A couple of months ago my daughter Isobel asked me if I would see whether or not we could borrow our friend’s cabin in the foothills of Mt. Hood so that she and some of her closest friends from the speech and debate team could have a weekend in the mountains (with me coming along as driver, chaperone and cook.). So I went about the process of finding a weekend that would work for all involved (including coordinating the schedule with Isobel’s dad as the chosen weekend fell on one of the weekends the two of them were supposed to be together), renting the cabin, and figuring out how to pay for it and the food. The weekend Izzy and her friends chose—this weekend – was seemingly perfect as this past Friday was a school holiday at the end of a week of final exams and presentations, so that meant they’d have three days to have fun hanging out in the woods.
The closer we got to this weekend, the less solid the plans became. It turns out that this weekend was also the national qualifying tournament for an event some of her teammates (and Isobel) were pondering whether or not to participate in, and another of her friends didn’t want to come on the trip because her boyfriend couldn’t come, and….well, you get the idea. The best laid plans, plans which seem so well conceptualized and solid, are often the very plans that get disrupted and fall apart and thus offer up opportunities for one (by “one” I mean me) to practice flexibility and equanimity. I can’t say I was terribly flexible nor a picture of equanimity when Izzy informed me that the weekend with her friends was off, though she would try to come for part of it with me if she could (it turns out she couldn’t). I’ll be honest with you–I was actually quite disappointed and frustrated, though also understanding of the fact that my daughter has entered (so quickly that I feel like I have the bends!) a new, more independent and complex (by which I mean emergent and peer-oriented) phase of her life.
Any way, after all that planning (it wasn’t easy to find a weekend when the cabin was available that coincided with the schedule Izzy and her friends gave me) I wasn’t willing to give up the opportunity to go to the mountains for three days and stay in a cabin with a big fireplace, sauna, and close proximity to hiking trails along the Salmon River.
So I invited my mommy – her name is Susie — (and her dog Toby) to come with me to stay in the cabin in the woods. We’ve both been working hard and neither of us has had much time off, let alone a vacation, for quite awhile. The last time we got out of town was for her sixty-seventh birthday, the surprise day-trip to the coast Izzy and I gave her as a present. Though I will say that we’ve actually been spending quite a lot of time together recently, especially as my mommy is sitting in on the Women’s Issues in Aging course I am teaching this term. As I mentioned in my last post, I am holding this 11-week seminar at Mary’s Woods, the continuing care retirement center contiguous to the campus where I work. I have an open door policy for the course–any one can attend at any time. There are 9 matriculating undergraduate and graduate Marylhurst University students enrolled, plus another MU graduate student who has had the course already and is sitting in so as to work further on her thesis project, plus my mommy, plus two Mary’s Woods residents who just decided to show up and hang out with us at the first session. One of them came back last week for our second session but left after about forty minutes (I was informed later that she took offense to my use of the word “crone” to provoke a discussion about one of the potent symbols for powerful, wise women in later life.). She writes a column for a local newspaper and apparently her next piece, which will be published this coming week, was inspired by her short time participating in our class. (Let me admit to feeling both curious and nervous about what she has written!) Stay tuned—I’m sure I’ll let you know what happens next!
We have but two weeks of the course under our belt so far, so there’s a lot that can yet happen, but I must say that despite the emergent, unpredictable nature of the course — and the mild anxiety I’m experiencing – there is something really lovely about opening up the learning community to anyone who wants to participate, including my mommy. And as I’ve been discovering during this weekend in the mountains together — reading, cooking, hiking, taking saunas, sharing and filling in the gaps in our memories – she has been experiencing her own kind of unanticipated opening-up, in part because of her participation in my course. She’s been sharing with me so many surprising insights that I was moved to ask her if she wanted to engage in a dialogue with me that we might share here as part of the Gero-Punk Project.
Here’s just a wee taste of what we’ve been discussing:
Mommy/Susie: I was resting here on the couch thinking about the first day of your class. Normally I would have….well, I was taking care of Gussie all day (Note: She is a caregiver for older adults) and I was worried I wouldn’t finish up work fast enough and I’d be late for class. I remember coming in the font door (of Mary’s Woods), flying down the hall, and then seeing you. I remember flying down the hall in search of the classroom, and I went around the corner and there you were greeting students and two women came out and greeted me. When I came into the classroom I took the seat by door. Another woman introduced herself to me and I told her I was there because I had forgotten how to think, and I wanted to come to your class so I could learn how to think again. When you invited me to the class – it was a class I always wanted to sit in on – I decided to join the class, and I felt like a “rock star.”
Jenny: Why did you feel like a rock star?
Mommy: Because my daughter was teaching the class! And when you introduced me you said, “This is my mommy Susie!” and I felt like I was just a tiny bit more special. And my normal fear that I have of speaking out…I did speak out and I was nervous, but also as I spoke I realized I was sharing specific memories of things that we had been through, and I worried that maybe I didn’t have any boundaries. And I didn’t even have a sheet of paper! I had to borrow a piece of paper from you! The Gero-Punk’s mom goes to school and doesn’t even bring a pad of paper!
After the introductions from each of the other the women who were there, you started introducing the coursework and some of the expectations for the course, but mostly you started to talk, or “lecture.” For me, all of the sudden it was, “Oh, my gosh! I didn’t know she knew all of this!” I was surprised that you could say all of the things you were saying. I was riveted and I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. I heard every word that you said! I was totally blown away—I had no idea that you had of that information in your head! I had never heard you talk like that! Any way—I was almost stunned. And then I started really looking at you and I started noticing you in a different way. I saw you as a different person. You weren’t just my daughter, but you were also a professor! I became very aware of your face — your blushed cheeks and the softness of your face. Then it was time for a break and it was just like you that you brought tea-bags to share with everyone. And then I went to the bathroom and we passed each other in the hallway. I didn’t feel like I had to stop and say anything to you — we just smiled at each other. Usually I would have clung on to you as my special friend!
It is hard for me to explain to you how what we are reading for the class (Note: See the list of readings at the end of this essay.) has opened a part of me, has kind of freed me up and made me think about my place in the world as an older woman, though I didn’t feel like an “older woman” in the class, we are all women despite our different ages and we relate in a different way than if there were also men in the class. I now see more possibilities for myself as an aging person.
The second class session last week, I was so profoundly exhausted from working long shifts, I still found it to be a great experience but I wasn’t as sharp. And I had a lot to say but I had a hard time jumping into the conversation. I wanted to say something about the symbol of the Crone.
At some point in that class session, you said, “We are all going to die, we are. We don’t know when, but we are all going to.” You saying this — it really opened up all the possibilities that are there for me for however long I still live. I probably need more money coming in but I’m not particularly concerned about it. I want to do things like take more classes and practice guitar. I realize I don’t understand a word that is said in the books you assigned, but I can learn for my own sake and you won’t be grading me! But I do know that I need to do the readings if I’m going to be able to participate.
I think it is just that I saw you for the first time as an adult, as a professor. I don’t know, Jennifer, it is a really, really weird thing. The thing is that you are very friendly but you are also an authority, you know what you are talking about. You know things from experience and from your learning. I’ve tried to tell a couple of my friends about the fact that the biggest shock to me was to see how you are in a new place, not as a daughter or mama, but as a little professor. You looked so different to me! Really, Jennifer, when I think about it, my reaction was so strong. As a mother, I can read your writing, but to experience you communicate on the spot is unbelievable. I want to hear everything you know.
Jenny: I want to hear everything you know, too!
Mommy: People have said to me, “Your daughter has been teaching for twenty years and you’ve never heard her before?” But I never had the opportunity before, even though you invited me. Now I have the opportunity. I also have thought how wonderful it would be if your grandmother could hear you, but it is probably too late.
Jenny: My Gramma got to participate in my learning in her own way, it is okay.
Mommy: It is a fascinating experience to have this kind of opportunity as a parent. It is really hard to even express it. I was blown away, I really was.
Jenny: Well, there’s a similar thing for me having my mommy in my class.
Mommy: My feeling was that you are very proud to have me there. And that you introduced me as “This is my mommy, Susie,” rather than, “This is my Mother, Susan Hotz.” The way you introduced me was warm. Do you feel discomfort or embarrassment having me in your class? This would be one of my questions for you.
Jenny: (I giggle…) No, I don’t feel discomfort or embarrassment at all!
Mommy: Even though I don’t know all the big words?
Jenny: Do you want to hear what I feel? I feel my own kind of excitement getting to see you in a different context. I love watching you interact with the other students and how they respond to you. It is cool to hear what you have to say about your experiences, the readings, what other students have to say. I’m really proud of you and it is wonderful having you participate in the class.
Mommy: I felt this last time like I was one of the group and not just the mommy of the professor. I felt like the other women were looking at me and saying what they felt and listening to what I had to say. But you have an ability to act natural, like I am on the same level as the rest of the students, in terms of the attention you give me.
Jenny: Well, except I did bring you a little notebook so you’d have paper!
Mommy: I know, I showed the notebook to everybody—it has sparkly flowers on the front! I thought it was sweet when you came over to me on the break and asked for a snack. It was really cute—I was like a mommy bird flying by and I dropped some walnuts in your hand.
Jenny: So you feel like you are part of the group and not just my mommy?
Mommy: Yes, I feel like I am part of the group but also your mommy. The only thing I wish is that I understood all of the words that all of you are using. I’m going to have to write down the different words I want to know more about.
Jenny: Do you want to share anything more about your experience of this stage of your life course? What you shared while we were hiking today was really interesting.
Mommy: You mean the opening up of my life? Now that I am not working as much as I was before, I’m not having to get up so early, I don’t have to rush from thing to thing, and I am no longer coming home totally exhausted. The only thing I was continuing to do when I was working so hard was exercising. Sometimes I was so worn out by the end of the day of care-giving that I would just sit in my red chair and do nothing for a couple of hours.
Now I feel like I’ve walked into a big room full of possibilities. I have much less money but for some reason all the things I said I couldn’t do before because I had to work so hard are now before me as possibilities—joining a walking club, for example. Now I have time to take my neighbor’s daughter Amelia on a walk—we go pick up pine cones or play. I give her mommy an hour to herself; I know how important that is. Or I go to my church and help fold bulletins or visit with people. I’m thinking of growing a cutting garden so we have fresh flowers for the church alter. I have several younger friends but I’d really like to get to know some other persons my age and older who want to be active and do things. I can’t play my flute any more because it bothers my ears when I wear my hearing aids, but I could continue to learn to play guitar. I had even stopped listening to music before because I was so tired, but now I am beginning to return to my love of music.
Jenny: It seems like there has been a major shift is in how you think about yourself and your life.
Mommy: When the (elder care) agency I worked for closed suddenly it was a really big experience and then when I had to leave my client Bob because the situation of caring for him was becoming impossible for me, well, I was really courageous in those situations. I am tired of being bullied by the care-giving agencies that employ me. I’d rather somehow be on my own. Do I know what is going to happen next? No, I have no ideas. But I have had enough and I have decided that my life is going to look differently. You know, being able to help Isobel or you when you need me, especially when Isobel has only a year left at home, is really great now that I don’t have to worry about getting time off from work to do so. Also being able to decide to go to a yoga class out of the blue is so delightful.
You know what also happened? Whenever I can be totally honest with you I feel better – you know, for some reason I hadn’t told you I was planning a big trip with my friends. I worried that you would say I couldn’t go and would judge me because I don’t have any money, though you wouldn’t probably. When I finally told you, you were happy for me and you encouraged me to go. I realized that I can tell you the truth and you’ll be joyful about the good things that come into my life. When you responded that way it opened something for me. I realized I didn’t have to hide.
Jenny: So, something changed in you and something changed between us as well?
Mommy: What really helped me was the day we sat at your kitchen table and we had an honest conversation about the future, when we really talked about how we could help each other now and into the future. We don’t know what is going to happen, but there’s a huge likelihood I might need to live with you, though who knows, who knows. But the fact that you said you would be willing to live with me or help me when I am even older really helps me feel better and more open.
Jenny: I am so glad to hear that you feel that way!
Mommy: Oh, can I read you this quote from another book I am reading?
“The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never quite effaced” (p. 55).
From: Heilbrun, C.G. (1997). The last gift of time: Life beyond sixty. New York: Ballantine Books.
Reading list for the Women’s Issues in Aging seminar
Calasanti, T., Slevin, K.F., & King, N. (2006). Ageism and feminism: From “et cetera” to center. NWSA Journal, 18(1), 13-30.
Gullette, M.M. (2004). Aged by culture. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.
Ray, R.E. (1999). Researching to transgress: The need for critical feminism in gerontology. Journal of Women & Aging, 11(2/3), 171-184.
Ray, R.E. (2004). Toward the croning of feminist gerontology. Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 109-121.
Walker, M.U. (Ed.) (1999). Mother time: Women, aging, and ethics. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.