The age of 90 is a precarious notion for those of us who believe we are immortal. Time from this distance still looks so plentiful. There is no end to our enrichment, our dancing fingers constantly adding noise to this fire of life. Every moment we make is monumental, everlasting and rich in nourishment. The soil of life seems to be never ending in it’s ability to bare and breath and nurture our endless existence.
Despite popular belief, New York is not the epicenter of culture and is not deserving of the lavish and golden praises it receives. Culture is everlasting. It permeates beyond the simple whims of human expression. Culture defines a community, it is something that is recognizable when stumbled upon by wobbling outsiders. New York City has none of these features. I can tell you this by the number of twentysomething women I saw out in public wearing velor stretch pants, ridding tightly up their bubble butts. The legs of the hideous, skin tight pants are then shoved into faux fur booties that look as though they were stolen from the set of The Empire Strikes Back. The flipped up collar of the pastel polo shirts being worn is only out done by the resurrection of really big hair and hooker make up.
So while I was not in the city myself and instead bumming around Long Island, this musing bunch of factoids only begins to strengthen my argument about how New York City SUCKS. Gotham is supposed to be America’s epicenter where people from around the world congregate, coagulate and then melt together in symbiosis. But if you cross any of the Burroughs or take one of the numerous bridges and tunnels out of the city you land smack down in a wasteland of suburban psychosis. Long Island is a paralyzed melting pot that seems to be as white washed as possible and completely desperate. The townships’ talons are hooked into a past that have died long ago. I blame New York and it’s unwillingness to adopt and care for it’s neighbors. Go to Hoboken, Elizabeth, Baldwin, Hempstead, the hipster parts of Brooklyn, the still savaged parts of the Bronx and tell me that New York city is taking care of it’s self and it’s community.
So what does this have to do with being 90 years old? This is the backdrop where both of my grandmothers reached this milestone year in their existence. Both of them are children of German emigrants, first generation born Americans, brought forth to this country through Ellis Island and settled in the Big Apple at the mouth of the 20th Century. Both of these woman have lived their entire lives in New York state. They both still live in homes bought by their husbands in the 1950’s, the same homes my parents were raised in. The same homes where they both watched their children grow up and marry, have grand kids and lost their husbands in. Both of these women live alone through a combination of their own determination, stubbornness and sadly, dementia and mental illness. They are cared for by siblings of my parents who have lived on the island their whole lives.
Despite being in my 30’s and with numerous trips to Long Island over the last two decades I have lived on the East Coast, I know very little about these women whose lives I am directly connected to. There are many reasons for this, some of which trouble me to no end. On my part, I have not visited them much over the last five years. I have been to Long Island so few times that I barely remember the last occasion that brought me there. I know it was in February and the time before that was also in February. This is probably telling about my feelings for this gray, industrial place and perhaps I could recapture the mesmerizing view of Long Island that I had as a child if I only came in a month like April or May. But I doubt the bloom of flowers, the green of trees or the semi-blue skies hiding behind all the exhaust would change my opinion.
There is no real excuse for this. Mostly I don’t come because New York depresses me and it’s easier for me to forget that it exists. I realize this is less than noble and will no doubt make me widely detestable to my massive audience. I can’t really argue with the hurled insults set to come my way. But the fact is the culture retardation, combined with streets and streets littered with store fronts and surely looking people is not the type of environment my already pessimistic, depressed self really likes to take in.
The reflection however on the fact that there are two women, whose blood and genetics I share, living alone at 90 is a startling one. I wonder very much who they were when they were young. My failure in collecting this knowledge is not as simple though as missed time and gross negligence. In the case of my father’s mother, she was diagnosed and has lived with Schizophrenia since my father was a child. Her perception of the past, of her experiences and where she has been and seen is most likely not very lucid. I sat with her in her dinning room and we shared peaceful silence and small conversations. She, unlike my aunt who talks all the time, is a self reflective person. She enjoys solitude and time inside of her own mind. I wonder if she isn’t schizophrenic at all, but just content being a singular being, uncensored by the whims of action the run through the mind. At the age of 90 she still reads a great deal, still walks to the store and still works on her knitting at which she is skilled. I may never know her stories, her sorrows or losses and loves. I may never learn about my father, aunt or the grandfather I never met from her, but I can’t help feel a deep connection to her. I gained an understanding of where I came from and more of who I am and why I am that way from sitting quietly in her house watching my aunt put out bird feed.
My other grandmother’s stories were overridden by stories about my grandfather. During my childhood visits it was his tales that were shared around the dinner table. I fear this is partly because my mother’s family was very traditional, relying on the patriarch and so he was revered by everyone. He was a great and wonderful and gentle man and despite the desperately thrashing arguments he and my grandmother were famous for having, there is no doubt that love was the central focus of that family. The stories I do hear about my grandmother, now plagued by dementia in the absence of my grandfathers imposing presence, was that she was quite the extraordinary woman. She loved to dance and my grandparents hosted dance parties in their half finished basement. I also know that she wanted to be an artist when she was young and was not encouraged to do this, despite what I found was a great deal of talent in a discarded sketch book in her basement during one of my visits. Now, unfortunately she speaks mostly of loneliness despite what I find is a daily influx of visitors and friends who spend a lot of time with her. The loss of my Grandfather seems to have taken the life out of her in a sense and she has become a shell of the bright, energetic and strong woman people tell me she was. The arguments my grandparents shared was not just a testament to their combined stubbornness, but to the fact that my grandmother was an independent, strong woman, not unhinged by and not complacent to an otherwise settled patriarchy. Make no mistake, this is not to say that my grandfather was an overbearing man with deliberation or made any demands of anyone, but much as I see how he was set in his ways, my grandmother too was set like stone in hers. When they met in opposition words were exchanged loudly and passionately. I see now, without that power struggle something deep is missing in her life.
In the aftermath of this recent visit I have thought more and more about family, history, children and life. It’s hard to see the bigger picture, to feel that connection, for many different reasons. Mostly it’s because I grew up so far away from my extended family. We are related in blood, but that bond for me is not shared in experience. I am still the baby of the family and largely treated that way when I go there, despite being a homeowner in my 30’s. None of my other cousins have a family for the most part. One of them is living with a man who has three kids from a previous relationship, but these experiences we are having don’t seem bound to last as we enter our mid thirties and mid forties. Our parents are aging without becoming grandparents and we have no one to care for us if we are lucky to make it to these years. It makes an hazy future seem bleak in a lot of ways. But what enrichment is there in grand kids too busy to visit, children too busy to make the time to be there as you see the sunset years? I don’t really know, and sadly it seems I may never know.
I look at a part of my future, scared of losing my mind and hoping like hell my body lasts that long. I think of a fluid consciousness that misfires in charge and losses the current. My Grandmothers live a life that, unfortunately many of our elderly live, seemingly discarded. I long for days in which I could listen to them talk, to tell me their stories that might map out a history that leads to my existence. So much of that story has been lost though, and I will never get there first hand account of the past. Tonight I know they both sit alone in their homes, a day scarcely different from the previous, lost in a lifetime of emotions, memories, experiences, dreams, hopes, stories and wonderment. They sit alone, and even if I were to call them, they wouldn’t recognize my voice or remember my name. It’s no ones fault here, no one is to blame and truly, there is not much that can be done. I just wish existence in this world was different. I wish we would forget about dignity and pride. I wish we could find that inner peace before our bodies and minds let go. I love my grandmothers and am glad they had the courage and perseverance to live the lives they did. I am glad their actions brought me into this world. I just wish I knew more about those motivations. I wish I had heard their love stories.