and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
May #1

Lessons learned at my mother's knee
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, May 8, 2008

After my mother died in 2001, my ex-husband planted an ornamental pear tree in her honor in my yard. I like to sit in its shade to read and think, and sometimes talk to my parents, who this year must be having a hard time believing I'm a senior citizen already.

Mother once said that she didn't mind turning 50 herself, but that when I hit 50, she really felt old. Now that I'm old, she's probably feeling, well, dead.

For most of your life, as you reach your milestones, your mother has already experienced that phase and you can ask her advice on marriage, motherhood, menopause, etc.. This doesn't work with the final phase. I'm trying to remember some of the lessons I learned from watching mother age:

1.)  Keep your mind active.

Most of her life, as I knew it, was focused on music, dancing, socializing, and having fun. Suddenly, with her dancing partner gone, mother became a truly inquiring mind, watching religious discussions on television, and taking a Bible study course studying the Old Testament, with Protestants!

In her, and my, youth, the Catholic Church didn't want us reading the Old Testament, or hanging out with non-Catholics. And here she was, asking sharp, interesting questions in class, running them by me later, and actually attending services at a Protestant church with her new friends, just to see what it was like. Mamma mia!

This was not because she was looking for a new religion; she was happy being Catholic. She just wanted to broaden her knowledge and experience. So that's rule No. 1 for successful aging.

I myself read the forbidden Old Testament with a flashlight under the covers when I was in high school, and started dating Protestants in college; so this is my time, apparently, to study Buddhism. Mother would be interested to know that, as I learned recently, a college friend, Glenn Morris, the son of a Methodist minister, became a noted teacher of Zen and Taoism. I am studying his book, "Shadow Strategies of an American Ninja Master."

Studying the Old Testament was easier, I think, since the teacher didn't urge students to learn ninjutsu fighting moves. But the mind exercise is similar.

1a.)  Keep your mind active by following politics.

This is also a good way to keep your mind crazy, but, laughter is good for one's mental health and my parents and I always laughed together at political absurdities.

They would have loved Monday night's Marblehead Town Meeting, with its debate on using a Prop 2 override to buy a piece of land in the middle of an otherwise settled neighborhood. As a proponent talked about the need to provide kids with a place to ride their bikes so they wouldn't dye their hair blue (I'm not making this up), we were all looking at a slide of a wooded, rock-strewn lot. Some of us imagined kids bouncing their bikes off the boulders into the trees.

Town Meeting voted no. Then I had to leave because I'm really too old to sit that long in too-soft seats. Another lesson: Follow politics, but know your limitations.

Mother would probably join me, despite ourselves, in rooting for Hillary to win the Democratic primary, even though she didn't like Hillary when she was the wife of a presidential candidate because she'd denigrated women who stayed home and baked cookies. I imagine she would like John McCain best; though mother could surprise you and I can imagine her saying that someone her age shouldn't be running for president.

But then if running for president makes John McCain happy, good for him!

2.)  Simplify your life (and your survivors' work load) by getting rid of the things that weigh you down; but keep the dreams and memories.

I'd probably remind my mother that when she downsized from our house to senior housing, she got rid of three rooms, a basement, and an attic full of stuff but took 10 pairs of dancing shoes and high heels with thin straps, with her into old age. I didn't wear strappy heels, even when I was young, but I still have my rag-doll collection that I saved for a future granddaughter, who prefers Barbies.

3.)  Don't complain to your kids about the problems of aging, unless they need to know for planning purposes.

I wish I'd realized and appreciated how little she told me about her daily aches and pains, so that I wouldn't feel bad. Though now I do.

Was she lonely? Frightened? I wish I'd thought to ask.

4.)  Never miss a chance to have your favorite dessert; you never know when it might be your last.

After she gave up smoking at age 73, Mother kept her weight under control, but never missed a chance to have a hot-fudge sundae; in fact, she was happily eating chocolate ice cream the last time I saw her alive in her nursing home.

Even though I must lose 20 pounds or so, maybe I'll have a hot-fudge sundae in her honor this weekend.

Happy Mother's Day, mother. Thanks for the lessons on aging; hope I do as well as you.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.