Thursday, March 11, 2010

Senior citizens

Grandma and her partner Frank

Older people always fascinated me. I love their crinkly skin and lavender smelling clothes. The wistful looks and talking of days gone by keep me entertained for hours. As a child I always seemed to get along better with the senior citizens and at age seven my BFF was my next door neighbour Mrs Shaw. Every day, after school, I would run to her house and play chinese checkers, noughts and crosses and stare at the giant Moroccan carpet on her wall. There were things about her I adored like the barrette she wore in her hair, the lilac tint she asked for at the hairdressers and the way she only took baths, not showers. She was from an older school of thinking but had a heart so kind it would be universally recognised. A sepia photo of her husband playing the piano sat on her mantle piece. She was still hopelessly in love with him even though he passed away many years earlier. Despite her cheeriness I sensed the loneliness was palpable.

Regardless of my attraction to the older generation there were two people who intimidated me. My grandmother and the dreaded piano teacher, Mrs Gust.

Mrs Gust had tight grey curls, wore muted tone stiff dresses and hosiery so thick it was hard to imagine the flesh beneath. She opened the door smiling with her mouth, not her eyes and when I pressed the wrong key on the piano she gripped her bony fingers over mine, pushing them down on the correct note. She swore at her dog under her breath and took medication. I was convinced she was going to murder me.

Grandma was an antique collecting organ playing master of crafts who wore jumpers, insisted I did not call her Grandma and scolded me when I touched her prized musical instrument. I disliked visits to her house feeling they were too frequent and took too long. She never hugged me and when she asked me questions my answers were always monosyllabic. Her fortnightly medical appointment reminder was written exquisitely on her $2 dollar shop whiteboard, a strange juxtaposition against a house swamped by antiques. I resented that she wasn't more like friends nanas who hugged us constantly, baked treats and took us on special trips to town.

Mrs Shaw died when I was 16. Her children told no one and there wasn't a funeral. I cried my eyes out and berated myself for not visiting her nearly enough in her final years. As I hit my self obsessed teens I had stopped visiting apart from the annual sheepish appearance to pick up my birthday present. I outgrew checkers, noughts and crosses and her Moroccan wall carpet. I figured it was socially retarded to hang out with someone in their seventies. The regret is infinite.

I called things off with Mrs Gust after four years of nervous courtship. At the annual Christmas function when her students gathered awkwardly in her lounge and recited their years work I decided I could no longer stand a house scented like dog rolls and apple juice. Lacking courage I rang the following evening. It was harder than any break up. The disappointment in her voice was overwhelming.

My Grandma is still alive but has deteriorated rapidly in the last few years. Her fragility and vacant mind are heartbreaking. Last week I sat across from her as she held a fork tightly attempting to eat a pottle of fresh and fruity yoghurt. These days I try and remember every single detail of her face and every thing that she says to me. My answers are no longer monosyllabic. I realise I got it pretty wrong as a child and just because she wasn't a grandma who hugged me and baked treats it doesn't mean she didn't love me.

I have big regrets in the way I treated each of these people but the memories of them will always be fond. Even Mrs Gust has the ability to evoke a funny smile when I think about her stiff dresses and verbally abused dog. All that I can take from these experiences is to take time for people, especially those who are older and so easy to overlook when life gets too busy. I hope that someone has the time to play checkers with me when I hit 74.

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