Oct 25 2011

On Maintenance, Marion and Maude

It’s not that I’m not attached to how I look, or spend more time than you would imagine on fixing my hair or sweating on an eliptical machine, but when I read Nora Ephron’s essay “On Maintenance” a few years ago (it’s the second piece in I Feel Bad About My Neck), I wasn’t really feeling the pain of the hours she catalogued.

However, in the past week or so, my daytimer has had to accommodate  two mammograms, one ultrasound, a bone densomiter test, a visit to my dermatologist and a treatment from my friendly osteopath. None of these were precipitated by actual health problems; they’re all preventative and would therefore qualify as “maintenance” (albeit health, not beauty).

My new colleague, Claire, wise beyond her twenty-something years, has refrained from  commenting on the crater this time investment has created in my productivity, but I’m concerned about the message it’s sending: I’m only 53, after all.

Maude Carlyle: no resemblance to your stereotypical mother-in-law

But it reminds me of the conversation I had with Marion back in April, just after the book was published. When I told Marion, a scientist now in her 80s, that the subtitle of the collection was “and other unexpected joys of aging”, there was a pause on her end of the line, and then she asked — not unkindly –

and what would you know about aging, Shari?

I had to admit, she had a point. Relatively speaking, a 53-year-old knows almost nothing about aging. And — having witnessed up close the plethora of health and mobility issues affecting Marion’s sister, Maude, my beloved former mother-in-law — not to mention her dear husband Allan, and my own much cherished parents — it’s not like I don’t appreciate the difference.

But that underlines one of the insights I had in the process of writing and editing the book. As I recalled in my introduction, reviewing a series of TV commentaries I taped in the 1990s was an illuminating experience.

I remembered the experience as deeply fraught. Unlike crafting arguments for the newspaper or radio, where my unshaped eyebrows or unsuitable clothing in no way interfered with the persuasiveness of my prose, TV commentary demanded an unprecedented degree of appearance vigilance. Borderline brilliant wit could be easily and irrevocably hijacked by wind-whipped hair, my nose in profile, or visible evidence of my face’s recent intimacy with a pillow.

But watching the commentaries 15 years later, what struck me more than anything was how surprisingly okay I looked—if only relative to today. What exactly was my problem, I wondered. And that’s when I made the leap into the realm of French novelist Colette.  It was she who famously observed, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.”

At that moment I vowed to keep on realizing that how I look and feel this year is likely better than I will next.




Jun 19 2011

Rejecting the widow label

Susannah Dalfen is the kind of woman you fall in love with the minute you meet her.

In her moving and provocative essay, "Living Beyond Loss", Susannah Cohen Dalfen challenges the definition imposed on her by circumstance.

Warm and funny, perceptive and smart, she’s been a wonderful and supportive presence in my life since I moved to Ottawa nine years ago.

Two years ago our paths crossed unexpectedly while on holiday in Israel. Susannah had suffered the tremendous loss of her dear husband Chuck earlier that year and spoke about the impact of that, not only on how she felt, but on how others treated her. I was moved and provoked by her observations and delighted when she agreed to record some of them to contribute to the book. Called “Living Beyond Loss”, Susannah’s essay appears in the Surviving section of the collection.

Last week my friend Amanda told me that her mother-in-law, who lost her own husband last year, called her to express  appreciation for the gift of I Feel Great About My Hands. But in trying to communicate the great resonance she experienced in reading both the book in general and Susannah’s essay in particular, Amanda’s mother-in-law became overcome with emotion and was unable to speak.

Eager to read the book that’s had such an impact on both her husband’s mother and her own, Amanda nevertheless confessed that neither women would lend her the copies she’d given them: they’ve both become too attached to their books. (An inveterate under-liner myself, I’m guessing they’ve maybe made margin notes that are too personal to share.)