I Used to Be Pretty

I used to be pretty, I mean cheerleader, actress, head-turning pretty. Fortunately, I was also smart. I learned early that it would take more than I used to Be Prettygood looks to make my way in the world. And as much as I’m struggling with aging, it’s harder for women whose identities revolved around their husbands, their children and their fleeting good looks.

I always felt an urgency to craft a meaningful life.  My mother died at 44, so I knew first hand that life could be short.  I calculated the most likely path to success and pursued a Ph.D.  According to plan, I secured a tenure-track position at a state university and thought I had it all figured out. Aging wasn’t going to mess with me.

What I hadn’t figured out was how older women are treated in our society. Granted, I live in Los Angeles, the land of the young and beautiful.  But it seems to be pervasive; as women age they are often dismissed as irrelevant. “What could you say that would interest me?”  Or if you walk a little slower, the unspoken response is often, “Hurry up, get out of my way, I have things to do.” The corollary being that you, as an older woman, do not.

I retired from the university in 2011, and my husband retired in 2010. He had a history of smoking and youthful bouts of alcoholism, which aged him prematurely. He loved to go to Starbucks for a latte with whipped cream and a gooey French pastry. Since Rite Aid was only 2 stores away, stopping there before Starbucks became part of his daily routine.

Every day he’d pick up band aids, or shaving cream, or toothpaste, or whatever single item gave him an excuse to go to Rite Aid. He grew up working in the hayfields, so he never felt comfortable with the PhD’s at the university. But going to Rite Aid became his way of connecting with his “peeps.” The clerks and check-out people all loved him because he took the time to talk to them, and often had them laughing in the aisles.

As my husband’s health began to decline, so did his trips to Rite Aid. When I started picking up his medications, I was greeted with questions, advice, and many well wishes. I gave them constant updates, but when I told them he was on Hospice their pitying looks cut right through my heart. Hospice delivered his medications  at home, and I was frankly relieved that I no longer had to face his friends at Rite Aid.

On September 17, 2016, Rex died peacefully at home. Even though I was still in my 60’s, I suddenly felt terribly old. My daughter and daughter-in-law sprang into action and took over the arrangements. In Jewish law the burial should take place within 48 hours of a death, so there were a lot of preparations for the gathering at my house 2 days later. I appreciated the help of my 2 beautiful girls, but I felt useless and extraneous as the activity swirled around me.

It was several months before I went back to Rite Aid for some prescriptions of my own. I was in sloppy clothes, with no make-up, and felt about ten years older. It broke my heart to tell his “peeps” that he had passed away. They all made sympathetic remarks and couldn’t have been nicer. But something had changed. From that point on, they would always see me as “Rex’s widow.” The sad looks in their eyes made me want to run out screaming every time I bumped into someone he knew.

About 10 months ago I went into the pharmacy looking worse than I had in my entire life. Yeah, grief has a way of doing that to you. I asked for my medications hoping there would be someone at the counter that I didn’t know. Of course Linda was there, and she greeted me with those pitying eyes that seemed to say, “Oh, you poor pathetic creature, how hard it must be to be old and alone.” I know I’m projecting because she was sweet as could be, but I’d gained 15 pounds and looked like hell.

Linda put my medications on the counter and directed me to insert my card into the payment machine. The first screen came up. “Press the X in the right hand corner,” she told me, before I had even read what was on the screen. As soon as the next screen came up she blurted, “Check the box if you want a consultation.” When the 3rd screen came up, without even waiting a second, she instructed: “Sign on the bottom line and hit Next.”

This went on for several months. I know she meant well, but she prompted me on every screen before I could even read what it said. I started to feel nervous at the counter and afraid I couldn’t answer the questions on my own. Was I just a feeble old lady who couldn’t even handle an ATM machine? I’d finally had enough and had to speak up. “There’s some ageism going on here. You keep feeding me directions without giving me 3 seconds to read them myself. It makes me feel so demeaned.  Please have some respect!”

I grabbed my medications, stormed out of the store, and transferred to another pharmacy.  What I really wanted to say was: “I used to be pretty! I have a PhD and I can take care of myself. Don’t you dare treat me like an old lady!” Standing on the sidewalk outside the store I began to sob. Maybe that’s who I am to the rest of the world now. The thought horrified me and I worried if I’d ever feel whole again.

Some time has passed and I’m feeling better about myself. I’ve lost 20 pounds and wear make-up and matching clothes when I go to the pharmacy. Although I’m aging like the rest of my generation, my mind is sharp and my confidence is coming back.

Instead of turning heads, I counsel people who are struggling with relationships. When I’m not working, I go to the gym, I discuss world affairs, I take classes, I get massages and I have lunch with my friends. So yes, I’ll go into Rite Aid and apologize for being rude, but my prescriptions will be  filled elsewhere.

Aging isn’t easy and neither is loss. I was married to a man who knew me completely. In his eyes I was more than just pretty, I was a deep, sensitive soul. When I reflect on the values that constitute real beauty, of course I know it’s more than just physical appearance.  Nonetheless, I sometimes I need that reminder to face the future with courage and hope.

I Used to Be Pretty, 2/08/2018

When Great Souls Die: Mother and Rex

 

My mother in 1945
Janet Kay Horowitz

Would my life have been different if my mother had lived beyond my 14th year? She was my universe, and I revolved around her like a planet orbiting the sun. It was safe and predictable, and I knew where I belonged.

My mother died suddenly, after a five year illness that was kept secret from me.  At the time, all I could feel was shock and disbelief. I no longer knew who I was, what was real or who I could trust.  So I looked for people, performance and academic achievement, to reassure myself that I had a right to keep living while she could not.

My grief was so deeply embedded that I couldn’t shake it loose. So I shut it down and kept it inside. I developed a polished “false self” that brought me external success, but internal emptiness. Because she wasn’t there to cheer me on, I never felt good enough.  As Maya Angelou said, “I was reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.”

I made it through college and even started grad school, still trying to find my place in the world.  When I got married at 23,  I started to figure it out.  My career took off and I had two beautiful kids. But I hadn’t dealt with my grief, so my default mode was to avoid getting too close. We inevitably divorced and I vowed to learn from my mistakes.

Rex in 1988
Rex Heuschkel

And then I met Rex. I was 39 and he was an artist–a deep creative soul who allowed me to be honest, to take down the façade and be authentic.  And he thought I was wonderful. He thought I was the smartest person he ever knew, the most talented, and with him by my side I was also the most loved. Yes, he was troubled, and not an easy man to be with, but I loved him. I loved him so much that I almost lost myself in the process. He died 2 years ago, and I still can’t always find myself without him.

Rex, I visited you at the cemetery Tuesday morning.  As I drove  through the gates a familiar calmness swept over me, not unlike the feeling of coming home. The grounds are lush with green rolling hills and tall leafy trees. How can a place that is so beautiful hold so much grief?  I drive to your spot and grab the burgundy towels that I brought from home. I spread them out like a blanket, softening the blow of the hard, rocky ground.

As I sit facing your gravestone, I notice that dirt has accumulated between the raised letters of your name. Why isn’t there more grass close to the stone to absorb the water from the sprinklers? You’re in the shade, so the surrounding dirt turns to mud and never has the sun to harden it. Damn, that makes me mad! I pour out some water from my bottle and start scrubbing with one of my towels to clean it up. Have I neglected you by not coming here more often? Do you miss me my love, or has your spirit long flown away to be with the angels?

I lay down on top of the earth that holds your remains, where someday I too will be buried.  I feel your presence so deeply; you are embracing me from below.  It reminds me of the many times we held onto each other in bed. “What happens when you die?” I’d often ask you. “Oh darlin’,” you’d reply. “We will fly through eternity, untethered by appetite or earthly restraints. We’ll be together in a place where there’s no judgement, no need to impress, just acceptance, freedom and love.”

You are in my heart as I yearn for that freedom to soar. I sit up and search for the stone I brought from home. “Here’s a special one from Hart mountain, your favorite place on earth.  I’ve cut it open and polished it, so the colorful pattern can shine with your brilliance.”  I place it on your now clean gravestone and dig up 2 more with my fingertips.  The stones are a symbol of permanence; unlike flowers, they will never die.  I’m counting on that, Rex. Please wait for me, so we can share your dream of the everlasting.

I hope my mother has found the soul of my dear husband. He’s not who she would have imagined for me, but he was good and he loved me beyond anything I ever thought possible. I want to be with him NOW. Some days that’s all I can think about, just being together in another dimension.

My dearest Rex, losing you has cracked me open in unexpected ways. I’ve faced the unimaginable and instead of destroying me, I am still in one piece. When great souls die there is grief and loss, but there is also hope. Besides getting stronger, I am helping others to cope with their grief. Try not to worry about me, Mother. I am being sheltered by Rex’s love.  He’s helping me release the darkness and ease through the narrow opening towards wisdom and light.

Sydell Weiner, July 21, 2018
Inspired by Maya Angelou’s, “When Great Trees Fall.”
https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-great-trees-fall/

 

I Miss Those Years

I miss the years when my son was very attached to me.

“Mommy, can you sew a button on my P.E. uniform?” “Ma, I sat on my homework and it’s wrinkled, can you iron it?” “Mom, I signed you up to bring cookies on Thursday, OK?” These are the sounds that filled my home for over twenty  years. There were so  many things to do while I was going in so many different directions. They were frantic days, but they were filled with love and a sense of purpose. I miss those years.

My son was an active child, always testing the limits. He crashed toy trucks into walls, colored outside the lines and was “all boy.” Sometimes, when my 8 month old puppy starts running around in circles, I call him my son’s name by mistake. He reminds me of that playful boy who was full of the dickens. Without thinking, I repeat the phrase I used too often with my son: “What is your problem?!!”  But to no avail.

I miss having my son and daughter in bed with me

My boy had a deep, sensitive side as well. I sang to him at night and read Dr. Seuss until I knew those books by heart. When he couldn’t sleep and wanted to be near me, he’d sneak into my room and crawl under the bed. Dr. Spock had told us that co-sleeping was bad, and my son knew he’d be sent back to his room if he was caught. I wish I had followed my instincts and let him curl up in my arms and stay there all night.

My daughter’s self confidence. Although she got glasses at 15 months old and had bushy, Jewish hair, she thought she was the cutest thing in town. She was a leader, with a trail of blonde haired, blue eyed girls following her every move.

My ever confident daughter, who looked to me for advice

When she decided to run for 6th grade president, we practiced her speech night after night. She walked confidently onto the stage, looking like a 10 year old Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I mouthed every word with her as she gave her speech, and when she won I said, “Today 6th grade, tomorrow the world!” We laughed for days over that line.

When she was in 7th grade we moved to Palos Verdes, and she was teased for the first time in her life. Some girls made fun of her glasses and she came home that day in tears.  I immediately made an appointment for her to get contact lenses. I urged her to leave the “mean girls” and find a nicer group of kids. She was smart enough to find her way through a difficult transition.

How I loved being at the center of my children’s lives, being the one they came to for comfort and approval. I remember watching my son play little league and praying for a “ball” so he’d at least get on base.  And what fun we had with my daughter’s costume fittings for ballet recitals, and bringing her roses backstage. It was such joy watching my children’s faces light up when I came home early from work. I was loved, I was needed, I was their mommy.

My beautiful grown children, independent and on their own

My house is quiet now. My husband died almost 3 years ago http://www.sydellweiner.com/surviving-complicated-grief and my children are out on their own. So I hold on tight to the memories.

My son is 40 and my daughter is 38. They have successful careers and children of their own. They have spouses who come first, as well they should. I know they love me, but the dynamics have changed. Instead of playing a leading role, I am now one of the supporting players.

I’ve retired from my career as a college professor and age is catching up with me. There are days when the loneliness overwhelms me. I’m up at 6am and sit on the couch until 10, waiting for a reason to get dressed and get out. There is nobody there to ask how I slept, or keep me company while I make coffee and watch the news. Day after day the monotony continues, as I search for a new direction.

When I try to be grateful for all the good in my life, and it actually makes me feel better. There are so many ways to reach out to others in similar situations.  I am discovering a new freedom and enjoy getting involved in more social activities. Writing is a new form of creative expression for me, and it’s helping me find a new purpose.

Yes, I miss those years, but how fortunate I am to have had them. How fortunate to see my children thrive as adults and to know that I had a big part in it. The future is not just theirs, it’s mine too if I just reach out and grab it.

It’s time to move forward…past time.  I’m a little scared, but I’m also excited. I will welcome the next chapter in my life with the courage and hope. Watch out, I’m back in the world of the living! 

Sydell Weiner, I Miss Those Years

November 8, 2018