At One With Aunt Bertha 

When I glanced at my wrist, the girl seated next to me said, “You still tell time on a watch?” When I asked a fresh-faced nurse to call my home phone with my test results, she raised her eyebrows, ”You still have a landline?” “Don’t bother with Snapchat,” a nephew advised, “It’s for young people.”

I’m annoyed when others assume I’m technologically inept because I’m old. But I’m also amused. Their comments remind me of the fun my family had when the telephone reached the rural community where I was raised, and older folks acted like a dangerous stranger had come to town.

Because of Lake Shore’s sparse population and remote location, Mountain Bell took its time finding us. My siblings and I watched the slow progress of the line crews and thought if we got a phone, we’d be too old and deaf to use it. Our cousins who lived in Provo increased our anticipation by demonstrating their telephone’s entertainment value. We took turns calling random numbers and burping at length in the ear of anyone who answered.

After weeks of waiting, the summer day arrived when a lineman, whose tool belt dragged his pants dangerously low, entered our yard and perched atop a pole to connect us. Bob and I, in a frenzy of excitement, provided a demolition derby for his amusement: Bob rushed at me pushing a wheelbarrow with a flat tire; I defended myself with an abandoned baby buggy loaded with Barbara. The lineman looked alarmed and quickened his pace.

After the phone was installed, we stampeded when it rang, hoping to be the one to answer, then stayed to listen to the conversation. When no one else was around, I dialed the operator over and over, disguising my voice each time I said, “Time, please.” My fun ended when an operator replied, “Little girl! Stop it!! Right Now!!!”

Quickly recognizing the possibilities of a two-party line, Barbara and I quietly lifted the receiver and listened when we heard Anderson’s ring. Then Mrs. Anderson stopped by our pew at church and said, “Little pitchers have big ears, don’t they, girls?” She must have been disappointed when we looked puzzled rather than abashed.

Dad said we could not call anyone without permission. Mom explained a new monthly bill made him nervous; he thought we should limit the phone’s use until we knew how much it would cost. She felt certain he’d settle down eventually. But for years, by the time we said the second syllable of hello, Dad yelled, “You’ve been on that phone long enough. Hang up.”

Aunt Bertha

We didn’t bother to stifle our giggles when we visited our great aunt Bertha and she used her phone. She held it away from her ear so her hearing wouldn’t be harmed, then complained that people mumbled. She also spoke tersely and hung up without saying goodbye when she deemed the conversation finished. Eventually, Mom discovered our thrifty aunt thought she’d be charged by the word — like a telegram.

Once, after giving me ice cream and cake to “satisfy my sweet tooth,” Aunt Bertha confided she often ignored her ringing phone, because she refused to be interrupted by an “irksome nuisance people use for no good reason at all.”

Now, sixty-five years later, I drive to Steamboat, ignore the sparkly tune I programmed for my ringtone and feel a close kinship with Great Aunt Bertha.


I’ve Misplaced My Derring-Do

Great Aunt Beulah said, “People think old folks like me are daft and feeble.” Then she decapitated a chicken.

Her words stuck with me; and since my retirement, I’ve realized their truth. When I attend meetings like those I used to facilitate, the other participants allow me to sit in silence and look wise. On crowded buses, parents tell their children to stand up and “offer that lady your seat.” Teenagers with spiked hair hold doors until I totter through.

When I took a bowling class, fresh-faced classmates offered one another advice: “Start your release sooner,” or, “ Move a couple of boards left.” Their feedback to me was “Nice try” and a vacated seat so I could catch my breath after rolling two gutter balls. When I walk with younger family members, motorists who stop for directions address their questions to those with unlined brows, as though my wrinkles mean I no longer recognize my neighborhood.

I notice these age-based reactions without letting them disturb my peace of mind or nap. I do, however, worry that I expect less of myself. During the years I worked as a consultant to small school districts in northwest Colorado, I drove alone through the darkness of winter on narrow, two-lane roads curving along rivers and through ranch lands. I maneuvered steep passes buttressed by frozen waves of snow, made lonely by the absence of homes and fellow travelers. I sang with the radio as sparse snow thickened and fell with increased determination.

Now I hesitate to drive three miles in full daylight if a skiff of snow is blowing across the highway.

I used to anticipate the challenge of walking into a workshop filled with seventy-five professionals sizing up the stranger who would instruct them. I liked convincing skeptics I had content knowledge, could make training meaningful and was serious when I said we would keep the break to fifteen minutes.

Now when a friend asks for volunteers to tell stories of the past to first graders, I avoid eye contact.

In my personal life, I thought nothing of cleaning bathrooms while doing laundry, scrubbing floors while making a shopping list, re-potting houseplants while calling my sister, cooking dinner while preparing to party.

Now I feel unduly burdened by one such task, and it takes most of a day to prepare for an evening out — there are so many more problems to disguise.

I used to fuss about my growing reluctance to engage, to rush from task to task, to agree to do things I don’t want to do. But I slowly realized it is permissible to do things I enjoy, not those others expect. It’s O.K. to relax into the rhythms of the life I have rather than trying to maintain the cadences of my younger self.

Living more slowly allows me to recognize my growing need for simplicity: a cluster on the back fence of sweet peas I grew from seed give me more happiness than watching the latest hit movie. As autumn advances, sharing a homemade meal of soup and bread with Joel pleases me more than dining in a restaurant, and sitting in the backyard surrounded by chickadees doing their flighty thing while I read or write seems more satisfying than a trip abroad.

Simple things refresh me, soothe me, fill me with wonder because I now have the time and wisdom to notice them.

Could We Have a Decision, Please

Glue Tube

I stood in a hardware store transfixed by twenty-five types of glue, each promising to accomplish the impossible. I didn’t need a miracle: a small tube of super glue to reattach the wings of a ceramic angel would be sufficient.

But I studied carpenter glue, carpet glue, all-purpose glue, tile glue, fabric glue, household glue, plumbing glue, and shoe goo. I discovered the super glue I sought could be purchased as squeeze-on, brush-on, drop-on, extra-strength, double-bonding, tinted or odorless. I spent long moments with glue that promised to hold up for a lifetime, wondering  if it could solve my eyelid problems.

An impatient employee locked the door behind me as I left —  glueless.

When younger, I never dithered over a decision. I would have been out the door with the glue I needed in minutes. With age, however, I’ve become less certain, more given to deliberation, and more open to possibilities.

I prefer my new behaviors.

I used to shop for clothing by myself so the opinions of others wouldn’t slow me down.

I stood alone beneath the harsh lights of dressing rooms, thinking, “High in the waist, a strange pucker along the zipper, bruised avocado is an unpleasant color, but it will do.”

My shopping decisions were quick and misguided. “What was I thinking? I can’t go out of the house in this!”

I also made quick decisions in restaurants, needing only a couple of minutes to be fully prepared for the waitperson’s inquisition. I knew what I would have to drink, the sides I would choose with my entrée, and the salad dressing I preferred. I had backup selections in case my choices were no longer available.

Meanwhile, my husband reacted to the standard inquiry about soup or salad as though it were a trick question and seemed stumped by the potato possibilities. While he engaged Hi-I’m-Your-Waiter Jules in a lengthy conversation about every dish on the menu, I read War and Peace cover to cover.

But, too often, I ate an overcooked chicken breast with gooey rice while my husband dined on salmon in dill sauce with garlic mashed potatoes.

So now I chat with Jules.

Throughout my working years, I thought the only decision necessary when choosing a driving route was the fastest distance between two points. I anticipated the arrival, not the journey.

Now Joel and I set the GPS on minimum freeway time and stop every hour or so at a city park or rest area where I enjoy checking out license plates and watching fellow travelers as they stretch out kinks or chase dogs held captive in cars for too many miles.

On the road, when my sharp-eyed husband spies the tenth hawk in less than fifteen minutes and slows to watch it soar, I share his enthusiasm rather than responding, “Yup, looks just like the last nine.”

This morning as we drank coffee and watched snow swirl around our yard, I thought about this unexpected advantage of aging: the ability to dither and fritter. I may be developing the jowls of a bloodhound, but I’m also patient when making decisions, open to opinions and options, appreciative of the journey.

The race is over.


Rose-Colored Glasses

aged woman with pink eyeglasses smiling at camera

I once read the more you remember about your childhood, the happier it must have been. I don’t remember the credentials, if any, of the person who authored this idea; but the notion stuck with me, and I ponder it from time to time.

I have an abundance of vivid, detailed memories of my upbringing. They are predominantly pleasant, so I tend to write with humor and happiness about the life I lived as a youngster.

But I sometimes wonder if I view my childhood through rose-colored glasses and thus mislead my readers, who could imagine I had perfect parents with only one or two endearing failings and siblings who squabbled, but always in a humorous, affectionate manner. My followers could believe I lived in a constant flow of love, exemplary behavior, good grades, abundant friends, and the pink glow of pleasantness.

Of course I didn’t live in a never-ending state of bliss. Some of my memories are embarrassing, humiliating, and hurtful. Most folks would probably agree the road of life is a crowded, bumpy, pot-holed path rather than a newly paved highway traveled by decorous drivers.

Dad’s temper could flare alarmingly at inanimate objects and recalcitrant animals. Mom — weary from babies, refereeing, cleaning, and cooking — sometimes issued sharp reprimands. The ridicule and insults of my siblings could wound me by falling too near the truth, and I would rush to retaliate as hurtfully as possible.

Our sibling life included yelling, crying, sneakiness, lying used defensively, defiance of parental rules, and resentment of punishments. Our friendships and school experiences contained bouts of bleakness; and money, which did not flow easily, could cause contention.

So I do remember turmoil and outbursts of chaos; but, if given the opportunity, I would choose to be raised again by the same parents and with the same siblings. My heart sings when I know I’m going to spend time with any of my brothers and sisters and floods with love when I remember my parents and deceased brother. If given a truth serum and asked to describe in one word the years I lived under my parents’ roof, I would respond, “Happy.”

I think the truth about anyone’s past is a liquid stream of luminous gray, neither pristine white nor deep black: a stream at the mercy of human memory, wending its way through the sometimes boisterous, sometimes placid, sometimes threatening river of our lives.

My memory soothes the intervals of disturbed water in my young life, and I’m glad. Though I don’t deny my realities, I prefer to remember  my childhood as stretches of calm river etched with sunshine rather than occasional turbulences edged by a threatening sky.

I’ve made my choice: if I ever write bleakly, it will have to be fiction.


The Nature of Time

vintage clock

When he flew home from Vietnam, my first husband, Bill, brought with him a carved wooden hand with two fingers extended in the peace sign, photographs and memories of men in his platoon, and his short-timer calendar.

Most soldiers with fewer than three months left in Viet Nam kept such calendars. They were painted on helmets, sketched in notebooks, drawn on paper. All were illustrated; some were funny; many were salacious, a few were works of art. Every calendar had numbered spaces counting down to wake-up on the soldier’s last day in country.

As the final months crawled by, short-timers colored or marked off a space a day.

A fellow soldier drew Bill’s calendar: a psychedelic design decorated with joints, peace symbols and jungle trails. My husband had colored in every space. Here and there around the edges, he also scribbled addresses, phone numbers, and reminders. A random note caught and held my attention: “Time stands still. I’ll never make it home.”

When asked, he said: “Time moved like mud those last few weeks,” and nothing more.

Now I’m embarked on my final season, I think about his calendar, his comment, and the nature of time.

I wonder if time fears its own passing; if it drags its feet in an attempt to slow itself down. I wonder if it ages, develops wrinkles and aches, rues the fast pace of the passing years. Does time lose track of itself when lost in memories as I do? Does it remember the freedom it enjoyed as a child, the possibilities it sensed as a youth, and the rewards of being needed and useful as an adult?


I tell myself if time wanted to postpone the inevitable result of its relentless passing, it wouldn’t spin out of control, crazed with speed, as it has since I turned sixty-five. It wouldn’t fold in on itself, causing months to fly by as quickly as days once did, and days to flash by in minutes.

I know that time doesn’t age as we do; but it does seem to possess a contrary personality that compels it to act in opposition to our lives.

To children, the weeks before Christmas crawl more slowly than a slug; teenagers, yearning for the endless years to pass, think they will never be old enough to drive. Meanwhile, adults are amazed that their offspring are in high school already; and grandparents look into the face of old age, incredulous that it arrived so quickly. At the same time, a soldier colors in a calendar and despairs.

Time passes for all of us, seeming to adjust its pace for each of us; and I find myself at the center of a whirlwind.


For Joel


Sombrero Shot

In 5th grade, I missed the point but remembered the beauty of a science experiment. After assembling some materials and asking for our attention, Mr. Wadsen told us to watch carefully because he’d be asking for our observations. Then, with his cowlick springing free and an air of scientific inquiry, he slowly emptied a large eyedropper filled with red dye into a jar of water.

Leaning forward in my desk, I propped my chin on my fist and watched as tiny tendrils of scarlet worked their way through the water, slowly expanding and stretching in whorls and swoops until the water was completely infused with a lovely red glow.

More recently, a sense of well-being has spread through me much like that softly flowing color I remember watching as a 5th-grader. Contentment, in swirls and downward trickles, has slowly changed me, bestowing an ease that streams through my days, transforming me as gently as dye infuses water, making me more beautiful on the inside. I’m happy.

Aging — though a continuing succession of physical woes — has blessed me with the grace of maturity.

During my life, I endured losses, suffered hurts, made mistakes, and failed those I cared about; but I also learned what is important and what is superficial; what my body and soul need and what harms them; what I am responsible for and what I can leave to others.

I’m calmer now, more genuine and appreciative. I’m able to more quickly see the humor in my own follies and the eccentricities of others.

My major life-decisions have been made, and for the most part, I’ve accepted them and learned to live with their consequences. Sentences I used to resist saying come more easily to me now: I’m sorry. I was wrong. It’s not important. And other statements escape me less often: You always. You should. I didn’t.

I still begrudge my body’s latest betrayals, dread the results of medical tests, and greet my mirrored image with indignant surprise, but the infusion of happiness bestowed by my years buffer those blows, comfort me with the knowledge that, as long as I live, I’ll be able to find a measure of joy in life.

So thank you, Joel, for looking up from editing one of my recent posts and asking why I never write about the positive aspects of aging.

You are right. I’ve failed my readers by not telling them the truths I’ve discovered as I’ve walked through the last ten years with you.


Aunt Beulah’s Recommendations for Living Well

and some who modeled them for me

1. Nurture your body and mind
A California girl strode into my classroom and introduced herself as the teacher next door. Blonde and athletic, Barbara became my best friend and reacted with disbelief when she learned I didn’t exercise. “Not even speed walking? You don’t own a bike?” Within a year, I purchased running shoes and drove to an abandoned railroad grade outside of town. Knowing from Barbara that cardio conditioning requires continuous movement, I decided to run 30 minutes. New to pacing, I sprinted up the grade, then lurched up the grade, then vomited on the grade. But I didn’t quit.

2. Indulge in laughter and small pleasures

Mr. Hall, the janitor at my elementary school, carried laughter and peppermints in the pockets of his bib overalls to share with students in need. Every day, he sprinkled sunshine among us; as a result, most of my class decided to be janitors when we grew up — so we could have as much fun as he did.

3. Cherish your loved ones and friends
As I explained in my first post, when Aunt Beulah hugged me tight and listened, she did more than stifle my sobs: she demonstrated her love for me in an understated way that bound me to her forever. And she never mentioned the mess I made of her apron front with my blubbering.

4. Do some good
My oldest brother played free-spirited games he created with his much younger siblings, and we adored him. That’s why we sat in the car and sobbed as he walked toward the exhaust-spewing bus that would start him on his long journey of service to his country in Korea, then to the many students he taught, followed by his more recent service to his church in China, Laos and South Africa. Now 80, he serves the dying as a hospice chaplain, and my experience tells me that he serves them with understanding and generosity.

5, Utilize your talents and skills
When I called my mother of 78 on a Sunday afternoon, we talked about the speech she had given in church that morning; and she described her latest project: a chest she refinished and painted with graceful red poppies. She planned to take  it on Monday to the artist’s co-op where she sold her crafts. A few days after our conversation, she died. I sat in my living room, surrounded by cherished items she made for me, and wept.

Parents at Hoover Dam

My parents in front of the dam Dad helped build.

6. Develop financial fitness
My dad worked in the depths of the Hoover Dam, the gold mines of California, and the iron-ore tunnels of Utah. At 35, fearing miner’s lung, he went to work at an iron mill in the fiery heat of a blast furnace. When laid-off or on strike, he took any job he could to prevent “going on the dole,” which he considered more demeaning than bucking bales in another man’s field or cleaning coops at a neighbor’s chicken farm. And always, he saved, avoided debt, and made double house payments whenever possible. Every time I buy something I want, rather than need, I sense him shaking his head in dismay.

Have some thoughts
about your role models for aging well?
I’d be interested.
Please comment.

Recap of last week’s comments
Janice wrote that retirement should be about pursuing any dreams you put on hold when younger; Jeannie wishes she had abandoned her dream of being taller by wearing 4-5 inch heels that eventually did her harm. Kathleen senses retirement looming, but admits she’s a grasshopper. Sue fretted about pursuing too many interests too briefly, even as she understood that her varied interests helped her teach well. Dawna was flooded by memories of her loved ones and thinks she should start planning now in order to age well.

As I read your comments, I appreciated the spirit and personality evident in each response. Thank you.