By Cherie Lee
I fear getting old far more than I fear dying. Because of this, I have an insatiable fascination with the elderly; the octogenarians creaking along in walking frames, their life stories written on their faces. I’ve seen two common types of old people: one is warm, oozing love from every pore, joking about being spring chickens. The second is bitter, the grumpy old bastards who yell at bus drivers. I’ve known both types, particularly more of the grumpy old bastard variety who frequent coffee establishments, like the one I once worked at, and berate teenage baristas. As I grow up and draw closer to joining their ranks, I wonder which type I’ll be and if my story will be worth telling.
To me, old age is a woman with white hair; a Lithuanian migrant who lives five doors down the road and sits on her front porch. She hates doctors and loves whiskey. Her name is Stasi and we met one random day 18 years ago.
I can see the thick lines in her face, leathery and folded with an abundance of brown sun spots, framed by elegantly curled hair that sometimes saw a hairdresser. Her response to a simple “How are you?” always the same: “Oh Cherie, I am done. I want to die now.”
The first and last time I ever saw her laugh, a delinquent rooster was running around her front yard. I was summoned to remove it. The sight of me chasing the warbling bird around the topiary had her in stitches. She had to wipe tears from her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. This was a rare exception because usually, Stasi was not happy. She was one of the bitter ones.
Stasi complained all the time. She would sit and tell me about her latest backache or the arthritis. I would dutifully listen while eating my slice of cake and orange cordial, not sure how to respond. When you’re seven, a slice of cake can pay for anything. Yet I would be back, almost every day, for a visit. Perhaps it was my lack of playmates. My brother and sister were much older and had better things to do. For someone to give me the time of day was a luxury. I guess we were both lonely.
I met Stasi when a fellow neighbor had lost a ginger corgi. Everyone on the street gathered to walk around and try to find the absconder. I was walking next to Stasi. I must have thought she was having trouble walking because I reached out and took her hand. She never forgot this.
From then on, Stasi’s house became a physical fixture in my world. I can still picture it so vividly: the black and white photographs of people she would tell me about, the musty lace tablecloths, an agonized Jesus on a silver cross and her huge Alsatian dog Rofy (possibly Lithuanian for “woof”) slobbering over everything. Then there was her backyard; a child’s paradise. It was a place teeming with life. Large stone pebbles led from the back door leading to a menagerie down the back. A huge walk in birdcage packed with tropical parrots and rainbow lorikeets, a fishpond made of stone, full of catfish with their comical open mouths. This yard, with its overgrown vines and exotic plants, was an Eden to my young self.
As I grew up, my interest in Stasi waned. I would still say hello to her as I walked past her house on my way home from school. But some days I was a bad Samaritan and crossed the road so I didn’t have to. She would say “Cherie—I no see you anymore. Why you no visit me?” I would explain that things were different now. Year seven was very demanding. I had all these friends and a part-time job at a local fruit market. It sounds lame, even now. She would sigh glumly and take a sip of the whiskey her doctor had banned her from, hiding the glass under a pile of Kmart catalogues. At the end of a visit she would kiss me on each cheek, her breath heavy with the stench of alcohol, and say “God bless you” as I walked down her front path.
This was my first experience of old-people-related guilt. The promise of cake and cordial was no longer enticing enough to my teenage self. I would visit her because it was the right thing to do. She was lonely still, even as I was now not.
I remember her telling me about her life once. She was born in the 1920s in Lithuania during a time of newly re-established independence. This was not to last long with Stalin invading and occupying Lithuania in 1940. A year later Nazi Germany had primary occupation followed by the Soviets again in 1944. Stasi, in her 20s, was one of the thousands of people forced to flee for their lives during a period of war against the Soviets by Lithuania, leaving behind a son she was never going to see again.
She recalled being terrified and running for days on end without food, praying to a God who didn’t intervene. Caught by Russian soldiers who raped her, she begged God to let her die. This was not to be the case and she ended up in a displacement camp in Northern Germany. It was there she met her husband, wed in the camp itself in the clothes on her back and bare calloused feet.
The house, five down from us, was bought by Stasi and her husband in the 50s after migrating to Australia. Matt was a tradesman while Stasi worked as a maid for an awful woman. She remained in the house even after Matt’s death in the 90s, his study remaining exactly the way he had left it to the day they knocked her house down.
As I grew up and finished high school, I saw Stasi less and less, and one day she was moved into a retirement home. Apparently she was a nightmare to the staff. She had no visitors except Mum who would try and coerce me into joining her. I was just too busy, Mum; I have to wash my hair; I have to clean my car. I really just wasn’t sure if I could stomach Stasi’s death-wish talk.
Then, the inevitable happened: she got her wish. Five people turned up to her funeral; myself and Mum included. The priest (or minister?) said the last rites while I squirmed away with guilt. I imagined my final conversation with Stasi.
“I’m really sorry I didn’t visit you before you died.”
“Is OK Cherie. You busy. I know.”
“No, I’m really really sorry. I’m sorry I was one of the few people in your life that knew you and I failed. I’m sorry.”
“No worry Cherie. I know you care. I just happy now to die. Thank you for saying goodbye.”
She closed her eyes and went back to sleep in the coffin. The minister told us he was going to play her favorite song. We waited for some well-worn Catholic hymn. “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” jingled from the CD player. In my mind’s eye, I saw her laughing; wiping a tear from her eye with the corner of her sleeve.
Toward the end of her life, Stasi looked like a bitter old woman. But her story made her who she was, and it was terrible and fascinating.
I found a silver hair not long ago. Nestled among the brown, the embodiment of my inevitable demise. I plucked it out straight away, hoping to sabotage the aging process. Then I Googled “Is it normal to turn gray at 25?”
The old people are drawing close, drawing me into their fold … and I’m terrified. I start to wonder what song I want played at my funeral.
Old age is my Grandpa, Papa, whose being didn’t contain a single trace of bitterness. He was a 70-something with energy to boot; bursting with enthusiasm for life. Every visit to our house was heralded with a long ‘helloooooo’ as he made his way in through the back door. He would come over to do our gardening, or drop off medicines from the pharmacy he owned or talk about his worm farm with glee. He loved visiting his customers who were too ill to come in and pick up their prescriptions themselves. Every morning he swam laps in the pool followed by a cold shower.
He died suddenly, without fanfare. His death was so unceremonious; it was as though he planned to sneak out the back door as quietly as possible, so as not to upset anyone. I never got to say goodbye. My Grandma, Mama, was distraught, and still is to this day, although she never lets on. Her positivity waned, as though it was borrowed from him, and now every conversation is sprinkled liberally with complaints of her latest ailments. Cue dramatic pause, then: “I just don’t know darling, it’s not looking good …” she says with a hint of hope after a detailed account of her various “illnesses.” We all know she’s really just suffering from a broken heart and would give anything to join her beloved husband.
After Papa died, I started to experience the old old-person guilt with Mama. As her outlook on life became more and more depressed, she became less palatable to me and my rosy-eyed view of the world. I felt the anxious apprehension of regret. I knew how it would end.
But Mama was on my case. She started asking about me. “When is Cherie going to come and interview me? Preferably sooner rather than later …” She wanted some kind of record of her life. And I was the writer, so obviously the family custodian. I was not keen. Knowing Mama, she would rattle on about her life, just the facts, with no emotional depth … when I was young yada yada yada.
So I changed my perspective. Instead of being the granddaughter listening to the grandmother regale me with tales of “the good ol’ days,” I was a writer, investigating the incidents that made this woman who she is today: the good and the bad.
I would use her as a channel through which to understand my own life. All the questions I imagine asking myself at the other end of my life looking back. Had I lived well? What were my regrets? What difficulties shaped me as a person?
So my cousin and I sat down with her, held up an iPhone to record and started chatting. As she started talking, a whole world opened up and I could picture this place, this time that she was a part of: Sydney in the 1940s.
Roseville bridge was small and wooden. Horses and carts were around (but mainly for people who made deliveries, it wasn’t a symbol of socioeconomic standing as I had thought), Sydney harbor bridge was opened. Papa was there. The same Papa who “hellooooo-ed” his way into our house had actually witnessed the opening of the bridge that now singularly defines the city of Sydney.
She talked about the war and how it changed everything. How Japan bombed Darwin. “Were you scared?” I asked. “No darling. You just got on with it. We were all in the same boat.” We talked about her family, the dynamics of a having three girls. Her father and his utter devotion to them. Her sisters and their illnesses. The one time she remembered him getting upset at her (they were playing “weddings” and their youngest sister was always relegated to the role of the minister and never got a chance to play the bride, until intervention from their father).
I pictured myself in her shoes. She was heading into teenager-hood. What was she thinking at that age? Had she wanted to get married? How did she learn about sex? Did anyone actually talk about it? Did she ever want to pursue a career? Why did her mother-in-law make life so difficult for her?
We talked for over an hour. I thought she would get tired after 20 minutes but the longer she talked, the more energized she became. Eventually I called it a night. She grabbed my hand and said “You’ve opened up a whole world for me.” I felt overwhelmed and all of my old-people-guilt dissipated.
It was a new level of connection. She wasn’t just my hope-less grandmother, but a fellow human being, made of the same DNA as me, living through completely different circumstances and now at the end of her life, a place that I’m heading as time rolls on and the silver hairs multiply.
In the end, all we have is our stories. Our life stories are like maps, charting the people that we have become. Older people, particularly those in the West, are rarely taken seriously. We bundle them off to retirement homes so that we can get on with our lives and try not to feel too guilty about not visiting them. But my Grandparents, Stasi, and even the grumpy old bastards I used to make coffee for, have had a profound role in my life—even if it’s taken me this long to realize it. Their lives force me to examine my own, and question my foundations: what makes a meaningful life, and how can I live in a way that will prevent me from yelling at bus drivers when I’m 80?