this blog post have a purpose? None that I can see. It’s just that once I was so young that everyone in my family (and the world, too!) was older than I was. And now?

Maybe it’s best if I stop thinking about this.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

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The Neighborhood Feel

Once upon a time, I lived in a what now seems a mythical city. This city wasn’t respected, wasn’t really considered much of a city at all. It had the reputation for being a cow town, and in many ways, it was a town, or rather, a town of towns. Each neighborhood was self-sufficient with schools, stores, libraries, all within walking distance. Crime was negligible because people in each town knew one another. Kids roller skated on the sidewalks, rode bikes in the streets, ran errands for their parents. And from wherever you stood, the mountains were visible to the west.

Those mountains were a constant presence, a compass so we always knew where we were, and most of all, a benevolent guardian. Violent storm clouds dumped snow in the mountains, sailed serenely over Denver where they gathered more moisture to dump on the plains.

And then it all changed. Californians fleeing their bloated state “Californicated” Colorado (as the saying went), and a Texas boy, with political aspirations and no loyalty to the area, “imagined a great city.” And so the town of towns slowly died. Smog enveloped the newly named “great city.” The clean drinking water disappeared and what came out of the faucets tasted like chlorine. Crime became rampant. People locked themselves away from the neighbors they no longer knew. And a burgeoning skyline that grew ever taller changed the climate. (Apparently, the storms thought the upward-reaching mass of buildings an extension of the mountains, and so heavy snows — once a rarity — became the norm.)

Jeff and I escaped the growth, searching for what we once had — a quieter, slower, friendlier life. We never found it, except in the life we created with each other. The neighborhoods we had grown up in were more small-town ideal than any small town we ever found. No one walked anywhere. The people in the towns we lived seemed closed, not just to us, but to each other. Cliques focusing around church or school were the norm, and outsiders weren’t particularly welcome. (When I left the town we’d lived for twenty years, the only people I had to say good-bye to were the librarians.)

I realized the truth of our Denver, then: that neighborhoods had been our lifeblood, and the neighborhood way of life was disappearing. I’d gotten used to the way things had become, and had thought the life we wanted would be forever in the past, so it came as a surprise when I once again found the neighborhood spirit.

In many ways, where I live now is like the neighborhood of my childhood. I walk to the library, run errands on foot, have the next-door friend I never had growing up. (I always envied those who had a friend living next door, and now I do!). There is a friend who lives a couple blocks away that I sometimes go walking with, and adding to the charm and the memory of childhood, we take turns walking each other home.

Because of this childhood feel, this neighborhood feel, I am sometimes affronted by the reality of growing older. What lies in front of me is (eventually) “the end” rather than endless possibility. But I am not at the end yet, perhaps not for many years, and who knows — I might find a widening of possibilities despite any creeping decrepitude. After all, I did find my way here.

It seems odd — and a bit sad — to have found what Jeff and I were looking for (minus the mountains or other places to commune with nature; there is nary a mountain to be seen anywhere in town). Sometimes I worry how he will fit into this house and this lifestyle, and I have to remind myself that he is gone. Ironically, his death more or less led me here. If “need” brings certain changes to our lives, perhaps he and I didn’t need this sort of lifestyle, but now that I am alone, I do.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.