Saturday, June 7, 2008

The old folks' home

i don't know about you, but when i was a kid we were schlepped around to do good deeds. of all the good deeds we were required to do -- bottle drives, dance-a-thons, selling chocolates, and grapefruits, and emergency blankets, and magazine subscriptions, and low-interest credit cards (okay, i made that one up) -- of all these good deeds, none was more hideous than christmas concerts at the old folks' home. our gangly grade 7 band would set up in the common room, and all the old folks would be wheeled in by dour aides to have a listen. we trudged through the theme from star wars and meandered around the theme from M*A*S*H, then wowed the crowd with our grade 7 version of "slide and the family bone," featuring anne yakimishyn on the trombone.

after that, and worst of all, we were set loose to visit with the old folks. even at 13, my skin crawled and my nostrils recoiled at the institutional feel of the place, the geriatric horror show. i grew up without extended family. my grandparents all lived in nova scotia; the relatives of my grandmother's who did live in alberta we generally saw in a massive undifferentiated clump of overweight middle-age. to my lazy eye, all of the women looked the same: curly-haired weebles with flaccid jowls and a serious smoking habit. even so, by comparison with the people at the old folks' home, my grandmother's siblings were youthful: stout, to be sure, yet mobile and sound of mind and hearing. nothing in my life had prepared me for the old man drooling on his pyjamas, or the cheerful and wholly mad little old lady bent double like a shrimp, scuttling back and forth to the cookies table. to me, the old folks' home was like a zoo: the specimens of old age had nothing to do with the species that inhabited my grade 7 biosphere.

of course, i am older now and see things differently. i have a higher capacity for horror, a capacity developed in part by trying to imagine what this event was like from the perspective of the "old folks" themselves. even within the highly uncompetitive category of grade 7 bands, ours was bad, a consequence of the fact that mr flewelyn, the band teacher, used to spend most of his time smoking pot in the instrument storage room with the grade 9s. our grade 8 band wasn't much better, even though the program was taken over by the energetic jody missal, who favoured lime green flares and sported an afro. by that time, the band was a microcosm of junior high, with the stoners (percussion) against the keeners and brains (trumpets and sax) against the popular girls with rainbow jeans who all played the flute. i played the clarinet because i hadn't yet developed the eating disorder prerequisite to being a flautist and i wasn't fast enough to grab a sax. tragically for me, chris hamer, whom we all hated, played the clarinet as well, thus sealing my junior high school doom.

anyway, my working image of an old folks' home has been not unlike that of junior high: a vague smell of boiled meat with a tang of urine, forced cheerfulness, grim efficiency, vacant stares, sphincter-tightening fear over my social vulnerability, and edmonton-in-december static cling.

i think that's not your view, at least based on your answers to my little poll of last week. i know now why you are all my friends (even if we haven't met): you are models of optimism and generosity. you are genial, forward-thinking people who expect the best from others. you do not worry about being entombed with scrapbookers; you put your best foot forward, facing the future with pluck.

to remind you of what you said:

1. you're in your mid-80s in a seniors' building. whom do you most want to live with?
  • feminists: 6
  • left-wing activists: 2
  • whoever!: 5
  • unitarians: 3

2. in your mid-80s, which do you most hope (plan) to be?

  • feminist: 3
  • left-wing activist: 3
  • myself: 5
  • unitarian: 3
leaving aside the intriguing fact that more people want to live with feminists than to be feminists (a new variation on women's work?), the honest trade you're willing to make between being "yourselves" and living with "whoever" stuns me. it's so genuine, so fair-minded, so ... canadian. am i really the only person who worries about ending up in the middle seat on the airbus of old age?

a confession: i voted to live with unitarians, though not to be one. why? i like the idea of living with people who don't judge. why don't i want to be one? i can't imagine myself without my highly opinionated, judgmental disdain. my only hope is that, as elaine says, scrapbooking is on its way out as a trend.

or that i get to live with you-all.

1 comment:

Jen Alabiso said...

...what if we consider ourselves feminist and want, in our dotage, to be alleviated of the stress of trying to convince people that feminism really ISN'T a bad word?

My own octogenarian utopia. when feminism can just BE.

Testify!