GRAVITY DOWN UNDER

“Mom, which part of your body do you love most?”

Susan and I are standing in the shade of a tree, the exotic likes of which I see only here in New Zealand. The Pacific Ocean is a-dazzle before us, almost bright green in the sun, with black rock formations adding drama all along the shore. It’s early morning, the surfing crowd must still be sleeping off hangovers. At this end of the wide white beach we’re looking at hundreds of blond kiwi kids, all skinny and athletic. It’s a big day-long competition today: foot races, water board races, swimming, kayaking, etc. We’re looking for eleven-year-old Hannah who is hoping to win some of the events. Since she’s my granddaughter and Susan’s niece we have no doubt that she’ll win them all.

“Goodness Susan, I’ve certainly never before thought of my body with that question in mind. Let’s see. Hmmmm. Ah, I know: my feet.”

Yes, my bony veiny feet with the huge bunions that have forever been the bane of my shoe-adoring life. I remind her how for years I hid them underneath anything handy, hoping no-one would see them. Now we look down at them and marvel at how changed in shape they are, especially my toes, which become more and more gnarly and bent. One of the big toes is almost pointing at the little toe, and will soon be at a total right angle to my foot.

“Yeah, look at that! But you know what? They never give me any pain, and they are always at the ready to do anything I ask of them. I feel so grateful to them, so admiring, so downright proud of their strength and abilities despite all odds. And yes, they certainly are odd looking, aren’t they?!”

We get talking about bodies, as we often do. Susan, for years a dancer with a number of New York City dance companies, now the owner/director of an Amsterdam yoga center, is every bit as interested in all aspects of the subject as I am. She has just turned fifty, so we have a lot to discuss about what happens as the years roll by.

I like to think that one of my main mothering tasks at this point in our lives is to help my daughters navigate their way through all the body changes that are beginning for them. Mainly, I hope I can help counteract all the extremely negative societal views of aging.

That’s easy for me to do, since these views make me so damn mad. They come from such a youth-centric view of human development, one that is narrow and self-serving in the extreme. Since our bodies and our minds and even our emotions continue to develop throughout our lives, how is it that we’ve come to think of these changes as evidence of deterioration and decline? It seems to me that our changing bodies – yes, the wrinkles, the graying, the whole kit and caboodle – are evidence of our ever-increasing experience and, if we’re paying attention, of our deepened understanding and knowledge. You’d think that we’d see this as beauty, one that is different from the beauty of youth, but beauty nevertheless. You’d think we’d have some positive feelings about getting older, even with all the challenges that can accompany those increasing years.

Yet we’ve become phobic to all these indicators of having lived longer. We fight them as though our lives will forever be ruined if we can’t continue looking as though we’re under fifty. All the adjectives associated with aging have taken on such a taint of horror for us: saggy, gray, wrinkled, arthritic, slow, even the word aging itself.

One of the few useful things I learned in graduate school was that in order to change attitudes one must first change behavior. To this end, I taught myself to become aware, really aware, whenever I used a negative adjective to describe a body part. At first I just noticed when I did it, and I was surprised to find how often I did. Then I began replacing that word with a neutral word or with no word. For instance, I taught myself to say “my breasts” rather than “my saggy breasts.” When I noticed that I often accompanied a negative adjective with a pained expression, I worked on cutting that out too. It has made a surprising difference to me, not only in how I feel about how I look but also in how I approach the whole fact of getting older every day.

We never did manage to find Hannah in that big crowd of kids, so we walked over to the Farmers’ Market instead and bought bags and bags full of luscious ripe fruits and vegetables. We laughed as we realized that we were feeling somehow one with them all.

TWO GRANDMOTHERS GO FOR A RIDE

She steps out of her car and I feel a rush of love. What a woman she is! I haven’t seen her since I was here a year ago. We smile and hug and really mean it. Glenis Macklow is such a perfect kiwi name it almost sounds made up, but it isn’t. Nothing about her is fake. She’s salt of the earth, no nonsense, full of fun and acute observations. And she seems to love to talk as much as I do.

The two of us wave goodbye to her son and my daughter and the four grandchildren we share, and drive off together for a morning’s jaunt. She has four enormous bottles in the back. We drive through rolling green hills studded with sheep and an occasional house and outbuilding, edged by trees and bushes. The whole scene looks both completely familiar and completely exotic to me. The hills roll but with different contours than I’m used to. The green everywhere is almost overwhelming and not like green I’ve seen anywhere else. The houses are not the usual rectangles, they’re square, and that makes them seem solid and comfy and somehow from a by-gone time. A sense of deep peacefulness pervades the whole scene, and except for the cars on the road I wouldn’t be able to guess what century we’re in.

Glenis points out a building in which she went to dances as a teenager. She shows me the school she went to as a child. She describes how different this area was when she was growing up, and we laugh like old crones as we bemoan “the good old days.”

We pull over and stop at the side of the road at a place that is dark with foliage. I hand Glenis the empty bottles, one by one, and she hops over rocks that lead in through a dark leafy tunnel at the end of which a pipe is pouring out crystal-clear spring water. She fills one bottle after the other, heaving the full ones into the car by herself while I stand helplessly by, wishing she had known me back when I could still be proud of my unusual strength. Maybe I’ve lost it as punishment for that sin of pride.

We talk and talk, as though we’re continuing a conversation from just yesterday. As we drive on through the countryside we tell each other about our lives this past year and our plans for the next. I feel I can be as personal as I want with her, no holds barred. It isn’t until we’re settled in at a little cafe at McClaren Falls that we get down to grandmother business and start discussing our grandchildren and their parents.

How did I get so lucky? There’s no tension between us, we’re not at all competitive. We both see what an unusually happy family our offspring have made, we both see the struggles that lie ahead for them, we both love them all equally. In my experience this can not be taken for granted, I’ve rarely seen it in my own life or in all the families I’ve worked with over the years. I would want Glenis to be my friend even if we didn’t have any familial connection.

Back when I was raising my three daughters, our little family of four healed the vacuum that had been left in me, the empty hole where love and family should have been while I was growing up in boarding schools. Driving with Glenis I’m aware of another longing being filled now, a longing for a large family, an extended family, a family with in-laws and cousins and aunts and uncles. And grandparents! And now I get an added bonus: I get to be one of the grandmas. And I get to be part of a tableau that tickles me whenever I picture it: two grandmas sitting together, working out solutions, talking and laughing and enjoying each other as we discuss all the details of the family.

MY BRAIN

I tried to decipher the radiologist’s report of the MRI that was recently done on my brain. Yes! my brain! My GP had ordered it when I was sunk in that weird depressed state back in October. It was mind-blowing to think that an MRI machine would be sending actual photos up from the depths of that mysterious realm. I went to a neurologist to have him explain the dire-sounding report.

He put the MRI cd I handed him into his computer while he was asking me why I was there.  I told him that I had googled the terms the radiologist used in his report, and as far as I could tell I was either about to have a stroke or to enter into a state of dementia.  Maybe both. I was worried, I told him.  I hoped he could give me something to do that would delay that all happening.

After looking carefully at all the pictures, he clicked the cd out of the computer and looked at it, turning it over.  Then he looked at me and said “How old did you say you are?”  My heart sank. “78.” There was clearly some terrible thing he was about to tell me.

He put the cd back in and looked at all the pictures again.  

“This is amazing.  I’ve never seen this before.”  Oh my god. I began to sweat. I should have brought a friend with me.  

“This is the brain of a 50 year old person.  And really, you’re 78?”  

I somehow managed to NOT leap out of my chair and hug him. 

“Oh, you say that to all the old ladies, just to perk them up.”

He finally smiled. “No no.”
  
“Well, even if you do, I can tell you:  it works!”  

I sobered up as I drove home. I thought about all the people who had been in the neurologist’s waiting room with me. There were wheelchairs and walkers and oxygen tanks. Everyone looked well over 65 and many were overweight and not in the least bit spry. No wonder my brain looked young to that neurologist.

I was bowled over by this incident. What a crystal-clear portrayal of the power of mind over matter. I had walked into the neurologist’s office feeling weak and apprehensive, worried about the future. I was probably hunched over, my face drawn, moving slowly. I was crabby to the receptionist. When I walked out an hour later I felt strong and optimistic. I stood straight and tall, smiled at everyone, and I couldn’t wait to get on with my life. Driving home I was amused to notice that I was no longer driving under the speed limit.

All that had happened were a few reassuring words.

And now, a week later, here I am in New Zealand with my youngest daughter Emily and her family, which includes my kiwi son-in-law and four of my grandchildren. Such a lively group, and all with lovely kiwi accents! Soon my middle daughter Susan will arrive from Amsterdam with her family, which includes my Dutch son-in-law and two more of my grandchildren. Another lively group, and all with lovely Dutch accents!

No matter how my brain appears on an MRI, it can find no words adequate to describe my state of bliss.