Gero-Punk Adventures: Aging in Place (part 2)

To get to the park from my house, this is the most direct path: After passing through the front door and carefully stepping down the three steps of the front stoop, turn left at the edge of the driveway. Then, walk to the end of the street – it comes to a “t” at the cool house where Nicole, Glen and their three boys used to live. Take another left but move across the street at a diagonal (there’s only sidewalk on one side of the street; I want to keep you safe). You’ll see a tall fence.

Walk along the fence and turn right at the corner. You’ll be in front of the house where John used to live before he died; now there’s a family: two parents, two kids, one small dog (for whom the fence was constructed).  I was worried because I hadn’t seen the puppy since late autumn and I’d heard she’d been sick, but yesterday as I was walking home from the park with Happy-the-dog I glanced toward the house and saw her sitting on the back of a couch looking out the window, bouncing up and down, thrilled to see one of her humans arriving home!

At the end of that block, turn right and as you walk onward you will see up ahead and to your left the park.  I’ll leave you to it from here – you can choose your own adventure. But might I suggest that you be sure to pay attention to movement in the casting pond as it might be the multi-generational family of killdeer who live in my park? Also, you’ll probably enjoy seeing the playground – it is quite unique – as well as ambling along the boardwalk. Be sure to look deep into the reeds and grasses as you might discover an interesting feathered creature dwelling there (we’ve seen a variety of winter waterfowl recently).

+++

Sixteen years ago, I chose this neighborhood as a place for me and my daughter to start over (again). Though actually, as I think about it, the dream to live here began more than twice as long ago when I was a teenager and saw this neighborhood for the first time. (This neighborhood and me, we called to each other!) My daughter, now 23 and living in Paris, grew up here. This summer will be the first time she won’t be coming home to live. The next time she comes here, it will be for a short visit. I wonder, now that she’s making a life in a far-away place, does she still feel the pull of the neighborhood where she spent so much of her life thus far?  Will this place still feel like a home, even as she enters more fully into her adult life?

My mother has dwelled in this neighborhood off-and-on for almost as long as we have.  She lived in various apartment complexes around persons of all ages and stages. A few years ago, she decided to move to a subsidized apartment complex for older adults, just on the other side of the park. As her needs have changed, so too have her dwellings.  She’s chosen to grow old here.

+++

P. dwells here, too. He grew up in the neighborhood and in his early adulthood returned here to help his aging parents. After they died, he continued to live in the family home for as long as he could. Eventually, for complex reasons I’m only partially privy to, he lost the house. Since that time – twenty years ago? – he’s been houseless. When the weather is favorable, he has been known to pitch a tent (and to plant a garden) in a vacant lot near the park. Sometimes he stays up all night walking the neighborhood because that’s safer than letting his guard down to sleep outside when it is cold and dark. Sometimes a friend lets him “couch surf.”

This is P’s neighborhood. He loves it here and he says only death will make him leave it.

The most recent time I saw P. was on one of the snow days a couple of weeks ago.  I was roaming the neighborhood, out on an adventure.  I walked through the park, over the railroad tracks, all the way to the local botanical garden .80 miles away from my home, only to discover that it was closed because of the snow. I had intended to check on the various winter waterfowl. I know that they know how to handle themselves when the temperatures drop, but I still wanted to make sure they were doing okay. (Though I wonder, what might have I done if I’d discovered that they weren’t doing okay?)

Finding the gates locked, I decided to head home via a slightly different route.  I’m so glad I did, as I came upon P. who was heading the same direction as I was but on the opposite side of the street. We saw each other at the same time and waved. Through gestures he told me to stay on my side of the street and he’d cross over. We greeted each other and confirmed that we were heading in the same direction – to the park. We walked together to and through the park, all the way to the end of my street.

As we walked, we talked about the neighborhood, the weather, our families, things that we were worried about. He reminded me and I agreed that it is a waste of energy to hold regrets or grudges, though it can be challenging to let go.  I asked him how he was doing in the cold, whether he had a safe place to stay.  He assured me he was just fine – he had a friend’s house in an adjacent neighborhood where he could go every couple of days to shower and get coffee; he was sleeping at night in an abandoned car near the park. He said he was a free man, living without burdens, without regrets.

He complemented the energetic pace with which I walked and remarked that he had been trying to keep up with me.  I told him that I had thought I was trying to keep up with him!  And then we said goodbye until next time.

+++

When I wake up, I can tell by the milky light behind the window shade that it is snowing (again!). I decide to set out on an early solo trek around my environs. My old friend Happy-the-dog is no longer up for such an adventure (though he’d beg to differ).  I trace my usual route through the park to see who might be out and about. Two humans; three dogs; a few sleepy mallards and geese. I want a longer adventure before diving into the day’s work, so on a whim I decide to walk to the botanical garden.  I expect to find the gates locked tight – it is early, the weather is “inclement”– but the walk to and from the garden is worthwhile on such a snowy day (really, on any day).

Surprise: The gates are open! Hooray!

I notice tracks in the snow. A couple of humans and dogs arrived before me, but I don’t see them now. It is only me and a few birds: coots; widgeons; mallards; and wood ducks (have you ever heard the sweet way they whistle to each other?).  Oh, and geese treading in the water and flying overhead. At the south-east corner of the garden, where the beaver’s dam is, I notice that since my last visit a very old, large tree has fallen across the stream that feeds the pond.  We’ve seen the “secretive and shy” green heron in that spot before but with the shelter of the tree, anyone could be hiding from view.

As I head north through the trees, back to the garden-gate, I look across the biggest pond, toward the West Hills. I see in the near distance the apartment building where my mother lives.

the manor across the pond

Heading home, I retrace my earlier path through the park. I walk along the boardwalk, checking to see who has awoken.  Blue heron stands hunched on a log, covered in snowflakes.  I see no sign of the little winter birds: green-winged teals; mergansers (hooded and common); pied-billed grebe. The ubiquitous mallards and geese seem impervious to the cold. Silent song sparrows dart between the low bushes and reeds.

Coming toward me is a man and a dog.   The man is tall and on his head is a shock of beautiful white hair.  My heart skips a beat – is that my dear friend Tod? And then I remember that my dear friend Tod died of pancreatic cancer this past December.  His memorial service is this weekend.

The tall man with the shock of beautiful white hair smiles as he gets closer and stops to say hello and allow his little dog (a terrier of some sort?) to hug and kiss me.  The man says:  Not many birds out today.  Who have you seen? Where do you think they go on a day like today? I tell him about my adventure to the botanical garden, who I saw (and didn’t see).  I tell him that up ahead he’ll find a very cold blue heron standing on a log, as well as mallards, geese and sparrows, but none of the small winter waterfowl.  We speculate together about where the teals, mergansers and grebes might shelter from the snow: Under the bushes? In the middle of the tall grasses and reeds? Do they borrow a burrow?

As we leave each other, the man says: We are so lucky to live here and to be a part of all of this.

I say: Yes, we are so lucky.

About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (9th edition) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am affiliated with the Portland Community College Gerontology Program and Lead Instructor for the Oregon State University Human Development & Family Sciences Portland Program.
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5 Responses to Gero-Punk Adventures: Aging in Place (part 2)

  1. Rosalie McDougall says:

    Lovely description of a beautiful neighbourhood. I wish I knew what P looked like, maybe I have seen him. Thanks.

  2. Kate Kelly says:

    I enjoyed hearing your voice as you walked through the park, commenting on the many observations along the way. Nature is so wonderful. As I write this, I’m looking out on a world blanketed in mounds of fluffy white snow. Right outside my window the pair of Cardinals, finches, and chickadees take turns at the bird feeder, and the squirrels tunnel through the snow to partake in the banquet. It’s a vast winter wonderland of white that will someday melt away to spring🌷

  3. Erica says:

    I am so grateful to you for capturing the magic of this past week in your charming essay ❄️
    love erica

  4. Nicola Bemister says:

    Thank you for your essay. It was so beautifully put. It made me think of my own walks along the Itchen River here in Southampton with my dogs. Like you I chat to people along the way. It does make us grateful and happy. Thanks again.

  5. helenfern says:

    What a beautiful reminder of the abundance in our lives – Our abundance doesn’t come from things, but the beauty of nature and our relationships, all of them. Thanks Jenny.

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