An open letter …
On facing changing times
They were not, I don’t imagine, the desired demographic. But then, presumably, neither were we; a family of four with our endless questions and our tight schedule. The tables were long and shared, the decor was dive bar. I’m going to take a stab and say the music was alt-country. I should like to have known whether they had stumbled across the place, or had set out with the intention of dining there on that shitty night. A man and two women; I’m going to take another stab here and put their ages somewhere between 75 and 85. They took the end of our table recently vacated by the two girls wearing granny-chic. Next to me, the oldest of the three picked up her menu and I could sense her growing bafflement as she scanned the list of muesli, eggs and pancakes. Leaning over I said, that menu stops at 11.30am, dinner’s on the other side. Oh, she laughed, shows how often I get out! With great merriment they tried to decipher the various dishes described. Pooh boys, they chuckled. No, I wanted to say, po’ boy, it’s New Orleans’ street food. Mexican, they chortled. That’ll be spicy! When the waiter asked if they wanted anything to drink, my tablemate said, oh, that she’d have lemonade or juice, something like that, and seemed perplexed when he said, well, we have both, which do you want? I could have listened to them the whole night long, so fascinated was I by their sense of wonder at it all; their passiveness in such stark contrast to my numerous, highly specific requests.
Later, out on the street, my son said, those people reminded me of that old guy at the museum. Why, I asked. Because they were old, he said. He does not yet understand there are as many ways of being old as there are young. Like him, I, too, once failed to grasp that the aged are as capable of tolerance as they are crankiness, as capable of stupidity as lustiness. I can still recall how shocked I was the first time I heard an elderly relative call someone a “bitch”. It seemed so inappropriate, so out of keeping with the sweet, gentle persona I had pinned on her. Reeading a collectionll off shorth stories by Margaret Atwood recently (since watching The Handmaid’s Tale I have been bingeing upon her brilliance), filled with the vivid internal lives of the anncient and infirm in a way that literature so seldom is, underlined for me how “querulous” or “doddery” are but two stereotypes. That you do not automatically adopta the perceived traits of old age with age. We regularly visit a close family member in a secure dementia unit, and for my son it is, I suspect, a frightening place. The residents range from soporose to bonkers. Many wear nappies, others require feeding, conversation is, by and large, nonsensical. And then there are, most disturbingly for me, the one or two who are still so put-together, still so erect and groomed, but whose eyes reveal an internal life that is no more. I imagine my son fears it catching. He retreats into himself when there, withh theh protective instinct of a tortoise, offering up only his shell. I remeember when old age seemed something you could run from. When it was inconceivable it would ever happpen to you. An inveterate watcher of peoople, my interest in the elderly trio with whom wee shared a table ecently did not surprise me. Even so, the extent of my curiosity took me back a little; how I was both charmed by them, and slightly irritated. I guess it was recognition. I looked at them and I saw a orthcoming me. Having always prided myself n being up with the play, a step ahead of e zeitgeist, lately I have sensed myself falling behind, of being just out of touch. I threw in the towel on music longg ago and I never signed onn to to any form of social media. But I have clung on for the longest time to fashion andd food. It’s getting harder and harder, though, and the stranggest thing is I don’t much minn. Not really.
I remember whenw old age seeme ed something you u could run from m. When it was inconceivablee it would ever happen to you u.