A few years ago when I was 25, I armed myself with a pen, a notebook and a mind full of questions and visited a nursing home in search of answers from older, wiser women.
At that age I was trying to figure out what to do with myself and I was going through a transition: I wasn’t a girl any more, but I didn’t feel like a grown-up woman, either. The transition left me querying how emotional changes continue throughout a lifetime. When do other people feel grown-up? How do women think and feel at 90? After possibly having children, grandchildren, a career, various defining moments, what is it like to reach that milestone? What occupies their thoughts at that age? Do they still have insecurities? Do they still long for the same things they once did?
I kept that notebook safe since then, and now I share the experience.
I’m guided into the rest home by one of the nurses on duty. She tells me that the first lady who is willing to chat with me is Violet, who’s 92. I enter the sitting room and she is there, tiny and frail, with liver-spotted hands resting calmly on her lap. We commence.
Violet’s hands are still as she speaks. She doesn’t look at me, but I’m not sure where she’s looking. It seems she’s gazing only a few centimetres away, into the glass panes of her spectacles, but not beyond. As I listen, I start believing that perhaps, framed in her glasses are her memories. Violet remembers going to the snow as a three-year old with her aunt, who brought her up. She followed a nursing career and then became a farmer after marrying. Children came next and Violet claims her life was very easy until her husband died. “I was absolutely heartbroken for a long time but told myself to ‘pull yourself together, you’ve got to get over it’.” She is appreciative of the fact that she had someone to love during the majority of her life. “Many people don’t find their person….I was lucky.” I ask her what her concerns were at my age, and what she thinks of the world now. The differences must be so great to her, that she doesn’t even know how to describe them. “Our life was so different to what the world is now. The world is….it’s upside down….it’s gone topsy-turvy…..”
I strain to pick up her thoughts when she hesitates to continue. Is she tired? Has she forgotten what we’re talking about? Or is it simply that time goes by faster at that age? I ask her, and she tells me that yes, time goes by very fast, that the days and weeks blur together. “I can’t keep up anymore, I blink and ‘woosh!’ There’s another year gone by.”
She lights up when she talks about her five grandchildren, who visit her often. She has a favourite, who visits more frequently than the others. “She’s a trick, she’s probably trying to get the lion’s share of the inheritance I’ll leave behind. If only she knew how little there is now!” Her eyes finally reach mine and we both laugh.
The next woman I speak to is Ethel, who prefers her own room for our chat. She’s 90 years old and cheekily tells me that she’s “a Libran most days, but if I don’t like the horoscope then I’m a Scorpio.” Ethel’s hearing is weak, her body worn and tired, but there’s a fire in her voice and the clarity of her thoughts shines through. “I spend my days doing crossword puzzles to keep my mind active,” she says, looking down at her legs dismissively. “I can’t do much else, my walking’s gone.” When she’s not doing puzzles, she rests. “I don’t get bored because I sleep day and night. Some of the poor souls here have sleeping problems….I really do feel for them.”
I want to find out about Ethel’s childhood and how she feels about her life’s achievements, but I don’t know how to broach it without alluding to the fact that she’s near the end of hers. I’m dazed at the thought that so much can happen between my age and hers, and I struggle to form the right words and sentences.
On Ethel’s bedside table are several family photos. I ask her about a husband and she lights up. “He would call me his princess….and I’d call him a silly old so and so.” Her endless love for him is obvious as she looks away melancholically into the distant depths of her memories. She sparks up again as she leaves me with a morsel of insight. “After he died, I never remarried. I didn’t meet anyone my age that I felt the same way about, and I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.”
Ava, nearing 97, tells me that she was the baby of her family. “I was always a bit spoilt…” she trails off. We chat about the aging process and Ava doesn’t grasp my desire to discuss what it does to the mind rather than the body. “I’m being conceited now, but my legs were my only beauty.” I try to steer the conversation by asking questions like, “Do you remember what occupied your thoughts when you were 25?” For a moment I think she is with me, but then she proceeds to tell me about her arthritis. I imagine it’s difficult to talk about anything else when your body is in constant pain.
Ava tells me that her family don’t visit her very often. “They’re young, they have better things to do than come see me here.” This fills me with sadness. Before I leave her room, I give Ava a warm hug.
I’m disheartened. I don’t feel I’ve learnt enough about the psyche of these women, and I start thinking that perhaps, ‘growing up’ to them was a very different experience than what it is for young people now. Milestones were more clearly defined and to an extent, mapped out. Career paths were limited and there were possibly not as many choices to be made. Women generally became mothers earlier in their lives. I start thinking that I’ve perhaps approached the topic with a generation too distant from my own…..and then I meet Carol.
Carol has lost her senses of sight, smell and taste. “The old grey mare isn’t what she used to be!” She laughs and dives straight into an anecdote. “Once I lost my glasses and I couldn’t see anything! I searched everywhere for them, I even felt the top of my head to make sure they weren’t there. Finally I did find them, and you know where they were, dear?” She points to her nose. “Right here!” Because she can hardly see me, a gentle smile isn’t enough for her to know that I’m following, so when she laughs loudly, so do I.
We have a long discussion and she’s inquisitive about me, too. When I tell her I’m from Argentina, she asks me where that is because she was never very good at geography. “At school I was too busy drawing spectacles and moustaches on images of people!” I picture her as a little girl in the 1920s with ribbons in her hair, drawing Dali-esque or Connoisseur moustaches in her school books.
I ask her if she likes living at the home. She doesn’t fancy the dining room – it’s too quiet. “Everyone eats in silence, as though not to disturb or encourage the fate that’s waiting for us here.”
Carol never married, but at the home she has her nurses. “I have three toy boys here, but unfortunately I haven’t got any money to leave them!” The soft folds of her crêpe paper face fall into place with ease when she laughs. Of course they do, she’s done it countless times, and emotions have memories.
I like Carol a lot, and when I ask if I can come back to see her, she leans toward me and quietly whispers with fabricated solemness, “It might be for my funeral, dear.” I interject, and she tells me not to be sad about death. “Our lives are funny things, they go by so fast. We are here for a short time….just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it’s nearly the end. Sometimes I say……I say, that we were born to die.”
With those words, spoken with not even an ounce of remorse, she unknowingly answers all of my questions at once. I can see that her body – her shell – is misleading. Below the soft wisps of snow-white hair and tucked within the many folds of her matured face I find the experienced eyes of a woman, but also the youthful soul of a girl.
On the drive home I realise that becoming a woman isn’t a milestone, it’s a journey. Transitioning from a girl to a woman – or a boy to a man – is a lifelong expedition. Growing up and living aren’t exclusive of one another – they travel together, hand in hand, through the winding course of a lifetime.