Now that I have been working on Flash (short-short) Fiction, I remembered this story I wrote and posted eleven years ago. It was my attempt to think like a man, which I admit, I suck at. I’m seventy-one, and I still have no idea how men think.
Ah, damn. I did it again.
MaryAnn had that hurt puppy look that she reserves for only me.
“I just don’t understand you. What is so difficult about remembering one single day?”
“I’m really sorry.” I tried hard to keep my eyeballs stuck right in their sockets, as she always accuses me of rolling my eyes when I am insincere, and I was in enough trouble already.
Years ago, MaryAnn had this framed embroidery thing—she called it cruel, but I never really got that, since I thought it was kinda pretty—that her great-aunt Florence or Flora or some such old lady name—I know, Mildred—gave us for a wedding gift. It was all little silver bells, and in fancy writing it said, “The bells rang for joy… For MaryAnn and Frank… On this day… July something nineteen something.” It hung right above the dresser, where I saw it every morning when I put my wallet back in my pocket for the day. It was sort of like the emission sticker expiration on your car. It’s not like you really notice it, but it sort of gets absorbed, so you have this physical sense of the date. But about five years or so ago, MaryAnn redecorated the bedroom and she took the damn thing down. “It’s way too sweet,” she said, confusing me even more on the cruel thing. Anyway, there’s been hell to pay ever since.
The first year the embroidery came down, I forgot our anniversary. MaryAnn was upset and I took her out to eat at one of those too-expensive restaurants, and the next day—well, the next weekend—I went out and bought her pearl earrings.
The second year, I got credit for remembering. I think MaryAnn must have been complaining at the office because Mike, this guy who sits near MaryAnn in the next cube, calls me at work—at WORK—and says, whispering-like, “It’s your anniversary. MaryAnn would really like flowers. And sent to the office, so everyone will know what a prince you are.” “I owe you,” I said. “No shit,” said Mike, “a case of Rolling Rock.” Man, I was in good shape for weeks that year.
But Mike transferred to Claims a few months later. And I haven’t remembered since.
So MaryAnn was sitting across the table from me, with a look on her face like she just broke a toe.
“I really am sorry. You know I have a terrible memory,” I tried again.
“You don’t seem to have a bad memory for other things. If this was important to you, you’d remember. You just don’t care.”
Now it was taking real work for my eyes not to be pinging around my head. Why can’t she just TELL me? Why can’t she just warn me a day or so ahead? But no, she’s got this goddamn idea that if I don’t remember myself it doesn’t count.
“No honey, it’s real important to me. The best day of my life. I’m just shit-for-brains with dates.”
“Oh, yeah?” she countered. “I bet you remember the day you bought your first car.”
“Um, not really. A Ford, maybe. I don’t remember much about it.” I added, “I’m sorry I’m such a fuck-up. I’ll make it up to you. I will. Would you like to go to Newport for the weekend? I could buy you one of those tennis bracelets. Not with little tennis racquets, like I thought at Christmas, but with the real diamonds like you showed me.”
“I know you love me,” MaryAnn said. I think I had softened her a little. “But it hurts when you don’t remember our wedding day.”
If I could get her to smile, I would be past the quicksand part. “Can we hang up that embroidery thing that your aunt made? How about in the bathroom?”
She laughed. All set for a year, except for the diamond bracelet part. There goes a grand.
It was June twenty-first, 1970. I was sixteen. I wanted a car so bad. “How much money do you have?” my old man asked. I had three hundred and twenty dollars. We went to the used car lot that one of his poker buddies ran, and we picked out a 1963 Ford Galaxie 500. It had a police intercept 390 and a two-barrel carburetor. We took it out and it went one hundred and ten down Route 72. No problem. My dad handed over my money. We changed the automatic to a 3-speed tranny, and then it went one-thirty-five. It had silver gray interior, but the exterior was a girly cream color. I re-painted it this great Mopar color, Blue Fire Metallic, although I have no use for any Mopar product now. Man, I wish I still had that car. I loved that car.
Flash Fiction – Week 3. This week’s prompt was “He said; She said.” The goal was to write a story under 500 words entirely through dialog between a man and a woman.
He said, “What a view!”
She said, “It’s lovely. Come and sit here.”
“You look familiar. Do I know you?”
“Yes – it’s been a long time.”
“Did we work together?”
“I don’t think we dated…I’d remember.”
“You’re right. You certainly would.”
“Go to school together? College classes?”
“Oh, longer ago than that.”
“You’re getting closer.”
“You look so … you remind me of… “
“It’s strange… I was going to say – my mother.”
“Everyone always said that.”
“That I looked like Mom and you looked liked Dad.”
“But – You’re dead!”
“I am. Guess what that makes you?”
“Oh, God…I’m dead?”
“You were way too sleepy to drive.”
“Oh no! Did I hurt anyone else?”
“No, you were very considerate. You frightened the squirrels and birds that were in the tree, but they’re okay.”
“Is everyone sad?”
“No one knows yet. Just me. But I’m sure everyone will miss you. You’re a good person, Frankie.”
“That’s not what Linda said.”
“Divorce means nothing. Living is such a lonely job; it’s a miracle anyone can stay together.”
“How would you know, Carrie? You were eight years old. And sick most of the time.”
“Sick people notice everything, Frankie.”
“Wait. I’m thinking about you being eight. How come you’re not still eight? Do we continue to age? Like, is Abraham Lincoln like 200 years old?”
“Ha! You should see Shakespeare! No, seriously. you can be whatever you want.”
“And you wanted to grow up?”
“Not so much that. I wanted to tell you all kinds of things. Be your sister for more than eight years. So I didn’t want to be a grownup as much as I wanted to talk to you. If I were eight and you were forty-five, I think we’d run out of conversation pretty quickly.”
“Could you be eight again after?”
“Sure. We can be eight and ten. We can talk about bicycles and Saturday cartoons.”
“Both of us? We’re free to do that?”
“We’re free to do anything. There’s no greater freedom than being dead.”
“So what did you want to talk about?”
“About Mom & Dad. How after I died, they had so much grief they used up all the air. It consumed them. They didn’t leave much room for you.”
“No, they didn’t.”
“When I disappeared, I made you disappear too.”
“I lost everybody. But especially you.”
“I wasn’t too sleepy to drive. I was too drunk to drive.”
Flash Fiction Course. Week 2. I was given the prompt, “All I have left is this photograph.” Goal: Write a story in under 1,000 words.
ALL I HAVE LEFT IS THIS PHOTOGRAPH
Everybody told me not to go.
My parents, of course. My mother cried. My sisters said I was nuts. My father said if I went, I was not welcome to come back. Ever.
I thought my friends would be more supportive. But they mostly hated the idea. “Communes are not like what you saw in ‘Easy Rider,'” said Michael, with no experience but lots of opinions. As usual. “Besides,” added Karen, “Even in Easy Rider, the whole place was kind of creepy.” “You’ll be murdered,” said Janice.
But it was 1970 and I was nineteen, and I was swept away by the adventure. I wanted to experience something that I instinctively knew would not last. Communes were a cultural moment. I wanted to be in that moment.
So I stuffed a few things in my backpack, and I left. I took a bus. I had heard of a place. Not out in the desert like in Easy Rider, not on a farm out in the country. An abandoned factory in Pittsburgh. Kids had turned it into a home. Everyone was welcome. So they said.
It was a dump. It was filthier than anything I had ever seen. Trash everywhere. It stunk.
Their leader, if you could call him that, was as creepy as Karen warned me about. Bryce. A made-up name for sure. “What can you do for us?” he asked. I guess not everyone was welcome. “I can pick up all this garbage. I’m a born cleaner,” I replied.
So I stayed. It took weeks to pick up all the trash. I took empty boxes out of the dumpster at the nearest supermarket, and brought them back to the dumpster filled with garbage. Sometimes I got a ride. Mostly I walked. It did not inspire the group to a neater life.
There were sixteen of us. Bryce was the oldest. He was 26, he said. I thought more like 46. There was lots of sex and drugs, like my parents imagined. But there was also music and books and conversation.
Four of us had paying jobs. They kept us in food. One has happy to do it. Maggie. The other three, Sean, Joe, and Billy, were resentful. They expected more gratitude. Of the sexual kind mostly. We obliged.
There were three babies there and one on the way. Patsy was mother to one and caregiver to all. She breastfed all the babies. She looked pale and exhausted.. The other mothers were stoned or just plain uninterested.
I stayed five months. I left in January. The factory was cold. I was hungry. I was tired of picking up trash. I saw the new baby being born, and I was awestruck. But he died.
All I have left is this photograph.
See look. There is Bryce, who does not look fatherly, as he sometimes was. He looks demonic, as he often was. Here are Sean and Joe and Billy. I slept with them all. I was lucky I didn’t get the clap. These two are Maggie and Patsy. I loved them. And the babies. Here are the others whose names I have forgotten after all these years. The day we took this photo, no one was fighting. It was exceptional.
And see – .right here. This is Jake. He came with me when I left. The best thing about that time. He saved me.
When I came home, my father held me and cried.
Dad and Jake were inseparable for the next nine years. Jake saved all of us. That’s what dogs do.
I haven’t written anything in a while, but I’d like to get started again.
So when I saw that my library was offering a short course in Flash Fiction, I signed up. I am hoping it just gets my creative juices (and motivation) kickstarted.
This is my first assignment. Write a short-story story where the first sentence is repeated as the last sentence. (Please remember, this is Fiction… I’m fine and thriving, and wouldn’t want anyone to worry.)
In the very back of my closet, in the dark and the dust, is a garment bag. Inside is my wedding gown.
My gown has a secret pocket – to hold a tissue or perhaps a good luck charm. Right now it holds $187.14.
Every Wednesday, Walter gives me eighty dollars for groceries. I walk to the supermarket, as I have no car. I buy what I can carry. I have thought about taking a cart from the store to bring the grocery bags home, but I have learned to carry a lot.
When Walter comes home from work, I line up all my purchases with the receipt and the change. It all adds up perfectly. It has to.
For three years and two months now, I have gone back to the supermarket on Thursday. I return things. I return tuna and skip lunch. I return beans and soup and other canned things I can water down after serving Walter his portion. I return the cream Walter doesn’t take in his coffee and mix up the powdered creamer to put it in the little pitcher. It looks the same. I keep the powder in a tin that says ‘yeast.’
I exchange the big bottle of aspirin for the small size. I pour the pills into the bigger bottle I keep in my purse, and toss the little bottle in the trash can in the parking lot.
I return the expensive tampons and buy the cheap stuff.
I always go to the same cashier, the old lady at register six. She takes my returns and gives me the cash. No questions. She calls me Honey.
Every morning Walter kisses me goodbye when he goes off to work. “Sorry,” he says if I wince. I winced this morning.
In the secret pocket of my wedding gown is $187.14. Today is Wednesday, so I also have the $80.00 for groceries. $267.14.
I reach into the back of the closet and pull out the garment bag. I take the money from the secret pocket. I drop the gown into the back of the closet – into the dark and the dust.
I don’t own a suitcase, but now the garment bag is empty. I take my good skirt and two shirts and three changes of underwear.
The bus ticket to Tampa is $189.00. I will have $78.14 left.
This is my first Mother’s Day without Mom.
I’m 71. I’ve had seventy Mother’s Days with her, so I am ahead of the game, I guess.
And I don’t even particularly like Mother’s Day. There are too many women (and men) excluded from the celebration. Those whose mothers have died, or mothers whose children have died. Those who had hurtful relationships with their mothers. Those who wanted children but have been left out of motherhood.
I am in the last group. But now I am also in the first group.
So I don’t like Mother’s Day.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my mother’s death.
Only I didn’t, really. I wrote a bit about her life. I wanted to remember her life, not her death.
But today, I find the need to write about her death.
I was with her.
It was unintended. We knew that Mom’s time was drawing to a close, and we were spending more time by her side. But this day was not different from any of the other days of the previous weeks. It was just my fortune (both good and terrible) to be the one who was there.
I was almost not there. I intended to leave to attend my book club. It was my turn to lead the discussion, and the book was one of my favorites. I was very much looking forward to it. If I left by 2:00, I’d have plenty of time for the drive to the library.
One of my sisters was coming to take my place, but 2 o’clock came and she had not arrived. I thought it would be okay to leave anyway – my sister would arrive shortly.
So I got up to go, and as I leaned over to give Mom a kiss, I realized that she had changed. She had been sleeping, but now she was awake. But she was not looking at me. Her eyes were darting around the room, looking but not seeing. Looking for something not there.
So I stayed. I took her hand. I watched her shallow breathing and the way her eyes continued to search everywhere but not find me.
I said, invoking her children who were not there – “Christine loves you. Claudia loves you. Tommy loves you. I love you.”
I repeated that three times.
I had not called for a nurse. What would a nurse have done? Not save her. She didn’t need saving.
Maybe I needed saving. So it would not have been my fault.
But I know it was not.
I am haunted, though, by her distant searching. Who was she looking for?
I am comforted by knowing I was there for her. I am comforted knowing that her death seemed gentle.
But I am haunted by the thought that I was not who she wanted in those last moments. Was she seeking, wishing for someone else? Did she want a different child holding her hand?
Oh, I was a good daughter. I know that.
But what if I had called a nurse? Could the nurse have given Mom ten more minutes, so my sister could have arrived in time? Would Mom have stopped searching then? Could a nurse have given her another few hours so we all could have been there?
The truth is, I didn’t want anyone to save her.
I wanted her to decide. And she did.
I hope what she was searching for was her freedom.
I am searching for mine.
My mother died a month ago.
She was 98.
I don’t know what to write about her now. I’ve written about her so many times already; I’m not sure what else I could say.
She was bright.
She was funny.
She was beautiful.
She was kind.
She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother. She was a nurse. She excelled at all her roles. I cannot think of a thing she failed at.
Is there such a thing as a cheerful worrier? I think my mother would fall into that category. She worried incessantly, but laughed at herself while doing so. “No one is better at picturing her kids in a ditch,” she once told me. I remember a time when my brother was late coming home from a math tournament or some such weird event, and my mother called the school and made the janitor check all the bathrooms. She was sure he had been locked in. Who locks bathrooms from the outside? Nevertheless, she was sure. For decades afterward, anytime anyone was late, Mom would smile and say, “Maybe they are locked in a bathroom.”
Mom had good priorities.
She believed in education. She had come from a time and a culture where educating women was considered unimportant. But Mom fought hard for her education. She became a nurse. I learned only recently (from Mom herself) that my grandmother had secretly paid my mother’s tuition. So women’s education (and all education) is in my family genes.
All of her children have advanced degrees. We all did well in school, which may be predominantly due to the intelligence genes on both sides of the family. But while my mother stressed the importance of learning, she never put pressure on us to achieve high grades. Learning was essential; grades were insignificant. I remember in my frequent calls to Mom when I was in college, our conversations always ended with the same advice from Mom. She didn’t say, “Study hard.” She said, “Have fun.”
My mother was passionate about fairness. Not only in her own family – she couldn’t even bear to watch a TV show where someone was framed or blamed for something they didn’t do. “NO!” she’d yell at the TV. “That’s just not right!”
But especially with us kids. She counted the Christmas presents, the jelly beans in our Easter Baskets, even the size of our birthday cards. “Even-Steven” was one of her common expressions. She never wanted to show favoritism towards any of her kids.
Just a few years ago, my mother told me a story. We girls are older than my brother, and when he was growing up, my parents were doing better financially than when my sisters and I were little. Mom said that she and Dad were out having lunch with my little brother one day, and he asked (as we were all taught to do), “What can I have?” And my mother replied, “You can have anything you want.” And Mom said that she suddenly realized something that made her feel terrible. She said, “I’m so sorry that I was never able to say that to you.”
My mother had 97 fantastic years of happiness and good health, but her 98th year was difficult. The decline in her health was unrelenting.
I’d rather focus on all those other years, but here is one thing from this time that I will remember:
Just a few weeks before she died, I was telling her about an issue I was having with one of my several part-time jobs. Mom wasn’t well at all, and I wasn’t even sure she understood me, but I liked telling her everything anyway – I may be in my seventies, but she’s my mom. I told her I was going to give the job two more months to see if things got better. Mom said, “Well, okay, but just remember, two months is a long time if you are unhappy.”
I will remember, Mom.
And about not being able to order anything I wanted? I already had everything I could want.
I’m here to collect on some debts. Some very old debts.
What I am owed is: Sympathy.
Sometimes you have little accidents doing something stupid. You don’t want your stupidity revealed. When you hurt yourself being a dumbbell, you kind of have to keep quiet about it.
Pretending everything is fine when it isn’t may save face. But while avoiding embarrassment means that no one knows what a dumbbell you are, it also means that nobody feels bad for you either.
But I’m old now. And I don’t really care anymore if I look like an idiot. I want my sympathy.
Overdue Sympathy #1: I’m eleven and taking a test. I’m chewing on the end of my pen, and suddenly I suck when I should have chewed. I have a mouthful of ink. And a mean teacher who yells. Who makes me cry at least once a week. I don’t even have a Kleenex to spit into. I swallow. And keep my mouth tightly shut until recess.
What I want now: The school nurse miraculously swoops in to say hi, takes one look at me and my blue lips, and hurries me to her office, which is a closet with a cot and some band-aids. She cleans my mouth of all that terrible ink and gives me a root beer to get the taste out of my mouth. She says, “It’ll be our little secret, honey.” The honey part is important.
Overdue Sympathy #2: I’m fourteen and bowling with my sisters. I’m wearing a gorgeous necklace that my parents gave me for Christmas. It’s a large locket that looks like a crown – all encrusted with gold and rubies (gold-plated brass and red glass). This bowling excursion is my first opportunity to wear it. I look very fancy with my precious locket and rental shoes. I do that swoopy-skippy dance to throw the ball. When I stop abruptly at the end of my approach, the heavy pendant swings up and hits me dead between the eyes.
What I want now: My oldest sister puts her arms around me and give me a kiss on my throbbing forehead. She had never kissed me on the forehead before – or since – but nevertheless.
Overdue Sympathy #3: I’m in high school, hustling to my next class. I go to push open the door at the top of the stairs, but there’s no pane of glass where I push – the frame is empty. And my arm goes through that empty space at full speed. Of course, my whole body doesn’t go through. I come to a excruciating halt when half of my armpit is shorn off.
What I want now: Jane Beckwith, Homecoming Queen, runs over and picks up my scattered books. She says, “Oh my God, you need to put something soft against that terrible scrape. Why don’t you borrow my cashmere cardigan for the rest of the day?”
Overdue Sympathy #4: I’m working a second job at JC Penney’s for extra cash over Christmas, and there’s a long line at my register. I’m the best temporary cashier in the whole store. Every department wants me. My queue is moving fast because I’m quick and accurate, right up to the moment where I staple the customer’s receipt, not to the bag, but to my thumb.
What I want now: The cute security guard rushes to me and gently lays me down. He has a pillow from Home Furnishings and puts it under my head.
It’s not so much to ask. I’m not asking for those accidents not to have happened.
A I just want a root beer, a kiss on the forehead, a cashmere sweater, and a pillow.
Really, is that so much?
I discovered something.
It wasn’t a sudden lightning bolt epiphany. But there was a lightning bolt of a sort. The kind that hits you with a gentle slap to the forehead, saying, “Duh -of course!”
I’ve been working at the library for six months now. It is exactly the right job for me at this time in my life. Interesting but not difficult, quiet but not solitary.
I spent much of my career in management. Mostly I liked the job I was doing. I did not like being the boss. But all those years of Bossdom have made my ‘post-career career’ so much easier. Because I think like a boss, but I don’t have to be one.
Looking back on my so plus years as a financial executive, I know that I was an excellent thinker. I was committed, creative, and productive. But I was not an especially good boss. Oh, I was nice to my staff. And I was a good teacher. But not a leader. Not a decision-maker. I liked doing the thinking, not the deciding.
Those years of management – however successful or unsuccessful they were – made me a nice living for a long time.
And here is my small epiphany: My management experience has made me a much better subordinate.
Why I didn’t see this earlier in my career – I don’t know. Certainly, I was a subordinate as well as a boss. There were plenty of executives in positions above me. So many big shots calling the shots. But I didn’t see them as much more than obstacles in getting my own work done.
But now that I am a subordinate only, with no management responsibilities, I find that I am looking at my boss differently.
It is not an interruption of my work to respond to the boss. My work IS to respond to the boss.
When I get to work, the first thing I do is check my emails and inbox for anything from my boss.
There’s often a report or a question or a bill that needs paying – something – that she’s asked for or wondering about.
I do that first.
I fulfill my boss’s needs FIRST.
Then I get to my own schedule.
And OMG. Here’s what I get for my efforts:
My boss thinks I am a genius. That I’m fantastic.
And do you know how I feel about my job – working for someone who thinks I’m fantastic?
I was a success in my previous career. But now I wonder how much more successful I would have been if I had made it a priority to make my boss’s life easier.
And I also am wondering now how I can apply this knowledge to my personal life.
I’ve thought about it – but maybe not in the way you think.
I’m not necessarily thinking about catering to all the needs of my family and friends – so that everyone thinks I’m fantastic.
That’s nice, I guess
But I’m my own boss in my own life. I am thinking more about how to make MY life easier. So that I think I am fantastic.
Paint more, play more, read more. Oh, I think about my family and friends too. But it’s like the emergency instructions on a plane. “Put on your own mask first so that you are in good shape to help your loved ones.”
It’s not easy, but I’m working on it.
I don’t think I’m fantastic – yet.
But I’m pretty sweet.
PS. It’s my birthday. I’m now 71. And every year on my birthday I post a unretouched selfie to say to Mother Nature and the world and myself, “I’m not quite old.”
I never really expected to reinvent myself at seventy. After all, it took me over sixty years to like myself the way I am. And yet, here I am, trying all sorts of new stuff and being all sorts of new people.
A new/old role for me: Teacher.
Old – because I was a teacher for a brief moment in 1974. I never got much past my student teaching experience. I was an English major in college, intending to be a writer, but at the last moment (I already had more than enough credits to graduate) decided to take the education courses needed for my teaching certification. The extra semester for student teaching in junior high was both fun and horrifying. I had no idea how to teach. Most of the time, I couldn’t engage the students. Looking back on it, I see that I worried more about whether the kids liked me than whether they were learning anything. But there were a couple of moments when it all clicked – and those moments were magical.
New – Here I am 47 years later, finding that I am a teacher again.
This summer, a Connecticut library (not the library where I am currently working) asked me to teach a painting class. The event director had seen my watercolors online, and dreamed up a “Paint Your Pet” class. What a great idea! But I had no experience and wasn’t sure how – or if – I could do it.
But – why not? (which I think is becoming my new mantra.)
So I spent several weeks designing a program to teach a dozen teenagers and adults to paint a portrait of their pet. The library gave me a two-hour slot, which added another level of anxiety.
I needed to practice. My sister, her daughter, and two of her grandchildren offered to take my class, which meant I could practice on folks who loved me. And of course, to see if I could help them produce an acceptable painting in two hours. Oh, and have fun at the same time. I brought a bunch of photos and let them choose.
It WAS fun. Here’s what they painted:
Their ages: 11, 13, 40, and 72. I won’t tell you who did which painting – but I’m fairly certain that if you guess, you’d be wrong.
I was delighted. I COULD do this.
And the next day, the librarian called to say the class had filled up in a matter of days, and they wanted to add a second class.
Sure, I said. I COULD do this.
And I did.
I supplied all the materials, to ensure that everyone had everything they needed. The students brought photos of their pets, and two hours later had a watercolor painting of their babies.
Here are some of their portraits:
I have two more library bookings in the coming months. I think I will contact a few senior centers too. That could be fun.
So far, I have only taught the two classes. But crazily – and perhaps I am reading far too much into it – I think I see a trend.
I taught a variety of students in each class, but each class was also very much the same. They held a good mix of experienced and beginning painters. Both classes were predominantly women with an age range from young adults to quite elderly. But each class also had one man, one preteen, and a couple of teenagers.
And there was a fascinating consistency to their performance.
Let’s start with the men. They were weirdly alike. Although I stressed that they should listen first, paint in the order I suggested, and not jump ahead, both immediately rushed in, and did exactly as they pleased. Then they both got disgusted with their painting halfway through and gave up.
Now, I don’t like to draw conclusions from just two guys, but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little at their unwillingness to listen to directions. And let’s say I was not surprised that they overestimated their abilities and were then disappointed in themselves. But to be fair, one man had come with his wife, and one had brought his teenagers, and it could very well be that they had been cajoled into coming, and were not much interested in the project in the first place.
The younger kids that came were enthusiastic and creative. They were happy to try and also willing to listen. They weren’t babies, so their attention span held up, and they also had confidence in themselves. And they were delighted with their results.
The teenagers were the opposite. Their confidence clocked in at about zero. They thought they were messing everything up, that their paintings were full of mistakes – that their portraits were the very worst in the class. No amount of praise on my part could offset their profound lack of self-esteem.
Then there were the adult women. They represented a broad continuum of age, and they performed along a consistent continuum as well.
The younger women were intense. They were serious and careful. They tried so very hard. They were the last to finish. Look at the paintings above. Pick the ones that are perfect, neat, and detailed. Those are the ones painted by these earnest young women.
My middle-aged students were happy and sociable. They chatted as much as painted. They still wanted good results, and they were proud of their efforts. Each one thought they had exceeded their own expectations. “Look what I did,” one said. “I didn’t know I could do that!”
And the older women! Like the children, they were creative and daring. Their paintings were bold. They laughed at their mistakes. The animals they painted had emotions. These women’s faces – both their own and in their portraits – were relaxed and full of joy.
I am curious to see if these patterns hold up. I think they might. Because in these archetypes and attitudes, I see myself.
I was that confident kid, that insecure teenager, that anxious striving young woman, the accepting middle-aged lady. I even had a moment or two in the man-stage, not having the patience to listen and learn, but still expecting so much of myself.
And now … now I am the old woman. I have given up the self-criticism and judgment. I am focused on the joy.
That makes me a teacher.
I haven’t written for a while.
I’ve been trying to decide what to write about going back to work after five years of retirement.
But now I’ve decided – I love it.
I wasn’t bored in my retirement. I write. I paint. I play with my dogs and cats. I belong to more than one book club, which has not only introduced me to some terrific books, but to some terrific humans.
I hadn’t even been thinking about going back to work. But when I saw the job posting for a part-time bookkeeper for our local library, I suddenly wanted to do it.
Now I have been working for two months.
I like it.
It has taken me a while to figure out just what it is I like.
It’s pretty easy work. But not because it’s mindless work. I’m not bored. It’s interesting enough. It’s only easy because it’s the work I’ve been doing for forty years.
And when I say, ‘interesting enough’ – I think the stress is on ‘enough.’ I love learning. I’m learning Spanish right now. But there is something about knowing a job like the back of your hand that is very satisfying to me right now. To go to work and know you will succeed.
A comfort zone is not something that you always need to break out of. It can be something to embrace. Especially in these uncertain times.
I also like that the job is only part-time.
I spent decades working long hours. Americans do seem to take an inordinate amount of pride in working too hard. I was no exception. My self-image as an executive meant that I needed to ‘brag’ about sixty-hour workweeks. After all, those long days and weekends at the office meant that I was really important, right?
Well, now, a few days a week, I go in after lunch and do my job quietly for four hours and go home to happy-to-see-me dogs and cats. I’m really important to them.
But what I like best: I am not the boss.
I am responsible for only my work. Not for anyone else’s.
For thirty-five years, I have been a boss of some kind or other. At the peak of my career, I had a staff of twenty. I am not ashamed to say that I hated it.
I was not a good boss. Oh, I wasn’t mean or bossy. Just the opposite, I couldn’t tell people anything negative. I would fix employees’ mistakes after hours so I wouldn’t have to tell them they made a mistake. I gave in to most personal requests, no matter how inane. I forgave over and over until my own job was at risk. Employee reviews were my torture.
I liked my job best when I worked by myself. If confidentially required that I not share my projects or delegate any of the work (which was often), those were the days I loved my job. I am an excellent analyst. I am a terrible delegator.
My saving grace was that I was a good teacher. I helped my staff succeed. And many of them did. I just couldn’t face the ones who failed. They were my failure.
My mother was a registered nurse—a very good one. Over the years, she was offered many promotions. She turned them all down. She said, “I don’t like telling people what to do.”
I’m like her. Only where she was able to say no to promotions, I said yes. Over and over. I loved each promotion. I loved the title. I loved the prestige. I loved the money. I did not love being the boss.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with being bossy. Too many women are told they are ‘bossy’ as a criticism. Women can be and should be good bosses. I’m just not good at it. That’s me. Not every woman.
Now, at seventy, I am nobody’s boss.
I was never bossy. And now I get paid not to be.