When Mrs. Brown woke on Tuesday morning, she was old. It took a few minutes of lying there for her to adjust to this reality since she had spent the night being young—in her twenties, if she remembered correctly. This morning, however, she couldn’t put a number to her age—80, 90, maybe even 100. Those numbers, important to others, seemed now of little relevance since the physical clues remained the same: wrinkled skin, age spots, protruding veins, aching in various joints, and some type of problem with teeth. All true in the glare of daylight, but absent last night.
“It ’s not like I live in one of those science fiction realities,” she said aloud as she sat up. “I know perfectly well where I am.” She looked around. The walls were covered with the paper she had picked out and daughters Grace and Susanne had put up for her—large clusters of pale lavender lilacs on a blue background.
“This is pretty dark, Mom” Grace had said, looking at the first roll. “Dark and busy. I’m not sure you’re going to like it once we have it up. What if we paper just one wall, and paint the other three?” But she held out, and everyone, even Grace, said it was striking once it was finished. She didn’t think she’d ever grow tired of it, at least not in the years she had left.
The room’s window was an east-facing double. She watched each morning as the sun arrived, inching past the white curtains that Suzanne had hung to the tall chest of drawers that had once held her husband’s clothes then onto her matching dresser with its oval-shaped attached mirror. Finally it arrived at the bed where she lay. Once she felt its warmth, she accepted that she was back, and it was time to get up. Yet each morning, as she swung her feet over the bed’s edge onto the white carpet that connected her room with the rest of the house, she had that sense that something was wrong. After all, it didn’t seem usual to her that one could be such completely different ages within such a short time, or that the sea-saw of ages could repeat itself like a clock that never needed winding. Since she was a careful woman, she began to take notes.
June 1: Moved into Susanne’s home. Date I became officially OLD.
That started her thinking. She had a good memory, not having become what her own mother called ditsy and what her friends now called Alzheimer’s. She remembered clearly, for example, that she was an adult for many years, raising her children, and doing the things that adult women with families did.
May 17, 1946, married Cliff: Became ADULT.
Then, as her children reached their own adulthood, and the last one married, Mrs. Brown knew she had moved into OLDER, where she stayed for a very long time.
Adult, Older, Old, a logical progression, she thought. But now? This new thing she was experiencing was proving more difficult to understand. She knew when it started—four nights ago. She wrote November 15th on her list, but next to the date was a blank space. She didn’t know what to call this new phase of her life. At first she thought of it as CHANGING, moving from old to young, then back again to old. Certainly that was one way to describe it, but as she thought about the events, she realized that although she was alternating in age, she wasn’t really changing. Old, young, old, she was still herself.
“What has happened, I think,” she said to herself, “is that the change is not about me at all. I think time has developed a fracture, and now past and present are both sharing the same twenty-four hours.” At first she was pleased that she had thought what seemed to her to be such a deep and complicated thought, but then she began to grow nervous. She knew as well as the next person that a fracture was something that happened to a solid object like a bone, and time was anything but solid. She felt she should discard this fracture theory, but that left her once again with no explanation for her nightly experiences. Besides, she thought, people are always coming up with new insights, so why not me, although once she thought these words, she felt presumptuous. She decided to mention the matter to her daughter.
“You’re dreaming, Mom,” Susanne said. “You’re actually the same age all the time. It’s just that you’re having a dream about being younger. Did I tell you I was planning to make an oyster dressing for Thanksgiving dinner?”
Mrs. Brown thought to argue, but Susanne sounded stressed about getting things ready for Thanksgiving so she dropped the subject.
The space was larger than she had expected, although she felt pleased rather than surprised. She and her sister Gretchen were sharing a room at the far end of the suite. Her sister looked about twenty, and since they were close in age, she knew she too was young. At her end of the suite was their shared bedroom, and next to it another room, a sitting room, she thought. A long hallway led to the other rooms. She meant to go down the hall to see what or who was there, although she was sure it was other members of her family.
The suite was carpeted in a plum color, quite attractive. It hadn’t been there before, but when she turned to ask Gretchen where it had come from, Gretchen had left.
She couldn’t say why she was there, although there was a pervading sense of purpose. Unlike her older life where purpose was designed to motivate one to action in order to lead somewhere, purpose now seemed to carry with it no sense of urgency. Whatever purpose’s goal might be, it didn’t involve her. She was young; she was in a place she enjoyed with people she loved. It was enough.
The day was cloudy, snow coming in the afternoon, they said. She knew they were right because her knees ached. She tried to remember when her joints had taken upon themselves to be weather predictors. People on television were always saying how some pill stopped all their aches and pains, but she knew they were only actors, paid well to lie. She took only the most necessary of the available pills, unwilling to spend all of her monthly check on the latest offerings of some drug company.
Today was to be given over to polishing the silver. It was her job as a child, and now once again. Susanne hadn’t wanted to bring the silver out.
“It’s a lot of work, Mom,” she had said.
But Mrs. Brown didn’t mind. While she polished, Susanne baked the pies, and ground the cranberries. From time to time one or the other broke the silence.
“Do you remember when I had plum-colored carpeting?” she asked.
Susanne took the last of the pumpkin pies from the oven and then slid in two of apple with lattice tops. “No. When was that?”
“I can’t remember either, but I thought perhaps I had. Maybe I’ll ask Gretchen.”
“On a good day Aunt Gretchen can’t remember where she left her keys. What makes you think she’ll remember the color of some carpet? Was it wall-to-wall or a room size?”
“I’m not sure.”
That night she realized that she wasn’t yet Mrs. Brown, although she knew it would happen because she’d met Cliff Brown, and was absolutely, totally, and completely in love. She touched his face, feeling the bristle of his chin. They kissed, and she rubbed her fingers around her lips, surprised her skin wasn’t chapped from the roughness. He was smiling, and she noticed his blue eyes.
Then she was sitting with him, watching as he held their son, the baby smelling of powder while the father had the smoky smell of fireplace wood. Then the baby was gone, and she was back in the suite with the plum-colored carpeting. She was sitting at a dressing table, one of those kidney-shaped tables with a cloth skirt. Her hair was blond, turned under in a style known as a pageboy. She brushed it now, and as she brushed, it grew longer until it reached the middle of her back. She picked up a large green and red taffeta bow that was lying on the table top and fastened it to the back of her hair, pulling the hair back at the nape of her neck. The green in the bow matched the green party dress she was wearing. Her high heel shoes were dyed the same deep green. It was New Years Eve, and she was Cliff’s date for a fraternity party. Her engagement ring, she noticed, was a large green emerald. She wondered what had happened to the diamond he had given her at Christmas when he had proposed, but she wasn’t worried. Emerald or diamond or even dime store glass, they were all the same. It was Cliff who mattered. The room she was in was now her friend’s bedroom, but the carpet was the same color of summer plums.
Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday, a day that Mrs. Brown wished she could expand into a week or more. There were just too many people, too many laughs, too many stories, and too many hugs to squeeze into one short day. She liked the look of all the food on the tables; casseroles and relish trays, a turkey with stuffing, and a ham with rings of pineapple on top, two kinds of potatoes, and bowls of cranberry sauce. It had been years since she had wanted to eat more than a little, but the smell nourished her, and she loved the commotion of dishes passing back and forth with requests for “more gravy please” causing someone to jump up to refill the bowl. In a family this large, there was always some little one who had reached the age of refusing to eat anything green. “Green is good,” she would say to this newest convert to the cult of colorless food so popular with young children, and sure enough some older child who had popped out the cult’s other side would offer support and encouragement with words like “See, I love lima beans,” but the child knew his role, and refused to even try.
There was always some adult who said, “I shouldn’t” to offers of seconds or thirds, and then took some anyway. There was always a comment that this year the turkey was the best ever, which led to a discussion of types of turkey and what was happening to the nation’s food supply. There was the usual sprinkling of “Do you remember when,” which caused people to expand and correct, updating earlier versions of the story. Of course there were new ideas, new information, and new opinions, providing a stimulating mix, but the day was anchored by the familiar that could be counted on to hold them all safely together. It was through the familiar that they knew they belonged.
“Does anyone remember my having a plum-colored carpet?” she asked during a lull in the conversation, and the family all jumped in with “What abouts?” until everyone finally had to admit that they didn’t know, everyone except one five-year-old who was sure she had seen a carpet that color in her friend Lauren’s house, and maybe Mrs. Brown had been there too.
The garden was especially beautiful. She was carrying some flowers she had just picked. It was late in the day, and the children were playing in the sandbox. Cliff was there too. She was telling him that even though they already had three children, there was to be a fourth. She was happy as he picked her up, swinging her around. Then it was March with a late snowstorm, and she and Cliff were running through the snow. He had rubbed his hand across her full- term belly, laughing as he said, “Tag, you’re it,” and she had answered, “Here’s the hospital. Let’s go in and get our new baby. I’ll race you up the stairs.” They had gone inside and found the babies lined up in a row on the plum-colored carpet. She picked one with the same blue eyes as her husband. As soon as she picked up the baby, her stomach began to deflate, a balloon losing air.
“I thought,” Mrs. Brown said to her daughter Susanne one day, “that when a person got to be old, they required less sleep.”
“Yes,” Susanne answered, her tone of voice conveying that she was only half paying attention.
“It would seem to make sense,” Mrs. Brown continued. “I mean, when one grows old, one realizes that life is quite short, and therefore it’s good to stay awake and participate. But you may have noticed that I’m sleeping more.”
“Do you think you’re ill?”
“No. I’m old, but not ill. I’m actually looking forward to going to sleep. I’ve been going in earlier at night.”
“Yes, I suppose I have noticed that. Are you more tired?”
“Not really. It has to do with where I go when I fall asleep.”
“You mean your dreams?”
“I don’t think they’re dreams. It’s pretty amazing to me, but I’m reasonably sure I’m living a younger life at nighttime. Your dad is there. And all of you kids, and of course you’re young. Are you aware of any changes occurring to you during the night?”
Seeing Susanne’s look, Mrs. Brown added, “Probably it’s one of those things that isn’t available to someone your age. No matter, dear. ”
Cliff was holding her hand, leading her into a large white two-story house, and suddenly they were upstairs. She was looking at the rooms—one was huge, stretching across the front of the house with a row of windows extending from one side to the other. “Come see the other rooms,” he said, but she wasn’t ready. Instead she looked out the windows. A large expanse of grass sloped downward toward some body of water that she could see through trees draped in Spanish moss. She turned, and he caught her in his arms. “I love you,” he said, but then she thought he didn’t say the words aloud, but had sent them to her some other way. She smiled, and he smiled back. She knew the house was beautiful, knew all the rooms were large in the way of old houses that always came with enough space.
“We will live here someday,” he told her, or perhaps she simply knew. It was a place of beginnings, this house with carpet the color of summer plums.
Ann Thomas believes a person’s task during the final years is to find authenticity. In her writing, she explores this process, using insight from almost forty years as a psychotherapist, as well as her own aging process. Her publications include The Women We Become, a book on women’s aging, (Volcano Press), numerous short stories, an ongoing humor column called “Unmistakably Old,” as well as over a hundred freelance articles. In addition to writing, she has a psychotherapy practice and is a certified dementia specialist.