My mother heard about an exercise class for seniors in Petaluma at the Herman’s Sons Hall and went faithfully once a week to stretch—and stretch some more. She said initially she was successful at rousing Joe to join her, though he never quite shared her enthusiasm or mastered the techniques. Fellow class members would point that out to mom in exaggerated whispers:
“He’s not doing it right”.
She would smile and say:
“I know that—you tell him”.
She said that one woman made off with her jacket one morning after class. She mentioned it to Shirley the octogenarian instructor, telling her that the poor dear probably didn’t look at it carefully and thought it was hers. Shirley said,
“Oh don’t kid yourself. The poor dear knew it was yours all right, she probably saw it on you, liked it and wanted it for herself. You need to set her straight and get that back.”
“Oh Shirley, it’s a hoody for heaven sake, not Chanel.”
My mother let it go, though she did note the woman’s temerity when she strolled smugly into class wearing it.
The stretching continued after my parents left Petaluma for Placerville and the foothills of the Sierras. On my visits I’d emerge in the mornings to see my mother sprawled on the floor in front of the tv swinging, lifting, reaching and rolling. At that time Joe was stepping gingerly into his nineties and when I asked him why he wasn’t coaxing a little more blood and oxygen through his arteries he perched even more firmly on his kitchen stool and said, “Bah humbug.” My mother rolled her eyes and continued to huff and puff.
She prizes elasticity and aims at flexibility in other areas as well, bending with the capricious winds that blow or the hoodies that sail out the door on someone else’s back on any given day.
I, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat rigid about my life. I cling to structure like it’s a load bearing wall. My favorite self-soother is obsessively planning each day and I treat routine like a toddler, finding stability in doing the same things, eating the same things and even wearing the same things.
Anton Chekhov wrote: “Any idiot can a face a crisis. It’s the day to day living that wears you out.” I too am drama ready but interrupt my schedule and I’m liable to erupt in instant irritation and anxiety—though I do understand that the only way to live peaceably in this world is with open hands. So I practice with a couple of keys around my neck from The Giving Keys company. Each one is engraved, one says Let Go and the other, Be Still, two qualities I aspire to. They are meant to be passed on to some other aspirational soul once I’ve absorbed and applied them but to date I haven’t passed on either one. I may be buried wearing both of them—and declaring victory as the first shovelful of dirt hits my coffin.
I ask her,
“Mom, is there anything that you are absolutely unwilling to negotiate in the area of flexibility?” She thinks for a moment and says,
“Well, you may not know this about me, I know Windsor does.”
Then she pauses importantly and I brace for some big never revealed revelation that will rock my world and force me to re-evaluate my life. She says,
“I am really fussy about the way a bed is made. I want the bottom sheet smoothed, the corners of the flat sheet mitered and the top turned back so that the satin binding doesn’t get stained with whatever face cream I’m challenging gravity with. I want my pillows plumped and my blankets just so.”
“These people who can plop down into a nest of rumpled sheets and blankets….”
but I am no longer listening, I have remembered who it is I’m talking to and emotional order is restored. She phones several days later and says:
“Well, you’ve opened up a whole new world of exploration with this flexibility thing and I’m not liking what I see.”
“Oh?” I say, “Not so go with the flow? What else are you feeling inflexible about?”
“Drums in worship. Drums along the Mohawk, yes, drums in church no.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to do anything about that mom.”
“Well it’s a real issue, particularly for older people, it throws their hearing aids off.”
She does not use a hearing aid but my stepfather had an especially inefficient pair provided for him by the Veterans Administration. I thought back briefly to a drive with the two of them. Squawking feedback in the back seat was Joe’s sole contribution to the conversation as he turned up the volume to try and catch some of the exchange between my mother and me.
She went on,
“You’ll see—just wait until you’re my age and you’ll understand.”
“I know I will mom, is that it?”
“No, I have one other thing: forced farts.”
“You heard me.”
“How often are you in the company of people deliberately farting? Most of the people I know are deliberately trying to suppress them.”
“Well, it’s mostly boys”
I knew she had to be referring to my brother’s sons. She said she was playing Rummy Cube, her current addiction at his house the other night and Isaac, the older of the two cut loose. She said,
“Asher couldn’t stand it until he managed to duplicate his brother note for note.”
My mother drew a hard line and told Asher:
“If this continues, you’re out of the game”
I ask her if she’s following any current stretching routine and she tells me that she has started a new program that promises to keep her limber and upright, and save her from dowagers hump.
“How do you like it so far?”
She complains that the ad was misleading.
“It said something like: so gentle, so easy, so effective but I can hardly get through the whole set and when I’m finally done I roll over, gasp, hoist up my bottom so that I can push up from the floor and stagger to the couch.”
“Sounds like a party” I say.
But though she no longer springs into action, she does continue to creep there in her pursuit of flexibility in body, mind and soul because atrophy can be all consuming. While we waste physically with age and disuse, our minds and hearts can shrink too into hard little nuts that refuse to see anything differently or to let go of our demands. My mother holds many things dear and immutable but she keeps the door ajar with openness and willingness—and maybe a few toe touches.