older writers


For much of my life I’ve avoided old ladies. Not that I didn’t like them.  Mostly, they just didn’t interest me much.  A few of these almost invisible women come to mind:
            My grandma Anderl, a pudding of a woman who lived with my family for several of the last years of her life, sipping her daily glass of bourbon, doctor-prescribed, she insisted. 
            Mrs. Kauffman, the housemother in my college sorority with her precisely lacquered hair and manicured nails, who taught me how to iron my marriage sheets. 
            Ms. Pedersen, the spinster English teacher in the room next to mine, recycling meticulous forty-year-old lesson plans on the use of the subjunctive and asking if I’d like to borrow them.
            The elementary teacher in the room down the hall, who at sixty, attained her life’s goal of becoming a school principal, just in time to be asked to retire. 
            The Medicare-eligible counselor, dissatisfied with daytime TV, returning to her job on the kindergarten story rug, even though it meant getting on all fours and leaning on at least one five-year-old to rise up.
            My unnaturally coal-black-haired, crepe-skinned, neighbor, with her push-up bra decolletage, searching the Internet daily for a newer, younger bedmate.
            The raggedy woman in the plastic rain cap, sitting on the park bench talking to anything that moves, squirrels even, about her dead husband, probably a sister of the wild-haired shopper at Fred Meyer leaning over the head lettuce, asking how it’s doing today.
For years, I observed these women and others like them.  From a distance, smiling a little, turning away. They had little to do with me, with who I was, with what my life was all about.
And now I’m one of them. 
Today I heard myself talking to the Brussels sprouts in the vegetable section.  ‘Nasty little buggers,” I said as I piled a dozen of them in the plastic bag. “Why did I marry a man who loves you?” 
Last week I ironed our new 500-count cotton sheets because the developing permanent wrinkles in the top hem chafed my chin.  “Should have bought polyester,” I muttered into my ironing board. Mrs. K. didn’t have that choice back then.
For some reason, in spite of already having a man to sleep with, I sidled into Victoria’s Secret this weekend and, with boobs smashed into steel-like armature pretending to be a bra, felt as if I were an ancient stand-in for Super Woman. I also gave up on the idea of hair dye.
A couple weeks ago, I advised the copyeditor of my about-to-be-printed book that her use of salt-and-pepper commas needed to be tamped down; also, semi-colons, not to mention colons and M-dashes. “Want to borrow my Strunk/White?” I asked. I could hear Ms. Petersen cheering.
This lazy morning, I drank a third cup of coffee and glanced at the obituaries, followed by the want ads. Someone needed a tutor proficient in English skills willing to work with reluctant learners. I almost called for an interview when I realized I truly am not able to get up off the reluctant learner rug.
This evening I poured myself a glass of Scotch and watched the seven o’clock news on PBS.  It was a nice way to end the day, even if my doctor did not prescribe it.  Grandma knew.
Tomorrow, I will receive the proof of Graffiti Grandma. I am to give the go-ahead on its publishing.  This will be a little like getting a principalship and then realizing that you don’t have the time or the energy to create your perfect school. And that from here on out, my goal will most likely be what it is for all old ladies:  one day at a time, seize that day, breathe, be glad to be alive and kicking; always carry a plastic rain cap in a coat pocket.

Who Says Women My Age Can’t Make Babies

The Goddess was looking out for us when she chose three score and ten years as an optimal life span, allowing women twenty or so childless years to enjoy before the big decline. A woman any older than that has knees that lock, hips that scrape, and an attention span that does not do Thomas the Train for more than a minute.

My grandson is almost three.  His every sentence begins with Why.  I feel compelled to try to make sense of the world for him in the five days I spend time with him in faraway Iowa. I answer  with “Because. . .,” glad that I’m a story-teller.

One morning he takes my elbow in his little boy hands as I shift to my knees to get up from the train table.  “I’ll help,” he says.  Then we make our way to his room to deal with the part of him that smells. He shows me where the dirty diapers go, where the wiping tissues are, and which part of the padded wrap goes in front, how to tear off the Velcro covers.  All the while he is looking up at me, perhaps, I think,  in fascinated love.  Then his fingers rub the top of his head.  “My hair is flat,” he says.  “Yours sticks way up.  Why?”  I can’t think of an answer.  I’ve often asked myself the same question.

Back home now, I have other babies to think about.  My writing partner and I meet at my dining table.  We each hold the other’s latest novel.  Steve bares his chest.  “Just plunge the knife right here,” he says.

“I won’t be mean if you don’t ask me to kill my babies,” I promise.

My critique does a little  jabbing but no bloodletting and he takes notes.  His critique does in  a couple of my babies including the title and first line of the first chapter.  I give him five sheets of comments;  he has stuck Postits at the edges of my pages and my manuscript looks like it’s molting blue feathers.

When he leaves I have a glass of wine and realize that my title is pretty crummy, that I am a terrible line editor of my own work, that I’m very glad he has gone through my words so carefully even though it means a rewrite of a couple of chapters and a few babies lying along the wayside.

He emails that evening to let me know that his scars have healed.

Now or forever hold my piece: an old lady blogs

When a writer is seventy-five, her fingers might be as supple, but they won’t be as accurate. A lot of proof-reading is involved and fortunately, my glasses have that middle section that allows me to read the computer screen.  But this is a minor slowdown.

The major one, I’ve been discovering lately, is that I seem to be losing my nouns.  I had a lot of them once.  I was a walking noun font.  Friends in college remarked on my vast array of names of things.  I wrote long essays full of them.  Then, last week I spent a few days with college friends, old college friends, like fifty-years-ago college friends.  We are all whole, only a bit dented in various ways, and my particular dent seemed to be leaking nouns.  I was cooking the beautiful hunk of salmon.   “Do you have any of those…green things, little round, come in a jar, also good in certain salads?”  I asked.

“Capers?” answered my friend whose only age damage has been caused by the sun.

Ah, capers.  A little later, I admired a plant in the window.  A. . .  Somewhere a synapse snapped.  I said, “Shhhhh…”  And then it came to me.  Schefflera.  I got it that time, but the next moment laid bare my noun deficit.  “Just takes the Roloflex a while nowadays.”

“Roladex,” corrected the friend who is considering another ski season despite five broken and healed bones in her lower body.

It was all down hill from there on.  Names of authors I love,  titles of books I  detail the plots of, even the mystery writer who writes sexy enough to get me anxious for Number 17.  “I know she sounds a little Polish,” I said.

“Grafton?” a friend who travels abroad a lot with her Kindle, but maybe without a map, offered.

Even though I was grateful for the name of my second-most favorite diversion, I said no. Another proper noun lost to a slow Rolaflex.  Until about 2:00 a.m. when I sat up and said, “Evanovitch, probably Russian.”

Sometime in all this noun escape, about the time I  could not come up with the name of the device we needed to open our wine bottles, someone asked,  “So what are you writing, Jo?”

“A mystery novel about an old lady who’s chosen to clean up the graffiti-ed mail boxes in her neighborhood, Ellie.  Ellie meets a goth girl who moves in with her named. . .”  The girl, the novel, and Ellie have been my constant companions for the past year, and I can’t come up with the raccooned-eyed fifteen-year-old upon whom the novel swivels.  “Betsy,” I lie.

About midnight, sorting through  all of the conversations we’ve had that day, a voice says in a disgusted teen-age way, “Damn, Jo.  I’m Sarah,  Write it down somewhere.”  And I did.

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