We kids used to call our grandmother “The Colonel” (behind her back) because she marched through life, giving orders. She was German, you see, and she fit the stereotype perfectly. She was inordinately fond of order, and she found little of it on her semiannual visits to her daughter’s disorderly family. “You people,” she’d grumble, shaking her head and waving an accusatory finger, as if we were aliens and hopeless cases.
When Grandma wasn’t criticizing she was complaining about this or that — mostly about her failing health and her sad lot in life. Her only other child, a beloved son, had died young; and her loving husband had died not long after. We couldn’t replace them.
Nothing seemed to cheer her, nothing that we kids did to amuse her – dance, sing, tell silly jokes – succeeded. Without meaning to she became our role model of how not to be when we got old. Who needs a grumpy old lady in their life, anyway?
Now that I’m considerably older than she was when my sisters and I were small, I find I have more compassion for her. It’s no joke being an old person, I now know. Old age presents enormous, unforeseen challenges, pains and losses.
As the body, this shell we’re wrapped in, begins to break down, we feel betrayed. As the face, which used to catch men’s eye, becomes unrecognizable, we feel invisible, negated. As stamina wanes, we feel increasingly limited. In case anyone is interested in knowing this, it’s really, really hard to be a cheery old person – and especially, speaking from recent experience, a cheery old lady.
So what to do? Take happy pills? Fake it? Keep your mouth shut (as Dale Carnegie admonished in his super-best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Never criticize, condemn or complain”)? Put a make-believe smile on your face at all times in public? Wear wild, brightly colored scarves and large, jazzy jewelry to distract and elicit compliments from onlookers? Strive to be younger and cooler than you ever were?
In an effort to try to answer these questions, I did a little research this week on the subject. I ordered several books on Kindle on the general topic How to Be Old, and I read them in quick succession. What a disappointment. What silly, stupid, shallow so-called “books” (I hold real books to a higher standard) these were. I must keep searching.
In the meantime, I can say this for sure — to paraphrase Kermit the Frog — “it isn’t easy being old — looking and feeling like a pile of dead leaves….” So, I tell myself, we must take up the challenge and work on it every day: Draw on our inner strength (I ask God for my daily dose of strength each morning), stand as tall as possible (given the givens), keep going forward poco a poco, count blessings and eschew criticism and complaints (because what good do they do?).
Here in Mexico some of the sting of aging is assuaged by the fact that elders are generally respected. You can always count on getting a seat on a bus, for example, because a young person – usually a gallant young man – will rise quickly and give you his.
But I’m not really talking about externals here. What I’m driving at is the inner issue: How do we live with ourselves as old people? How do we look at our foreign reflection in the mirror and face the person we’ve become – despite our best efforts to arrest our inevitable decline – and embrace her (or him) with love, dignity, and grace? How do we make friends with this person and exude some joie de la vie for the rest of our vies?
If you’re looking to me for answers, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m still seeking them myself. All I know is I don’t want to be remembered as a grumpy old lady like my German grandma tended to be. Perhaps she knew no better. I have no such excuse.