If you think a person just slightly over the hill has it bad, consider Nora, the eighty-four year old woman down the street who's coasted to someplace near the bottom. Not that she knows it (you know how old people are). She has the distinction of being the mother of a senior citizen.
Now, that family relationship means that she's the (1) grandmother of someone in mid-life crisis and (2) great grandmother to one of the generation currently going to hell. Just a normal, everyday four generation family grouping.
Nora’s favorite apparel is a green mottled button down shirt and a pair of combat boots. As she says, it suits her lifestyle. She usually wears this battle attire to family reunions and one of the reasons is her grandson Henry. Nora, (we call her that because she's still sharp enough to sue if she recognizes herself in this story), is a fundamentalist, while Henry is an evolutionist.
This causes a few problems because Nora knows that God created man in His Own Image, from the dust of the earth, while Henry knows that a spark ignited in a murky swamp eons ago, and a few cells clung together for company. Or was it for sex?
Other family members try to stay clear of the controversy because intervention causes nothing but headaches. Nora told Henry that if one of his ancestors was a ring-tailed baboon, the genetic endowment did not come from her side of the family. That leaves Henry's father, Nora's son-in-law, in a quandary. Does he slap an eighty-four year old woman for being called a baboon, or does he side with her and contradict his son, who has seven PhD’s in occult biology?
Henry's seven degrees in occult biology have equipped him to analyze his grandmother, and this analysis has taught him compassion. In Henry’s mind, Nora doesn't know any better. Part of the reason she believes in a Personal First Cause is because back in the day, when Nora was learning about life, no one knew very much.
Take for instance, Nora's belief that men and women are different, a totally unmodern concept. Nora always said, "Man makes the living and woman make life". Henry knows better than that because he's in the lab, trying to create artificial life via the computer. Some of his bytes and bits show some organization, and he hopes for future communication from them.
"Just when am I going to have a great-grandson?" Nora asks, hands on hips, in her best Rambo stance. Nora fears that Henry is addled because of too much learning. "Just what do they teach them in sex education?" she asked her daughter bitterly. “Seven years married, and no children?”
Nora's differences with Henry don't end with the fact that he hasn't made her a great grandmother yet. They run much deeper than that. They go all the way down to her knowledge that Henry is going to Hell if he doesn't change his beliefs.
Henry has his drawings showing how the human race staggered erect millions of years ago. But Nora has her Bible, giving man's ancestry from Adam and Eve on to the present.
They talk a lot about bones when they get together. Nora wants to know where they are, the missing ones and Henry tries to explain that the "missing link" isn't necessarily "missing". He brings up scientists' latest theory, that instead of ape gradually changing to man, a little bit at a time, there was a periodic leap and one day an ape mama had a “hopeful monster” human child. That one causes Nora a bit of a problem, because she suspects that Henry also differs radically from any of his predecessors.
The thing that worries Nora most about Henry's belief system is that she's read that some of the modern scientists believe in something out there beyond the edge of science. When quantum science is considered, mystery still exists. And she's also read some of the New Age ideas that all is one, and God is in all and therefore God is everyplace. She likes this one less. Any day now, she suspects, Henry may decide that he's God. In Nora’s younger years, people were loaded up and given electroshock treatments for such belief.
Yes, Nora worries a lot about Henry, and from his actions, Henry probably worries about her. When she had surgery last year and needed blood, Henry was there offering his arm. He sat up two whole nights worrying that their interesting discussions might be at an end. They probably won’t. Nora’s tough.
When Henry had worries about his grant last year, Nora threatened to attack the United States Government Granting Agency. She would have done it too, if she'd thought it necessary.
Nora has learned to work with what’s available and not be greedy, something that's benefited her since she's on Social Security. Actually, being on Social Security is one of the reasons Nora would like to attack the US Government. She figures someone with some common sense needs to go over and ‘straighten things out.’ Nora never worked outside the home, but lazed around the house raising a dozen children, baking bread, growing a victory garden, installing tile, painting the house, being a library mother.
Since she's never worked, and since her husband died a long time ago, her Social Security check is quite small relative to her life’s work. This in turn means that she's beneficiary of SSI, a government acronym for Supplemental Security Income.
Nora though, says it stands for Sure Slow Insanity.
The government tells Nora that for every mouthful of food someone gives her, they may take some of her SSI away. She's gotten around that one nicely. The government doesn't change her for "garbage", so Nora keeps a clean "garbage" can on her back porch, and when one of her children want to help, they simply contribute "garbage" to the can. When asked, Nora can truthfully state that she eats food from the garbage can on her back porch. That usually stops the bureaucrats!
Nora can also be given "used clothing" In practice, this means that whatever Nora wears has to have the newness rubbed off by someone else. Since Nora weighs only about ninety eight pounds, and since most of her children could pick her up in their hand, some of the grandchildren are mustered to "break in" Nora's wardrobe. After all the newness is gone, the family members "donate" the used items to Nora.
Nora is allowed limited funds on a razor’s edge. If the amount she receives exceeds the limit by one penny, Nora loses her SSI (Sure Slow Insanity Money) for the month. But while she is not allowed money for living, she may spend several times the limit for death. If she so desired, she could own an entire cemetery, reserved for family members, with gold monuments above each planned gravesite.
All of this depresses Nora, but not as much as the world's attempts to regiment her now that she’s a senior. She's eighty-four and has never played a musical instrument, but someone at the senior citizen center noticed that Nora had a lot of time to spare – and decided that Nora needed to participate in a music class.
The closest that Nora ever came to making music was when she visited her cousin as a teen, in Alabama, and during the two weeks she spent there, she learned hog calling. The senior citizen adviser felt that that particular talent was not transferable and enrolled Nora in Organ. Dutifully, Nora worked over the keys on the Baldwin, creating shrieks and howls louder than any hog had ever used in responding to her call.
Some of the more musically inclined patrons of the center complained, and Nora's adviser decided to find out the truth. Just what Nora did want to do with her remaining years?
What she would really like to do, Nora told the adviser, was count clouds. On all those years, with all those kids and grandkids and now working on the fourth generation, she had never had time to simply lay back and count clouds.
"But what difference does it make after you've counted them?" the bewildered advisor asked.
“What difference does it make if I go back to organ playing?”
The adviser let Nora count clouds.
On good days, Nora got in quite a few clouds and learned their names, Cirrus, Nimbus, and so forth, but on cloudy days there was just one mass of grey. So Nora decided to respond to the geese calls that came from overhead as the geese prepared for their journey to the south. It seemed a friendly thing to do. After an hour of that, and a visit from a Health Worker from the center, Nora decided that it was better to respond silently to the geese than to take tranquilizers.
Nora told me that one of the things that bothered her about the Federal Government and their Sure Slow Insanity money, was that they were determined to peek into her sex life. She quickly made it clear that she didn't actually have any, but if she wanted to, it would be her business. She worried that if they discovered that she lived with the elderly man upstairs (who was ninety-six) certain parts of the arrangement would have affected her Slow Sure Insanity money. Turns out that the government didn't care whether she slept with him or not. She could sleep with him three hundred and sixty five nights a year and tell the whole neighborhood about it if she wanted to, and the Government wouldn't care.
But let anyone find out that they were married and she would lose her SSI.
I had to ask one day, "Nora, I've just become sixty. You've got about a quarter of a century on me. I need to know what's ahead. How do you feel?"
"Stiff" Nora said without hesitation. "You're still going to be yourself. That never changes; the only difference is that you get stiff and dried out. If you keep your juices flowing, you'll be fine. But what's a youngster like you in her sixties doing worrying about getting old?
Opaline Marks is the pen name of Opal Markiewicz, a writer of novels, short stories and nonfiction essays.