Getting Old is not for Sissies

At least that’s what my 95-year-old Nanny (grandmother) tells me, and after spending a little over a week with her in Illinois last week, I would whole-heartedly agree with her.

My daughter Bryn was going on vacation with her grandparents, so I flew her to St. Louis from LA, handed her off to her grandparents who were driving to Florida for a week of fun in the sun, and then drove the three hours north to my grandmother’s house in Bloomington, IL.

Upon my arrival, my grandmother burst into tears and announced how happy she was to see me.  I had just been to visit her the month before as part of our annual summer vacation, but sadly, at 95 years of age her memory is not what it used to be.  Although it had only been a month, she was unable to recall my previous visit.  This always breaks my heart.  She will say things like, “No one ever comes to visit me.”  I gently remind her that I see her every summer, and although she believes me, her reality is such that she cannot remember the visits, so for her it’s like it never happened.

10422269_10153164412434668_2062150226730818813_n[1]While my Nanny is very healthy physically, her memory loss and diminished capacity for independence grates on her self-esteem.  She hates that she can no longer stand at the stove and prepare full meals or bake the delicious cakes and desserts she always enjoyed having in the house.  Every time I came to visit she always had a cake, pie, or some amazing sugar creation waiting for whatever company happened to stop by.  She was always prepared for company.  Now, she is still able to care for her own physical needs, prepare light meals like sandwiches, and also do some very light housekeeping, but for the most part her recliner in the living room occupies most of her attention these days.

12019820_907152482686906_3905592130149668443_n[1]My Nanny is 95 and my grandfather turns 97 this week.  They don’t have computers, internet, Wi-Fi, or even a DVD player.  They have cable TV, but that’s about it for modern technology.  Their day consists of rolling out of bed around 9am, and sitting in their chairs in the living room all day long, watching baseball, Mass, Fox News, and AMC movie classics.  That’s it.  I imagine I will find that life pretty enjoyable if I make it to their advanced age, however, for a 41 year old active woman, it was enough to make me want to throw myself from a cliff.

I wanted to spend quality time with them, so that meant sitting with them in the living room.  For hours.  Every day.  For nine days.  Watching Fox News.  And Lawrence Welk.  For the love of God, Lawrence Welk.  Watching her sing along to songs she has known for fifty years was heartening, but it was also like nails on a chalkboard.  My grandmother sings beautifully, and it made me happy to see her happy, but an hour of Lawrence Welk is enough to make me want to grind my ears through a pencil sharpener.  Now imagine a week of that.  (If you are reading this and you don’t know who Lawrence Welk is, google it.  Right now.  Then drink a bottle of wine and thank your lucky stars you weren’t me last week.)  I used to watch it with her when I was in college, just because it made her happy.  I did the same thing this week, just to make her happy.  Damn, I’m a really good granddaughter.  One night I came upstairs to find them watching AMC Classics, and Animal House was on.  OMG!  Talk about awkward!  But I sat through the movie because it was two hours of something funny and relative to my age group.  At the end, my Nanny declared it to be “junk” and she stated that if people actually thought this movie was good, then she held little hope for the future of our country.  I informed her that Animal House is a cult classic and almost everyone loves this movie.  She was thoroughly disgusted with humanity and went to bed.

11870911_511767202313147_6626111183102035627_n[1]Oh, and did I mention that many people tend to lose their filter when they hit advanced ages?  Well, my Nanny is no different.  This is a Christian Catholic woman who took her responsibility as a Christian seriously, and my whole life she refrained from talking trash about others because she felt it was a horrible sin.  However, that is no longer the case.  She has become brutally honest and says whatever pops into her head.  For example, among other shocking statements, she told me one day that I was the fattest she had ever seen me, and what the hell did I think I was doing letting my body go to shit like that.  I’m totally serious, and this is a woman who never cussed.   I reminded her that I’m not 25 anymore, I’m almost 42 years old and I usually work out 3-4 days per week.  She said, “Well, whatever you’re doing, it’s not working for you.”  One day I came upstairs wearing fashionably distressed jeans.  She said, “Are those the best clothes your husband can afford to buy for you?”  So I said, “Yes Nanny, and can you believe I bought these jeans with the patches already sewed into them?”  She rolled her eyes in disgust.  I winked at her.  We both laughed.

Due to her memory loss, we also had many repeated conversations.  She would ask me the same questions every few minutes, and I would give her the same answer, every time she asked.  We did this every day.  Several hours per day.  I was kind to her.  I was gentle.  I tried to remind her that she was still pretty and valuable.  Whenever I told her she was beautiful, she would say, “Yeah, pretty ugly, and pretty apt to stay that way.”  I’m laughing as I type this because her sense of humor is awesome.

IMG_1163I had to leave the house for a little while each day to maintain my sanity.  I found myself falling asleep on the couch with them at 6:30pm.  I was sleeping until 9am in the morning.  I was becoming an old person.  One day I looked at my VivoFit and saw that in the entire day, I had only walked 892 steps.  In a whole day!  The next day I went for a four mile walk just to combat the sedentary inclination.  I also went to the local campus, Illinois State University, my alma mater, and walked the quad.  It felt good to see the buildings, the new renovations and the efforts made to beautify and modernize the campus.  I found myself thinking, “Damn, I went to a nice school.”  I relived a lot of great memories that day and refreshed my old lady soul.

One day, Nanny let me take her for a drive.  She was alive with excitement driving around this town where she had spent her entire life.  She was seeing old and new buildings, construction and modern architecture, as if she were a young child in a new and enchanting land.  She was filled with memories and emotion as we drove past homes where she lived as a young woman with my grandfather, and cried when she observed new buildings where her old favorites no longer existed.  She lamented the time when she also would no longer exist, torn down and forgotten like an old, worn out building.

The day I left we said a tearful good-bye.  We are both painfully aware that at the end of each visit there is a very real possibility that it will be our last.  Before I left she looked at me and said, “You know I may not remember you at all next year.”  I held back my tears and said, “Yes, but I will remember you.”  And I drove away watching her in my side mirror as she stood in the driveway, beautiful and proud, with her hand raised in the air.  As she always does when I leave her.

So yes, whether you are 41 or 95, getting old is most definitely not for sissies.

Wanda Says…No Bandits!

kid walking to schoolMy daughter Bryn is ten years old and in the fifth grade.  We live one block from her school.  At the beginning of the school year she begged me to let her walk to school by herself.  She had a convincing argument.  She said, “It’s only a block, mom, and I’m old enough to walk a block by myself.” (To be read with the required level of pre-teen sarcasm and eye rolling).

She’s right, of course.  When I was her age we played outside every day after school, running around the neighborhood, riding our bikes everywhere.  As long as we were home by the time the street lights came on, our mom wouldn’t stand in the yard shouting our names until we came running.  She is old enough to walk a block, and farther, by herself.

But life today isn’t the same as when I was her age.  The dangers are real, and I do not trust the general population with the safety of my children. I think most people are genuinely caring and look out for kids in their neighborhoods, but it’s the person late for work that accelerates too quickly down their driveway without watching for school age kids on the sidewalk, and the child predators who look like nice people just wanting to stop and chat for a few seconds that scare the shit out of me.  I feel bad that she isn’t allowed to run the neighborhood like I did at her age, but none of her friends are allowed to do that either.  All of her friend’s parents are just as cautious as I am.

But she’s ten, and she is responsible and knows how to cross a street, watch for traffic, and not talk to strangers.  I can’t choose to hold her back from something that is developmentally appropriate and allows her to grow because it scares me.  So the least I can do to allow her some measure of independence is to let her walk to school by herself.  She loves it.  She feels like such a big girl, and I love seeing that look of satisfaction on her face when she walks in the door after school.

But I hate it.  I hate not being there to watch over and protect her for the four minutes it takes her to walk one block.

I silently stress out every morning when we say good-bye at the front door.  I watch her walk down the driveway, and I don’t stop watching until she rounds the corner and is out of my line of sight.  And then I surreptitiously keep my eye on the clock.  I know that as long as the school doesn’t call here by 9am that she made it safely.  I start watching the clock again at 2:30pm. She’s usually home by 2:40pm, and then I take a deep breath and relax.

This is what I look like when I'm protecting my kids.  For real.

This is what I look like when I’m protecting my kids. For real.

I know this sounds obsessive and crazy.  Especially to a younger person who has never had kids.  But having children changes you.  Having children brings out your protective instincts in a way nothing else can.  I became the mother bear.  I am that dangerous female Grizzly that will rip your throat out if you even think about physically harming one of my children.  And I’m not alone.  Thankfully, I’m in good company with all the other Grizzly mothers at Bryn’s school.  We all agree that allowing our children to walk to school at a certain age is a necessary risk to help them mature, grow and learn to be responsible for themselves and recognize potentially dangerous situations and how to handle them.   They need to know how to apply and use all the advice we’ve given them. “Look both ways before you cross the street, don’t talk to strangers, be aware of who’s around you and if someone approaches you and tries to get you to go with them, you drop your backpack, scream for help and run like hell is chasing you.”  Well, I didn’t give her that last bit of advice in exactly those words, but she got the message.

No Bandits!

So, I let her walk to school.  The first few weeks were the hardest for me.  About three weeks in I was sort of grilling her at the dinner table, trying to be nonchalant and casual about it.  I didn’t want to be up in her face with overly detailed questions, but I wanted to know how it was going.  I was obsessing, and I guess I wasn’t as subtle as I’d hoped because she looked at me and said, “It’s good, mom.  There’s no bandits!”  As she said this, she winked at me in a jaunty way and made finger guns.  LOL!

In that moment she made me laugh out loud with her cheeky sense of humor, eased my fears and reassured me that she truly is a big girl, which broke my heart a little too.  Now every morning when she leaves for school and kisses all of us good-bye, we all say, “No Bandits!”   🙂