By Barbara Ballinger
“I promise to tell you when I meet someone worth talking about,” I said to my 89-year-old mother with an edge of teenage annoyance. There I was, an almost 60-year-old, living—albeit temporarily--under my mother’s roof. While others found humor in our updated version of The Golden Girls sitcom, I was too exhausted to laugh while pursuing my other roles as her personal chef, gopher and companion, and also working full time as a writer.
I felt compelled to return frequently to New York from my home in St. Louis as I saw signs that Gammy, as we called my mother, was growing old. “It’s so quiet here,” she said more often, her code words for “I’m lonely.” Other times she asked in her soft-spoken, Midwestern style, “When are you coming back?”
Gammy, an elegant, highly inquisitive lady, whose 5’2” frame was now bent over like other old people, desperately wanted to remain independent after she became a widow 17 years ago. She continued her political discussion and book club meetings, senior citizen lunches and Saturday morning temple services. But morning swims or walking 30 blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art became too much for her due to an arthritic knee. No longer could she carry groceries or books or prepare our favorite hand-grated potato pancakes. My days grew fuller and hers emptier as I took over grocery shopping, cooking and runs to the drycleaner, post office and library.
I tried to perform my tasks with enthusiasm. I often failed miserably. I resented her failure to remember to thank me sometimes for time squeezed from my busy schedule. For the first time in decades, I had envisioned a new life. My acrimonious divorce after 31 years of marriage had become a distant memory. My two daughters were launched and thriving.
Unlike many friends, I looked forward to my 60th birthday and entering a new decade with my maiden name, golden highlights covering my gray and barely a wrinkle due to good genes. I used my boundless energy to write and speak more, take off middle-age bulge, plan a trip to Southeast Asia and become a pro at online dating. Friends watched in amazement as my suitors surpassed 42, but who was counting?
But then very old age struck. “Wake up,” I nudged Gammy when we went to movies, plays and ballet. I repeated myself as her hearing failed. I read the fine print at museum exhibits once her eyesight worsened, engaged her in discussions about articles as phone calls from friends dwindled and became her nurse after knee replacement surgery.
Slowly, as I was needed more, I stopped feeling like the little girl I thought I had morphed into or the lonely adult who found it tough to develop a community in New York. I realized this was a temporary detour to my independence. Our time together could never be recaptured. I set new challenges of finding the ripest melons as my mom had done. I listed on computer printouts what was in the refrigerator, freezer and cabinets and what should be eaten when. Did I mention that I became bossy along the way?
I found ways that I could thrive in my temporary quarters. I reconnected with childhood and work friends, set up my computer at my late father’s desk overlooking the East River and became best buds with Gammy’s doormen and area shop keepers. I learned the butcher had served in the Vietnam War, the bread store brothers-in law had an aging mom in Italy, and my favorite dessert shop owner thought I looked terrific. I took up painting again, attended lectures, became more active at my alma mater, and made Central Park my gym. My busy schedule made Gammy happy. Gradually, it made me smile. I continue to.
I finally understand that both of us need this time together, and I’m passing on a legacy about caring to others. My older daughter got it when she informed me, “We’ll do this for you some day.” I hope I get to live as long and gracefully as Gammy, so my daughter’s words come true.
Barbara Ballinger, 60, who resides in St. Louis, is the co-author with Margaret Crane of the forthcoming children’s book, Granny’s Getting Old (Images Publishing, 2010).