23: Growing Old Disgracefully

23: Growing Old Disgracefully

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Growing Old Disgracefully

I owe my life and liveliness to Grandma. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have died of boredom... and I never would have learned the basic principles for growing old disgracefully.

My intensive training began at ten, the year I got some kind of weird skin disease on my feet. It was thought to be contagious and I couldn’t go to school, so I spent all day, every day, at Grandma’s house. The first time the doctor came there to look at my feet was a day I’ll never forget. After carefully painting my toes with Mercurochrome, he wrapped each foot in miles and miles of gauze. He told me that I must sit very still all day so I wouldn’t bump my feet, and that he’d be back the next day to take another look.

As soon as he left, Grandma turned to me, and, shaking her head, said, “That doctor may know medicine, but he sure don’t know kids.”

Patting my shoulder, she smiled down on me. “Don’t you worry none,” she said. “I know you can’t sit still all day. We’ll figure out a way for you to get around and still not bump those feet.” And she did.

A little later, she slipped my feet into two shoeboxes lined with a layer of fluffy cotton. She tied them in with strips of sheeting and drew on the boxes so they would look like cars in a choo-choo train. Because it hurt to pick up my feet, she taught me to shuffle along and say. “Choo-choo, choo-choo, comin’ through,” so I would laugh and forget the pain.

But that night when I went to bed, the pain was so bad I couldn’t forget it. I cried and cried. Grandma heard me and came to me. Instead of telling me not to cry, she encouraged me to cry louder. It helped somewhat, but not enough.

Then she bent down over the bed and whispered in my ear.

“I know some magic words that always take away pain. I think you are old enough to hear them. But you mustn’t ever let anyone know you know them, ‘specially your mother.”

Peering over her shoulder on one side and then the other, as if to make certain nobody was listening, she continued, “Remember these words are to be used only in an emergency, after you’ve tried everything else and nothing works. And once you’ve started saying the string of words, you must keep repeating them over and over until the pain goes away.”

Then softly she said these words in a sing-songy chant, and we practiced saying them together: “Hell, damn, shitty, poop, farty, pee. Hell, damn, shitty, poop, farty, pee. Hell, damn, shitty, poop, farty, pee.”

And what she said was true. It was magic. After saying the words over and over, the pain did go away, and I went to sleep.

The next day, when the doctor came, he found me sitting quietly in the place he had last seen me, and the shoebox choo-choo trains were hidden in the closet. Grandma warned me not to tell the doctor what we had done.

“Honey,” she whispered, “there is just one way to treat the wise guys in your life who tell you what to do: Listen carefully to ‘em, and then do what you think is best.”

Grandma’s sister lived next door to her. She was humorless and crotchety and so different from everyone else in our family, I used to wonder how she ever gained admission. While Grandma was round and soft and looked as though she ate sweet rolls every morning for breakfast, my great-aunt Lee was tall and bony and looked as if she sucked vinegar through a straw. At least once a day, every day, she would bemoan the fact that, “Growing old is no laughing matter.”

If anyone seemed to be listening, she’d go on to complain about her rheumatism and how much it hurt to move and how she couldn’t “see nor hear so good no more.” Sitting at the kitchen table, dunking a doughnut into her coffee, she would recite a lecture I soon knew by heart.

“You’d better enjoy yourself while you’re young because when you get to my age, you won’t be able to any more. You had better obey your parents and make it easy for them because they are getting older too, and life is difficult for older people. Growing old is no laughing matter!”

One morning, after I’d heard her repeat that favorite phrase of hers for maybe the fifth time, I started to laugh. Pretending to have a fit of coughing, I ran from her house, for I knew she’d hit me if she thought I was laughing at her. And, of course, I was.

While watching her jerky movements and listening to her rasping voice and endless complaints, I suddenly had a fantasy of her on the stage, like a character in a play, a female Scrooge. I laughed because I realized she was a character in a play — one of her own making.

When I ran from my great-aunt’s house, I sped next door to Grandma’s. Still laughing out loud as I ran in, I let the screen door slam shut behind me. Grandma came out from her room to ask what was going on.

When I explained the situation, she started laughing too.

“You’re quite right,” she said. “That old lady is a character in a very dull play.”

She took my hand and led me toward the kitchen, which smelled of freshly baked bread.

“Let’s talk about it while we enjoy some hot bread. Remember, though, it’s not good for your stomach to eat bread while it’s hot like this. But a person has to do something now and then that’s not good for them. Just do those things in moderation.

“You know, I think ‘God’s favorites’ are those persons — children or adults — who are slightly wicked — not bad-bad, but just a little naughty now and then. You can tell they are God’s favorites because he gives them better dispositions, and people like to be around them more than they like to be around the saintly ones!

“I think people who try ‘not to rock the boat’ and try to make everyone happy are to be pitied. Their brain gets damaged by a too-tight halo that prevents the circulation of interesting thoughts.”

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, Grandma, Mama and Aunt Emma would work together for days getting ready for the big family gathering, preparing the house, the table and the feast. Then, on the big day, after everyone had stuffed themselves, Grandma would announce to her daughters and the other women present, “I know you’ll do a good job clearing away the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. You don’t need me now. I’ve done my share. It’s time for my reward.”

Then, taking all the men with her, she’d go into the living room and wait. As soon as the table was cleared, the tablecloth removed and the women cloistered in the kitchen with the dining room door closed, Grandma and her entourage would return, re-cover the table with an army blanket and proceed to play poker or craps. Sometimes she’d even smoke a cigar.

I would sneak into the living room and curl up in one of her overstuffed chairs, my arms around my overstuffed stomach. Half dozing, I’d watch, listen and marvel at my grandmother — who didn’t act at all like other kids’ grandmothers. I knew that I wanted to grow up and be just like her — I wanted to grow old disgracefully!

I’m eighty-five now, older than Grandma was when she died. And I’ve caused more than a few raised eyebrows along the way. It’s been a life full of heart and humor and irreverence —just the very kind of legacy I planned so long ago on Grandma’s couch.

~Emily Coleman
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body & Soul

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