Two Faces of Age

This past week, my husband and I went to Midland to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday.  Midland is where my husband was born and reared and where I went to high school.

Often, when I’m there, looking at its stark, hard landscapes, I wonder what it must have been like when my father- and mother-in-law went there in the late 1940s.  By the time my own family arrived in the mid-1960s, it was a small, bustling city, with a crazily vertical downtown (hence the name “The Tall City”), lots of new money and the kind of stubborn optimism that finds oil in deep reserves, creates immense fortunes, and loses everything when bets go bad and prices plummet.

Even if I can’t talk politics with West Texans without coming to blows, I still love their spirit.  There’s something defiant about the kind of people who come to such a hard, unforgiving land and plant trees and build houses and sweep the floors after duststorms coat every surface.  Sixty years after my husband’s parents and other families came to Midland to stake their claims to a better life, those first trees they planted are now relatively large.  Early in December, they had turned gold and red and orange like torches against the sky.  Trees and people and tall buildings shouldn’t pepper this landscape, but there they are — and to hell with you if you bet against them.  Or if you repeatedly voice a concern that a certain almost-native son is doing a rotten job in the White House.  (Why did he go to war against the wrong country, anyway?)

But we weren’t there to talk politics; we were there to be with my husband’s family.  Aside from being somewhat deaf, my father-in-law is in amazingly good health, smart, well-read, up to date with current events.

“DO YOU WANT TO COME FOR A WALK?” I asked him.  I’d learned to scream whenever possible.  It’s kind of like speaking another language to half the people you’re around; you often forget what volume/language to use around which people and end up screaming at everybody.  Since my husband and I are becoming semi-hard-of-hearing ourselves, this may not be a bad thing.  (However, constant screaming would rob us of much of our conversational thread, which now consists of, “What?” and “Huh?” and “What did you say?” and “You don’t have to shout!”)

Going to the family house, I see the rooms where I first came as a teenager.  See aging faces I knew when they were young and unlined.  Think of those who have died — both mothers and other relatives.  If you live long enough, I suppose, these absences begin to haunt you whenever you return to someplace you once knew.  They linger just outside your line of vision and you swear you can almost hear conversations that once took place.  Maybe it’s the emptiness that’s the illusion — and not those presences you can still sense years after they’ve gone.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” we all screamed at my father-in-law’s birthday party, remarking how he was the best-looking 90-year-old we’d ever seen.  “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

From there, we returned to Austin, where trees are less of a miracle and the land is less hard and unwelcoming.  Today, we went to visit my own father and could see he was getting worse.  He now sits in a wheelchair, hunched over and staring.  When you speak to him, he doesn’t react.  He doesn’t even seem to be hungry any longer.  It’s hard to believe he’s seven years younger than my husband’s father.

My husband and I wheeled him outside, into the warm winter weather.  We sat with him and tried to talk.  We talked low, we talked medium, we didn’t bother to yell.  The volume didn’t matter to him.  Just looking at him, you knew.  He’s going further and further beyond us, becoming one of those illusions you can’t quite see.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

3 comments… add one
  • Steve Collins Link

    It’s funny how important trees are to humans. God didn’t plant any trees in West Texas (or in much of the American West, for that matter), but people plant them whereever they light, be Midland or Amarillo or Childress.

    My spouse’s maiden aunts from aptly-named Plainview once spent a week’s vacation with us in Austin. They found Austin’s trees claustrophobic: “You can’t SEE anything here.” As if there were something–anything–to see in Plainview.

    Several years ago at a retreat, on a Friday evening our spiritual director led our group of men on a guided meditation that called for us, in our mind’s eye, to find a tree of our youth and to discern who would come sit under the tree and talk with us. I chastised the spiritual director later. “I’m from the Panhandle. Do you know how long it took me to find a tree?”

    As it turned out, I found myself seated under a locust tree at my paternal grandparents’ house in Childress. A couple of thin forks cut from that tree hang today in my living room, witching sticks from my grandfather’s water witching practice. My grandmother, “Mammaw” to me, came and sat and talked and talked. She had been a little, busy woman who rarely had time for us grandkids when we were young. The conversation under that locust was the longest conversation I ever had with her; it was wonderful.

    Back home Sunday evening, I dutifully made the weekly, required phone call to my parents in Amarillo. Before I could share my experience with them, my father told of his visit that Friday to the nursing home to see his mom. He, too, was a dutiful son who visited his mother almost every day. She had long since entered that almost-an-illusion phase of her 105 years, and rarely said much. “I had the oddest visit with Mom Friday evening,” he said. “She was SO talkative. She talked and talked and talked until she became hoarse. She hadn’t said three words in a row in months. It wasn’t really a conversation; I often wasn’t sure what she was talking about or who she was talking to. But she talked until she couldn’t talk anymore.”

    Some would call it karma. I call it grace. And I thank God for trees. I’ve planted several here in Central Texas, where God seemed not to have put them in sufficient numbers or in the right places.

  • Steve Collins Link

    I’ve never posted a blog comment before. I typed a long, thoughtful comment to this story, only to have it disappear in cyberspace, apparently. Oh, well. I ought to be “working” anyway. src

  • Idetrorce Link

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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