I never understood what back to the future meant. How could I go back to my future? Ruminating, though, about my mom and others when they were my age—and, like me, healthy and active—I realize I can go back to their futures, because I witnessed them as they grew old.
I do this thing, sometimes before going out to dinner: I have just applied concealer to my sunspots and eyeliner to the insides of upper and lower lids the way the guy at the makeup counter showed me. Wearing a swingy skirt and a short-sleeved v-neck sweater with a dotted scarf tied at my neck, a la 1950, I check out my perky housewife (minus the wife) reflection, and my mind flashes on three memories of others who were also once “middle-aged” and full of life.
- My mom. She wears a lime-colored shirtwaist that matches her eyes and peep-toe wedgies that reveal poppy-colored toenail polish. She smells like flowers. It is six p.m. and she puts meat and potatoes on the table—the way my dad requires, serving it with a fruited apron over her shirtwaist and with a smile. When she makes steak, our favorite dinner, she eats scrambled eggs so there will be extra meat for the rest of us
- My former in laws. Early one winter evening in the late Eighties, my in-laws stop by our third-floor walkup in a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They are on their way to dinner. My father-in-law looks handsome in his perfectly tailored dark suit, and my mother-in-law is elegant in a black dress trimmed with fine lace. Our youngest daughter sits in her high chair eating cut-up strawberries with a kitchen towel tied around her neck to catch the drips. Her sisters are reading books with their grandparents. Nightfall is nearly complete as I set out with this blissful familial snapshot branded in my mind and my cross-country skis rested on my shoulder. At my favorite path in Central Park, lamplight reflects on freshly fallen snow; I click into my skis and cut a swath. There are those who meditate with images of beaches and palm trees; when I attempt meditation, I place myself in this Currier and Ives scene, my loved ones at peace in our tiny home on East 83rd St.
- Betty. It’s the mid-Seventies. Betty is fifty-something, the same age as my parents. I’m 30, similar in age to Betty’s offspring. We become friends over our shared interest in tennis. Well, her interest in tennis and my interest in tennis players, a few of whom stayed at her house during tournaments. Betty has the kind of home that you imagine her kids joyfully returning to after a summer away. Lime green and white chintz covers the club chairs. Paintings of yellow flowers hang on the walls. The fridge is full. Betty seems to stop time, as though she will be forever frozen as the mom in this cheery household, like Donna Reed in the Fifties sitcom.
It’s that sensation of stopped time that these images have on me when I look at myself dressed to go to dinner. Momentarily at the high end of my personal range of attractiveness, I feel strong and am looking forward to good food and stimulating conversation.
Then my mind leaps forward, imagining my future, which always takes me back to the futures of my mom, my in laws and Betty. I did not see Betty decline so in that sense, for me, she really is frozen in time. Our last encounter was lunch shortly after my divorce. I was 52 and Betty was in her seventies. Her husband, Bob, had died, and I perceived beginnings of the Alzheimer’s disease that eventually ended her life.
My former father-in-law lived an additional dozen years and my mother-in-law, now 90 and the only member of this blog cast who is still living, continues to dress well enough to take tea at the Plaza. She enjoys her nine grandchildren and great grandchild, but her health has limited much of what she was able to do on that snowy night.
As for my mom, the independent living facility was her next to last stop, before her final two months in a nursing home. Her life there showed me how pleasurable one’s December years can be. She loved to read and go to activities, but above all, her last in a lifetime of best friends, Bea, was my personal favorite, a smart, kind, snarky independent soul, who disdained exercise and did not like to read. She and my mom played cards for nickels and gossiped about the other residents. My mom had never been a gossip but loved the chatter with Bea. The older people get, the less they seem to care what others think.
So back to “back to the future,” Why do I examine these pasts and futures? The Worrywart mind wants to prepare for what might be in store, including—but not limited to—all that could go wrong.
For all that could go right at the retirement home, I choose my mom’s life, not only her relationship with Bea but also her outlook. The key to contentment in her final half dozen years was that she participated. I’m glad that, like my mom, I’m not a Bingo snob.
Do you ever travel back to the future the way I do?
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