Memoir

Old growth

On luck, appreciation and acceptance

IN 1975, JUST before my sixteenth birthday, I read in the summer issue of Dolly magazine that everyone needed some ‘me’ time. This sounded grown-up, enticing. The editor suggested checking into a hotel to unwind.

I’m not sure I knew the difference between a hotel, a motel and a pub, but there was a place near us with a pool and a shady garden, so I guessed that it qualified. I saved my pocket money and after-school earnings and announced to Mum that I wanted to book in. She hesitated, but then agreed – on the proviso that I didn’t leave the grounds. She made the booking, dropped me off with an overnight bag borrowed from my grandmother, and I entered the world of adulthood.

I read my book. I flicked between the three television channels. Or were there four? I lay by the pool, trying to look ‘interesting’, but my fair skin burned, so I had a bath, using the bubbles provided. I dozed. I sat. I watched time passing.

I ached to ring and chat with Mum or my friend Sonia, but that would have revealed that I didn’t know how to enjoy this ‘me’ time. So I stuck it out. I counted the seconds until 10 am on Sunday, and when Mum arrived and asked how it had been, I gave my most enigmatic smile and said it was ‘perfect’.

I could slap the vapid creature I was back then. When Mum had dropped me off that Saturday, she was on her way to clean a couple of houses to supplement her wages from her day job. My thirty-seven-year-old working mother, who seemed so old to me, was surely the one in need of a silent room and some solitude.

Back then, I longed to be twenty-eight. I’ve no idea why that particular age called to me, but it was a fixed point I’d wanted to achieve for years. When I did, it didn’t disappoint – that year, I fell hard and fast for a lanky bloke called Peter. We’d only known each other six weeks when we decided to get married. I moved interstate to live with him, and we had almost twenty-eight years together before he died.

Twenty-eight is about the age I’ve felt myself to be, ever since.

 

IN 2019, JUST before my sixtieth birthday, I wrote to friends, asking for a gift. I would like ‘sixty-at-sixty’, I wrote. Sixty minutes of their time, at any stage during my year of being sixty. I asked them to bring me their most important observations about life – and about me, if they chose. I’d like to get some wisdom, now that I’m old, I said.

‘First things first,’ one chum said, before we’d even hugged. ‘Stop calling yourself old. Even in jest.’

‘But I am old. We are old, statistically!’

She swung around, nailing me with a look I know too well.

‘Bullshit! Sixty is not old.’

No correspondence would be entered into. She gave me her list of rules for living, one of which was that it was time for me to break the drought and get some sex, even if I ordered in. Preferably with someone young, she said.

I like saying I’m old. Lots of my friends never got to, because of cancer, anorexia, HIV and overdoses. My mum never got to say it, except when observing her children’s growth.

‘I must be old,’ she said, when she was thirty-eight. ‘Just look at you, all grown up.’ She was applying my make-up for the school formal at the time. In her cut-off shorts and bikini top she looked just like Gidget.

Mum was fifty-seven when she died.

 

WHEN I REACHED my fifty-eighth birthday, I felt lucky. Relieved. Some part of me had never believed I’d outlive my mother. If she could be taken, anyone could. She could break horses, cook for a shearing team and party with them until dawn, and skewer pious moralising with razor humour.

She and my stepfather laboured hard on their farm, but money was always elusive, and eventually they had to sell. A potential buyer came to inspect the place, and as he sat in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, he quizzed Mum about the property.

‘Any problems with snakes?’

‘No, none at all,’ she replied, opening the crockery cupboard.

There, on the shelf below the cups and saucers, lay a coiled Stimson’s python, its red-brown blotches incongruous against the pastel crockery. Unfazed by this surprise visitor, Mum grabbed a rifle and shot it. She selected a teapot, closed the cupboard and went back to the conversation.

The man bought the farm.

Looking at photos of us, people sometimes remark that I’m my mother’s daughter – but the likeness is superficial. I lack her wildness, her disdain for rules. One friend asked me, at our sixty-at-sixty meeting, whether I ever really let myself go. I hadn’t known her long, and was shocked to have been seen so clearly.

 

BEFORE I COULD continue with the sixty-at-sixty exercise, I had a fall. My forehead smashed onto the pavement and my nose scraped along loose gravel. My wrists took my full bodyweight as my kneecaps cracked on asphalt. I wailed like a broken animal.

Bruce, one of my early-morning swimming cohort, rescued me. He held my bleeding hand, insisting I lay still. Ambulances arrived – two of them. Other swimmers came. I was checked and cossetted, taken home and nursed. But for days afterwards, waking or sleeping, I flinched as I recalled my head plunging toward the sidewalk. Even now, over a year later, my right hand bats at the air when I remember.

‘Stop saying you had a fall,’ another friend insisted at our sixty-at-sixty rendezvous. ‘Say you tripped.’

‘Why?’

‘Because only old people have a fall.’

It hurt when I laughed. ‘But I am old!’

‘Shut up! Don’t say that either. People will think you’re losing it.’

 

MY FRIEND TONY, who is eight-five, says life is a continual process of letting go – we let go of the womb, our family, school, our childhood. We let go of people we love – we grow and go, we move and leave. We let go daily, often without even noticing.

But there comes a time when we begin to worry about what we’re losing. Things fall apart, not to be mended. Bones turn to chalk. The world moves faster and we feel slower. Hairs grow on chins that should be bare, and thins from where it should be thick. Sunspots appear as memories and friends disappear. There’s shock. How can this be, this falling away? Aren’t we still twenty-eight?

 

TWICE DAILY, MY eighty-nine-year-old father makes an eight-hundred-metre round trip to the shops. He buys the paper and a scratchie in the morning, and in the afternoon he provisions himself for dinner. When I suggest that my siblings and I want to arrange a meal delivery service, he steadfastly refuses.

‘I prefer to walk. And cook.’

Sometimes he can’t get air into his lungs. His legs are twigs, poking out from his shorts. A strong nor’-easter could blow him over.

‘I just take it slowly,’ he says, and I’m unsure if there’s admonishment in his words.

When I was forty and Dad was sixty-nine, he would counsel me to slow down. He saw an urgency in me, maybe a panic, that I hadn’t recognised in myself. I wanted to tick boxes, to race ahead, to rush at life, because it could surely be snatched away. Just look at what had happened to Mum.

At forty, I remember thinking how old Dad was. But now that I’m sixty and he’s eighty-nine, I recognise similarities between us. I find likeness where once I saw only otherness.

I wasn’t rushing when I had my fall. I wasn’t looking at my phone, or distracted by sky, bird or flower. I was strolling towards Sydney’s glittering harbour for my daily dip, which I make in company with a group of regulars who have been swimming at that same curve of sand for years. Most are in their eighth or ninth decade. Last year, Esme celebrated her hundredth birthday by the water. She wore a spangled kaftan.

I didn’t learn to swim until I was fifty-six. It was the summer after my husband died. Broken, I decided to try to remake myself. Perhaps I could heal from the outside in. I’d always been afraid of the water, but I took to it as though I’d been waiting for it all my life – and perhaps I had. A return to the womb?

Maybe some things that get lost can be regained.

On certain mornings, as I lapped parallel to the shoreline, I’d catch a glimpse of Esme’s carer, a slight girl in thin cotton trackpants, lugging a black bucket up the concrete steps from the beach.

Esme had cancer.

‘It won’t kill me,’ she told me, ‘but there’s no repairing it either.’

She couldn’t swim anymore. Scabs marked her face and hands. She missed the salt water, so her carer brought it to her. Sometimes, the bucket was for her legs – she lowered a shin into it and stood, twitching at the bite of brine. Other times, the bucket was placed between the handles of her walking frame, so she could plunge her face in, holding her breath in the silky darkness. When she emerged, her thin grey hair dripped and the scabs were soft.

‘This beach is populated with widows,’ she said to me once. I’d never told her I was a widow, but after that I saw the others in their black togs differently.

She kept reminding herself of the velvety feel of salt water until she died, just before her 101st birthday. I never got to ask for her sixty-at-sixty teachings. I was walking a 400-kilometre trail in Italy when she died. On my return, I slid into the harbour and stroked my way through my salty sorrow. It’s impossible to cry underwater.

I was frightened, after my absence, that my body would have forgotten how to swim, but it seems to remember the important things. When I was walking in Italy, my steps were more cautious than they’ve been on other trails. I can’t afford another fall now that I’m old.

 

EIGHTY-FIVE-YEAR-old Tony calls me a kid. He frowns when I say I’m old.

‘What does that make me?’ he asks.

Then he answers himself.

‘Fortunate.’

 

MY FATHER CALLS himself lucky. A Depression-era child on a WA wheat farm with no electricity, he made his toys from knucklebones and fruit tins. His mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident when Dad was in his twenties, just four months after he got married. Six years later, Mum left to be with another man. Dad eventually remarried, but his second wife died, in bed beside him, when she was barely fifty. Five years after that he kept vigil with me when Mum lay dying.

Dad has never known worldly success, or won a lottery, despite buying all those tickets – yet he insists he has had eighty-nine years of good luck. He has been loved, he says. But perhaps his defining quality, a tender tentativeness, was formed by loss.

When I was twenty, he was forty-nine, raising my two younger siblings while dealing with my stepmother’s mental illness. He was ancient to my eyes – slavish to convention, closed, unable to change his thinking.

Now I marvel at how he mastered word processing a couple of years back so he could wrangle his life story into a digital document for his family. We joke together about bloody, bossy autocorrect. And afterwards, we talk politics. We find more agreement there, too.

I wonder…

Have I deliberately put distance between us at times, like a sixteen-year-old trying to individuate herself?

Maybe recognising similarity is a marker of growth.

 

I WALK, ONE afternoon, near a friend’s holiday house. A snowy-haired man sits on a bench, staring across the inlet’s glassy water. He waves. I stop and we chat. He tells me he’s eighty-five, and I tell him I’m sixty.

‘You’re a spring chicken,’ he says, and goes on to detail how his son has been fussing over him. ‘I suppose he thinks I’m not long for it,’ he says, and grins. We talk on, sharing little secrets. He’d like to move to this place, he whispers. I say I can see why.

‘You’re good to stop and talk,’ he says.

I try to tell him I’ve loved our exchange – the effortless intimacy of strangers – but my words don’t fall the right way. He takes my hand.

‘May you live many long years,’ he says, and I thank him before turning away to the water.

If I’m lucky.

 

WHEN MY PETER died, Dad was unwell, but desperate to make the journey across the continent for the funeral.

‘Please don’t come, Dad. Please.’

He understood what terrified me.

Don’t push your luck. It can happen in an instant, as it did to Peter when his brain haemorrhaged – like a hammer to the back of the head, one doctor told me. As it did to my stepmother, and to my sister-in-law Sue, who fell to the ground at fifty-one, never to rise.

When Peter died, I wanted my mum and my dad. I was a widow, an ancient dark thing, but I was also a child again. Dad said the magic words that only parents can utter and hope to be believed. ‘Everything will be all right. You’ll see. It will take time but everything will be all right.’

 

BACK WHEN I was thirty and Dad was fifty-nine, I railed against his priorities. Rotarians mending fences for widows seemed pointless compared to the Berlin Wall’s fall.

Then, in my forties, we began to take country drives when I visited. Focused on the road ahead, and a shared destination, I listened as he talked. He made me laugh, and I realised how long and patiently he’d waited for me to get his jokes.

A couple of years ago, I asked if he’d like to take a three-day cruise on the Indian Ocean – something different. He jumped at it. Shipboard, he drew people out of themselves, and I was proud of him. I finally saw him as a person. I liked him so much.

Infuriatingly, even though his lungs sometimes fill with so much fluid he’s on the verge of drowning, he still has the occasional smoke, and loves a drink. He’s not without a temper, and never without an opinion. And his body remembers how to dance! Sometimes, he and his partner – oh yes, he has a partner – will put on a CD and swing around in his living room. When they do, I’m the ancient in the room.

Recently, answering the phone, he slipped up.

‘Hello Bubby!’

‘Da-ad!’ I said, in exactly the tone I’d used at sixteen, trying to convince him I could stay out late. ‘I’m old!’

He chuckled, insisting that that wasn’t possible, and I heard an echo of Mum, applying my make-up for that long-ago school formal.

Now that I’m sixty, at least I know the difference between a hotel, a motel and a pub. I do still want ‘me’ time, but I’ve also learnt I can’t exist in isolation.

No, that’s not right: I can’t grow in isolation.

And isn’t that the point – to grow old?

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