Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older – from the bookshelf

Over on Rx4caregivers, I’m scoping out my favorite bits & pieces from the most well-thumbed, corners turned down, highlighted books in my library, challenging myself to pick my  Top 10 lines from each chapter.

There was never any question which book would be first – –  Rabbi Dayle Friedman’s Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older – finding your grace & grit beyond midlife  lit up my lift as soon as I read the first page of her introduction.   Beyond her book’s  eye- & soul-opening messages, chapter after chapter brings up memories of Mom & so many older friends, of how they aged upward in ways that bestowed on my like so many blessings expectations of being a true elder, approaching life to the last of my days rooted in the past, open to the now, with an expectant eye on the future.

So, over on Rx4…, I’ll be sharing just the Top 10 quotes or phrases, BUT over here, I’ll be looking at the ones that bring Mom or others to mind & fleshing them out with my memories thoughts feelings.

I started with Rabbi Friedman’s intro ~ Births Out of Brokenness, growing whole as we grow older ~ which opens the reading with considerable heft.  If Mom were still with us, we would have read it in tandem, discussing parts that touched us deeply, sharing favorite passages.

Am imagining Mom sending Dayle a note & suggesting connecting over a cuppa & nibbling at The French Bakery –  there’s no doubt the two women would have found mutual delight in each other.

And so, let us begin…

“The challenge of aging isn’t to stay young;  it’s not only to grow old, but to grow whole – – to come into your own.”  Connie Goldman – –  Rabbi Friedman opens the intro with this quote, which goes straight to the heart of the eldering Mom.  Mom COULD have entered her “young old age” shouldering the primary role of relatively fresh widow – she did not.  On the second anniversary of his death, she was experiencing the first week of autumn – in Australia, where her chief role was as Nan-nan to her adored 3rd grandchild, Mike & Kerry’s first child, caught up in the wonders of a new country, a new continent, a new hemisphere, in becoming friends with Mike & Kerry’s chums & neighbors – who adored her – and in making & renewing friendships in their church circle.

Mom wrote of that time – – “When Kerry and Mike brought their bouncing baby boy home, I was there to be a delighted chief cook and bottle washer. For a month, Kerry could just take it easy and let me take care of the house. It felt so good. I had not been needed like that since Pete died and it nourished my soul. I remember one of her friends dropping by and asking her what she was planning for dinner. Kerry tossed off her reply – “I haven’t had to think about a meal in a month.” The friend looked at me and said, “When you’re through here, will you come over to my house?” And I think she meant it!”‘

Within a year of returning home, Mom – at 66, which was considered considerably more “out to pasture” than it is today – had to find work, after the person handling Dad’s estate (NOT the executor he had appointed) lost every penny of her inheritance.  That turned out to be a blessing on all sides – Mom kept a loving eye on a young family whose mother was physically & emotionally fragile, folded laundry for another family whose kids loved sitting & talking with her, acted as able-bodied companion & side kick to an 80+ friend on multiple annual trips to Bermuda, and for many years hiked down Woodland Road – UP Alden Road – UP “The Black Path” to South Avenue – across a narrow path between houses to Alnwick – over to Benita Acton Odhner to make dinner six nights out of seven for a brilliant mind trapped in a bed-ridden body.  She made that trek no matter what the weather – neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hale stayed my determined mother from getting there.  Those first 10+  years pf her widowhood showcased Mom’s grit & grace (two of Rabbi Friedman’s favorite words!).

When we get to midlife & look ahead, mos of us do not have a similarly clear picture of what we hope for, much less what we expect…  How will we cope with new roles & the loss of old ones?  How will we go on when we lose those dear to us?  – – see above!

It is not a straightforward trip but rather an unfolding path full of twists and turns, of shocking surprises and, if we are open, perhaps unexpected delights.  It is probably more helpful to see this unfolding as rich, complicated, and challenging. – – Because we lived in a close-knit community, the sort where you can guess a child’s heritage because he looks “like a Gladish,” Mom had seen through the many olders elders ancients in our little hometown that aging ever upward is “not a straightforward path but rather an unfolding path full of twists & turns...”  Because of them, she approached her 80s & 90s with a sense of anticipation, even excitement.  And she remembered her own lessons learned that surprised her – like how the forties were exhausting but her fifties felt liberating.  She hadn’t seen that coming, so anticipated similar happy surprises ahead!

We need guidance to find our way with resilience, courage, and blessing – – to develop grace and grit in facing what lies before us.  – – Mom was deeply affected by  Benita Acton, seeing how she was bedridden by severe osteoporosis but never let it affect her humming brain & love of people;  “Aunt” Benita’s bedroom was a literary salon, where friends & visitors from away gathered to discuss books & music, theology & other intellectual pursuits.  Mom saw her older friend’s resilience & courage, taking it as a blessing on her own life, an insight on how to rise to a challenging situation.

When things shatter in our lives, we are, in the words of health and wellness expert, Elizabeth Lesser, “broken open,” and in this way we become available to begin anew, with the capacity for deeper-than-ever learning.  – –  Until her last years, Mom did everything in her power to keep whatever was shattered from being seen as broken, applying emotional glue as fast as she could to maintain the appearance of whole.  I saw my father cry when my brother was killed – not Mom.  She sat in a semi-catatonic state in a lounge chair in the living room – for months – after Dad died, but I never saw a tear fall.  Praise be, she realized in those last years that she hadn’t a clue WHO she was, sought counseling – at 88! – and was whole enough within herself to let shattered things be in pieces around her.  It was a happy shock to her, discovering for the first time that when things fall to pieces, we are able to break open, to make a fresh start, to learn from what happened & move forward with a deeper understanding.

We have a chance beyond midlife to become the person we were truly meant to be. – I would loved to have seen Mom on her seven trips to Australia, to watch her being the person she was Down Under, when she was just down the hall from two grandchildren, in the heart of a community that adored her, with a son & daughter-in-law who appreciated all the wondrous little & big things she did for them.  To have seen her without myself being seen, because as soon as I entered the picture, the way she was with them would have altered.

At the same time, I wish that they could have experienced Mom in those last years of her life, as she learned to ask questions instead of  taking everything at face value, as she started using the internet as a communication & community-building tool, as she learned to know her own mind & to speak it – – alas, they had no interest in that side of Mom, who was just fine the way she’d always been, in their opinion.  Mom not only took a chance on becoming the woman she was truly meant to be, very much the woman Dad loved, she had the courage to go for it, even though she knew it could – and did – sour some family relationships.

In traveling on the path beyond midlife, it’s not jerky or trail mix that you will need, but perspective, guidance, and practices.  These are the things that will sustain you as you grow older.  – – Oh my gosh – Mom & Dayle could have talked endlessly about the importance of perspective, guidance & practices.  For the first 87 years of her life, Mom believed to the very fiber of her being that the problems she faced in life had to be solved by her & God.  Period.  As she understood it, she was to pray to God & God would, in some way, give her the answers.  It took her until she was 87 to discover that God had – in the form of Stephen Covey & Nathaniel Branden & Marianne Williamson & John Bradshaw & countless others.  She devoured their books & listened to their audiotapes, she tweaked her perspective & followed their guidance & felt incredibly massively stupendously bless by God.  All of them, under God’s aegis, helped sustain her through those last astonishing years.

I have seen grit and grace, bitterness and brokenness.  I have witnessed hearts breaking open and also spirits shutting down in the face of growing older.  My desire is to help others grow wiser and more resilient beyond midlife.   – – Mom said that when something happens that breaks your heart & rips apart your spirit, it can strengthen a relationship or shatter it.  She felt blessed that Ian’s death at eleven drew her & Dad closer together – she had seen marriages destroyed by less.

Mom learned at a very early age to get through the most unimaginably terrible situations by slapping  a smiley face on everything & acting like it was all just okey dokey.  Although she married someone who gave her the confidence to be vulnerable with him, her emotional force fields were still up with everyone else, especially with her children.  When a horrific trauma happened to my older sister, it was “forgotten” – I never have learned what it was & only guessed at it because of the emotional debris I saw still left in its wake decades & decades after it happened.   My experience of my family was & is of people holding their hands over their eyes, saying “We are NOT going to look at or think about what happened to a very young Mim,” which became my family’s unspoken but powerful mantra.

I bring ALL that up to show what a radical leap of faith it took for Mom in her late 80s to allow herself, for possibly the first time in her life, to see what was right in front of her & not be swallowed up by fear.

When Mom stood up for herself & asked for support from her children in gaining a clearer idea of who she was, she knew that it could drive a wedge between herself & her three older children & Kerry.  Wonders of wonders, she put her well-being ahead of the possibility of their condemnation.

And condemn her they did.  As Mom put it, she risked the worst thing she could imagine – and it happened, the older family distanced themselves from her – and, in her words, she discovered she didn’t die.  And she discovered that all those years she’d throawn me to the wolves because she knew I’d still around & feared they’d leave if she disagreed with them, all those years weren’t wasted – -when she finally asked them for an itty bit of help, they did all take off.  If it was any consolation, at least she had the comfort of knowing she’d read them right!

This might seem like a very long meander, but it’s the shortest way I can express how much my mother picked up the pieces of her shattered self & pulled herself together.  It’s interesting, looking back at it almost twenty years after the first tiny crack in her emotional force field, at how all it needed was a little bit of courage on her part to open up a world of unforeseen love & support from forces she believed in yet didn’t seem to think existed.

By the time of her death, on September 16, 2001, Katharine Reynolds Lockhart, the love of her husband’s life & a most awesome mentor/role model to many, openly personified grit and grace, bitterness and brokenness. hearts breaking open.  She chose to leave a “safe” numbness behind, to begin anew, with the capacity for deeper-than-ever learning.  She opened herself to being birthed out of brokenness, growing whole as she grew ancient.

Author: auntdeev

playfulness coach, life enthusiast & general instigator, ENTJ, cat lover

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