You’ve seen them: The women in grocery stores who pilot their carts like walkers, taking every aisle as exercise. They drive slowly, park uncertainly, and chatter to strangers. We see them, and one day we may become them.
“Welcome to the wonderful world of aging!” my normally calm mother barks when I point out the old ladies. She hates getting older. We nag her about getting hearing aids, she accuses us of mumbling. The cautious mention of a walker results in a stunning stink eye, a thrust of her cane.
The denial and defiance are astonishing. What was once taken for granted may soon be taken away.
You know how to run a household, how to drive on icy winter streets, a silly joke and the punch line*.
You know who you are.
In the 1950s, a business certificate tucked into a suitcase, she drove from nowhere to somewhere and got a job. There are photos of course, smart skirt suits and dark lipstick, walking with confidence down the mall, occasionally arm in arm with a best friend.
She worked at a prominent bank until she married. Back then, a wedding meant a family. If you weren’t asked to leave when you received a ring, you certainly could not stay once you were pregnant.
There’s the story of her supervisor, the highest-ranking woman in the branch, engaged for over ten years.
While the elegant sandstone branch of the 1950s is gone, some vestiges remain, including the dusty analog world of the safe deposit box, hidden beneath a building of modern glass. Down the escalator, into a land of typewritten file cards and metal keys. There is a gatekeeper of course, an Ace of Grace called Barb, who pulls out an alphabetized drawer, checks the hand written signature and shepherds my mother in, to view secret treasures.
My mother tells Barb that she’s been banking here for 58 years, since she came to the city. “Are you former staff?” Barb asks. And suddenly we are speeding down memory lane.
They shake their heads, recounting the severed track for women, the injustice of trading career for family. They talk about the closing of the old branch. My mother tells of the parade of past employees, walking their safe deposits two blocks down the mall, when the new branch was opened 30 years ago. “They made you walk with the boxes?” Barb asks, incredulous. My mother nods, remembering old colleagues side-by-side, holding secrets and sharing memories.
Tired now, she looks for a chair to sit on, while the final paperwork is signed, “Oh, here”, Barb gestures to her walker (a slim black number with a padded seat on the front), “you can sit right here.”
My mom is uncertain, a walker? She sets down her cane, the card and lowers herself onto the cushion.
“Why don’t you take it for a spin while I finish up?” My Mom is unsure; in her mind walkers are for old people, a sign you have given up. But Barb is not that old, friendly, and still very much in the game.
“Well…” she trails off.
“Oh go for it!” Barb laughs, helping her into position and taking off the brake.
Incredibly she does do a lap on the borrowed walker, up the carpeted hallway and back again. I want to say something (the know it all daughter pushing her mother further toward old age), but I don’t.
“How was that?” Barb asks, “I had a cane at first but this is better. You don’t feel off balance.”
My mom nods, considering, thanks Barb for all her help and away we go, hand in hand on escalator stairs, ascending.
She hates it, this growing older and more frail. Hates my constant hovering, clucking, mothering.
I find myself cornered, caught between raising an amazing teenager and helping an equally amazing, but aging mother. I am the meat in the matrilineal sandwich.
Child, maiden, mother, and crone. This year, while I wasn’t paying attention, we’ve all advanced one place on the wheel.
My daughter yearns for more freedom; my mother mourns the loss of hers. One rooted in the promise of a long summer, the other stands on winter’s icy ground.
Whether we want it to or not, life pushes us forward. Upward, toward the light, we somehow find our strength, and our way.
(And now a joke)
*Danny was turning 90 and a surprise party was planned. Surprise! His friends cackle when he walks into the restaurant. Lucy, the saucy one, winks and stage whispers “Danny, did you know I give super sex!” Danny pauses a moment then says, “I’ll take the soup.”