Enlightenment

“Old and Young Woman” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—1921

She looks upset, doesn’t she, the old woman. While the expression on the young woman’s face suggests…concern? Surprise? Maybe both. Maybe more.

Clearly, something is amiss.

Perhaps the old woman is in pain. There are scissors on the table. Did her hands stiffen and fail when she attempted to use them? Is that why her fingers are curled? Or, was she suddenly stricken in a way that alarmed her young companion? Perhaps she lashed out at an unintended slight, a reaction that caught the young woman off-guard.

It’s impossible to tell, as suggestive as the art is. The dynamics between people, especially old and young, can be complex and prone to misunderstandings. An old woman’s advice can feel irrelevant and judgmental to a younger one, while a young woman’s assistance can feel condescending and demeaning to an older one.

I’ve been young and certain, and now I’m older and acutely aware of youthful certainty’s unfortunate side: assumption—that older people are unable to learn and adapt, that they are all hearing impaired, and must be treated like children, and addressed as “Honey,” or “Dear,” and have their seat belts fastened for them. And I can’t help but wring my hands, and sometimes lash out…to their surprise.

Old and young woman. I know them both. They stare back at me from every mirror.

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The Home

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The following is a true story.

It happened in a clothing outlet, one mid-morning in early September.

A mother and teenage daughter were waiting on line. The mother was fifty-ish, probably near, or in the throes of, her changes and looked like someone who paid close attention to her diet and exercised regularly. If she was anything like I was at that age, she was probably at war with her body much of the time and the five extra pounds waiting to glom on to her with every bite of any carbohydrate. From where I stood, however, she was obviously winning as she was trim, and very fit in her skinny jeans and crisply tailored shirt.

If she had gray hairs, they were masked well by strategically placed highlights. Like most women at that age, she had a few lines on her face, but what struck me most was her fatigued expression. As clearly as she adored the girl, I sensed she would rather have been at home reading a good book than shopping.

As space on the conveyor belt cleared, the mother began placing items on it—tee shirts, sweaters, shoes, waiting for the two women ahead of her to pay and leave.

They were also a mother and daughter, but the former—short, elderly, with rounded shoulders and coarse, steel-hued hair—stood aside, steadying herself by holding on to their shopping cart’s handle as the former—close in age to the teenager’s mother—paid for the items.

When all their bags were in the cart, and the sales receipt was in the daughter’s hand, they walked to the exit, the daughter staying close to her mother, who continued to use the cart for support.

The teenage girl’s mother watched the pair leave, and as she stepped up to the register, and took her wallet out of her purse, she gazed into her daughter’s eyes. “Will you take care of me like that when I’m old?”

The girl didn’t miss a beat. “Nope,” she said. “It’s straight to the home for you.”

I suspected she was joking, but her mom didn’t laugh.

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