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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Widow 101

Sadly, our time of life can be punctuated by the death of spouses and partners. If there is a long illness, we find ourselves facing the abyss with them, pitched head first on the down side of a roller coaster.  Amid the roil of emotions accompanying the realization that life is not an amusement fair any more, we need to have care and compassion for our own precious selves, along with practical forethought about our futures.
Even today I know women who hold only joint accounts—both checking and credit card—with their husbands.  The storm is coming, friend.  Now is the time to batten down the hatches, which means sealing every chink in our personal finances where the water might come pouring in.
If you don’t have a lawyer, get one. Check that everything in your joint bank account will be available to you immediately after your partner’s death.  Although we had a trust, our lawyer asked me not to use any joint funds for four months.  With probate, it might be even longer.  It's a good idea to put enough money in your personal checking account to get through at least half a year, which will involve working out what your monthly expenses will be.  You need at least one credit card account entirely in your name so that your credit is established. How about your partner’s pension? Are you signed in as the beneficiary? Will it keep coming in without interruption?  

If your partner doesn’t die suddenly, you think you’ve had time to adjust, but death always comes as a total shock to your system. After that, grief begins. It was at this point that I, who had never taken an interest in these matters, suddenly started reading the small print on everything that crossed my desk. It’s a good thing that I did. One week before stocks started to tank I discovered that my spouse’s pension was almost entirely invested in high flyers. I had time to put everything into a conservative portfolio before many of my friends lost their shirts.

And then, there are the chores that you’ve never had to confront before.  Ours was the most feminist of marriages, with housekeeping divided right down the middle.  He did everything below the waist—sweeping, mopping, vacuuming—while I attended to cooking, dishwashing, and laundry. 

A friend dropped in when he was in the hospital to find me weeping, mop in hand and bucket slopping onto the kitchen floor.

“Oh you poor thing! How awful you must be feeling,” she commiserated, putting her arm around me.

“I don’t know what to do,” I sobbed.  “I haven’t mopped a floor in thirty-eight years!”

There is nothing that stiffens your spine like the major household crises and attendant workmen he always used to deal with, who sometimes succumb to the temptation to take advantage of you as a newly vulnerable widow.

            There is a reputable roofer we’d used for years, but when I needed work done he had just retired, and it was his son who turned up.  The father had been a short, wiry, scientific and rational man who used to run a little instrument along our ceilings and figure out where the leak was with unerring accuracy.  The son was a huge, football player sized lout who leaned over me, barking out facts.
Pretty soon, amid much cursing from him and grumbles from his workmen, my shingles were off and replaced by a flapping blue tarp.
Weeks passed. I called, asked him to call, told him to call, all to no avail.  Finally, I left a message saying that if I didn’t hear from him that week, I was contacting the Better Business Bureau.  That led to the screeching of tires of his humongous truck in my driveway, banging on the door, leaning in my face, and shouts about what he thought about “The BBB,” with declarations that he didn’t give a bleep about them, accompanied by flecks of spit.
I had done my homework, having called a local television channel that promised to bring “Ruth to the Rescue,” with attendant cameras and documentary reproval, so I stood right up to him and told him so.
That did it, and the roof was repaired.
Fortunately, this was the only game of “intimidate the widow” I ran into, but these types are out there, looking to take advantage of you when you are at your weakest.
In the chore department, there were other surprises.  I am perfectly comfortable around furnaces, though my spouse had always changed the filters.  No problem, I told myself, removing one from its box and unscrewing the steel panel.  I should have remembered that I had never seen my father’s eyebrows when he worked for the gas company.  I had opened the wrong panel, and flames darted out.  Hastily replacing it, I called the furnace people.
The trouble was, I had earned the supercilious look that the owner gave me when he opened an entirely different panel at the back of the furnace and brandished the filter.
“This isn’t even dirty,” he insisted, “Why did you call me?”
“If it isn’t dirty,” I was quite pleased to reply, “why is there a mouse’s tail hanging out of the side?”
In the midst of all this, I had some pleasant discoveries about my own competence. I made the rather creative decision to hire a local fireman to clean my gutters, on the theory that he would be comfortable walking around up there.  I hired a loud-mouthed painter who gave himself a concussion standing up under a kitchen cabinet, but after I patched him up we were the best of chums. The electrician we had always used continued to treat me respectfully, and the man I hired to mow the lawn and plough the snow turned up when asked and behaved himself fairly well, except that he was given to frequent and fatuous endearments.

             My spouse, born in Detroit with a stick shift in his mouth, had been the expert on cars in our marriage, good at bargaining with dealers and doing all of the driving on long road trips.  I,  having grown up in Manhattan during the war when private cars were not permitted, had always found driving or even being driven extremely nerve wracking, an unnatural function (where were the subways?) and likely to lead to a crash at any moment.  

So here I am, getting myself wherever I need to go these days, having mastered the “Michigan Left” and no longer the least bit intimidated by Woodward Avenue.  Not only that, having competently bargained for and purchased a vehicle on my own, entirely out of ecological conviction, you can see me these days tooling everywhere around town in my little blue car, and also—would you believe it?— roaring Up North and back Down State in Michigan all of the time, doing 70 miles an hour and getting fifty-one miles to the  gallon.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Post-Menopausal Zest

        I have reached a certain age. In fact, if by that expression the French mean menopausal, I have reached past all that into PMZ— post-menopausal zest.  It is a season like blue jays in June, when they have stuffed the maws of their young so thoroughly and for so long that the young are bigger and fatter than their parents, who, worn down to scrawniness by reproductive success, have enough sense to turn their backs on the importunate presumptions of their overgrown progeny and fly off to find some berries for themselves. It is an age when, having committed our energies for years and years to partners and family and career and everyone in the world besides ourselves, we become the chief focus of our own affections.
            We are sick and tired of being nice.  No more will we pick other people’s socks off the floor, no more will we spend days organizing dinner parties to ingratiate people we don’t really like; no more will we stifle ourselves when someone shows us disrespect, but get right up on our hind legs and talk back. We career women get bored with competition for rewards we see no earthly use for, and, in our workplaces, we no longer suffer fools gladly.  Hankering for quirkier alternatives, we indulge in long, raucous evenings together, sharing food that we like and our heart’s deep stories, whooping it all up with laughter.
              Far away in India, when women reach this “certain age” they are suddenly considered genderless, a view that would send western women scurrying to  plastic surgeons, but which suits our superannuated Indian sisters just fine. Free at last from onerous family servitude, they band together in happy flocks chattering under the village Banyan tree, letting it all hang out and telling bawdy jokes.  Then they go off on pilgrimages, wandering the countryside in dusty saris, carrying only little bundles for luggage.
            We western widows, who have been down in the valley of the shadow, find our way back into the sunlight  much the same way as our Indian sisters do, by travel and  laughter.
            A year after my husband died, I set out on a trip to Cape Cod to visit women friends who had offered me ten days in a cottage they rent on their place. I had flown every week for my career and was stick to death of airplanes, so I took a bus from Dearborn to catch the midnight sleeper from Toledo, sporting a small green knapsack and a shoulder bag with computer. Walking out to the bus gate at in Boston’s South Station, I was hailed by a woman my age.         
           “You are one of us!” she announced “I’m Betty.”
“How do you know?”
“You have one of the signs—travelling alone, with only your knapsack.”
            “I’d love to be one of you,” I said, as another woman joined us on the bench, “but I’m not a part of your group.”
            “Oh I didn’t mean that,” she replied. “It’s just that I’ve discovered  women everywhere, these days, who recognize each other by certain signs, and travelling with nothing but a  knapsack is one of them.”
              “That’s right,” said the newcomer, “I’m Linda. I’ve been on the road for three weeks with just what I’ve got in here. Are you widows too?”
Then, while we waited for our bus, Betty and Linda and I sat and talked about our husbands’ deaths:
             “Henry was in denial,” I explain, “maddeningly cheerful for months in intensive care—I didn’t know what to do about grieving.”
            “Oh, Peter and I were both that way about his heart condition: he was a cardiologist and neither of us believed that he could die.”
            “George died of a massive stroke,” says Linda, “one moment he’s weeding the garden and then, at lunch time, when I took him his tuna fish sandwich, he was out flat by the fence, already gone.  I cried for a year, but then I took to travel” 
            “Me, too,” says Betty, “I’ve just been to my 50th college reunion and then an elderhostel in Philadelphia. Now I’m off to Nantucket; in the fall, it’ll be Ethiopia, then Fiji!”
            “I’m on the road every month!” said Linda, “but you’ve got to learn to get it all into one knapsack—just a change of clothes, and washable underwear.”
            “So you get bored with how you look,” said Betty, who was wearing a pair of light weight trousers that zip at the knee to make shorts, “but, honestly, who cares anymore?”
            “Have you heard the one,” asked Linda, “about the little old lady and her granddaughter with the see-through blouse? The girl is going out on a date, and comes downstairs in a gauzy blouse you can see right through. When her grandmother objects, the girl says
“Oh Granny, get with it! When you are my age you get to show your rosebuds!”
So, the next evening when her granddaughter’s date rings the doorbell again, the old lady is sitting right there, stark naked from the waist up.  The girl is horrified.
“What’s the matter, dear,” asks Granny. “If you get to show your rosebuds, why can’t I display my hanging baskets?”
             And we were off on our pilgrimages, boarding the bus to Barnstable, telling joke after joke all the way out to the Cape, healing our lives with cleansing peals of laughter.

Am I A Little Old Lady?

Did you hear the latest?  Women are living so long that we’ve got a whole new stage of life— “active old age”— which we get to enjoy when are between  fifty and seventy-five years old.  Well whoopdee- do, I’m seventy-four.
            I was sitting in my little old rocking chair on the porch of my riverside cabin a couple of weeks ago when I heard the thump of a boat against my dock. I went down to investigate.  In a  yellow kayak sat a bright-eyed and bushy tailed little old lady (even littler and older than I am) grinning up at me.
            “Can I help you?”
            “Oh, no, dear, is it all right if I wait here for the others?
            “Are you with a group from the canoe livery?
             “Heavens no!  I’m the baby of our group, but I’ve gotten a bit ahead of them. We go kayaking every Thursday.”
            “How far do you go?”
            “About two to three hours paddling. Trouble is, I’m only seventy-eight. They tend to be so much slower. But we have a lot of fun—in the winter we go downhill skiing every Tuesday.”
            I returned to my cabin, not to the porch but to the garage, where I hauled out my blue kayak and dusted it off.

 I love baseball. My favorite moment in a game is the second out in the ninth inning, when the Tigers are a couple of hits behind but we have a man or two on base. We’ve struck out more than we should have and made plenty of errors, but the game isn’t over.  There’s one last chance for a base hit to keep it alive, or the gloriously last-ditch possibility of a home run, and extra innings.            
   Last year, when I published my first novel at age seventy-three, I surfed the web to see if there was anyone out there veering off on a brand new path at such an advanced age. I pulled up a video of a little old lady tap dancing. Mary McHugh ( in her eighties, hands at her waist, legs in the air, was vigorously illustrating her philosophy that “Life is Like Tap Dancing.”
            “Think about it, You shuffle along for a while, then take a few bold steps forward, a few backward and a lot in a circle, and then, just when you think you know what you’re doing, everything changes.”
            Is it a coincidence that LOL also stands for “laughing out loud”?
We emailed back and forth, and she sent me her book about how not to act like a little old lady.  She’s not alone in assuming that this is a bad thing to be—sedentary, perhaps, or creaky, and pathetic. Sometimes I see people looking at me as if I were sedentary, creaky, and pathetic, but I don’t look at myself that way.  Let’s be realistic. I am little (5 foot two, and 125 pounds soaking wet), decidedly old and, I suppose, a lady, in the generically female sense. On my bad days, when my arthritis is acute, my family has worn me down, and the thought of dying is scaring me to death, I know all about creaky and pathetic;  but most of the time I’m a bright eyed and bushy tailed old soul, full of piss and vinegar.
On the bus the other day a young woman remarked to the teenager beside her.
            “Smooch over a bit. Let’s see if we can make room for this little old lady.”
 I had competently caught the bus to downtown Detroit, spoken up to the board of a governmental committee I’d gotten myself onto in order to forward my political agenda,  and treated myself to a hike along a new Detroit River walkway.
 I’m a little old lady all right, but I don’t take it as an insult.
When I get to be seventy-five next spring it will be the second out in my ninth inning, and I hope that the bases will be loaded!