Nancy Walker

Eldergarten Curriculum
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Wearing a flannel nightgown and robe, knee socks, and clogs, I leaned against an oak tree halfway up the hill from the house. The bark was wet.

"Stay by my truck so I know where you are," he said.

A blue and red light on the cab of his truck turned slowly. He was the first to respond to my 911 call because, as he said, "I live just down the road."

Filled with calm, purposeful fear, I had backed my car out of the garage and driven it to what seemed a safe distance from the house. I don't remember analyzing the situation and making a decision. Like an automaton, I went to the kitchen counter for my car keys and kept moving. When I slammed the car door, the man with the red and blue light had pulled up, and I trudged up the hill and said, "Hi!" (What else can you say when three-foot flames are roaring from your chimney and smoke fills your house?).

In Miss Van Leeuw's kindergarten, some of my classmates wanted to be firefighters (firemen in those days). I don't know what they saw in their minds, but I saw men in raincoats, helmets, and boots, spraying fires with gushing hoses and saving kittens from oak tree branches. But as I watched those men from my position by the oak tree, I realized they were technicians. Later, I learned they had been trained in both chemistry and physics. And they certainly weren't wearing slickers. They wore bunker pants, steel-toed boots, a Nomex hood, a helmet with a flip- up face shield, and a bunker coat. Fully clad, they were incognito. I was startled when, after the fire was out, one of them pointed his gloved hand at me and a voice from the helmet said, "I know you. You teach at my university."

When summer came, I looked back on the experience as if the fire had happened to another person. How did she think about moving the car? Shouldn't she have been devastated or paralyzed by fear? Where did she get the nerve, two weeks later, to build a fire again?

*****

I never could imagine my grandmother as a child with a taffeta bow in her hair. No. She was always the ample woman with her gray hair in a bun. I remember looking at an old photo, and when she said, "That's a picture of me when I was about your age," I giggled in disbelief and embarrassment. And now that I am a grandmother, who can imagine I was ever the girl-child who rode a blue Schwinn bicycle and examined the toy section of the Montgomery Ward catalogue. I wonder what my granddaughter thought when I told her about my Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls, dolls that arrived in pastel polka-dot boxes in the days when Ferris wheels, halls of mirrors, and silver bells and cockleshells were at the center of my world.

These days, I am not ample. I do not wear my brown-gray hair in a bun. When my granddaughter mentions Grandma Nancy, no doubt she imagines me sitting at a desk in a college classroom, surrounded by students, as I am in the most recent picture I sent her. And perhaps she'd be shocked to see her grandmother riding a bus from Denver to Central City (a man with an engraved steel front tooth sitting across the aisle) to see the Face on the Barroom Floor again and to pull the arm of a slot machine for the first time. Much of the past and present is as invisible as infinity.

Suppose, just suppose, the child I had written a letter to the elder me, mischievously stashing the message--where? She could have written, "Don't forget." Or suppose I could have projected myself forward in time to speak backwards. I would have written, "Get ready." We'd have made a fine pair on that spiral slide in Craple Park in Burlington, Iowa.

The other day, on my way home from work, I passed a slow-moving car and suspected the driver was a little old lady--or, as a radio commentator said the other day, "a lady of a certain age." Aha! I was right. Then I realized I was a little old lady passing a little old lady, and little old ladies shouldn't condemn each other. I turned the radio louder. As Janis Joplin sang "Another Piece of My Heart," I got a vicarious sore throat.

In the midst of the wonders and wonderments of longevity lurks an anxiety. Aging can trick, challenge, and dare us to accept the today that leads to those tomorrows of confusing Medicare supplemental plans and retirement payments. We try, when we stare at our images in the mirror, to laugh with ourselves, try to forgive ourselves for aging. After all, we feel great affection for senior oaks and know the ancient Greeks would explain that "character" means finely etched. And so we elderly characters are finely etched works of art.

Many people suffer from insomnia, but perhaps the elding awake in the middle of the night more often than others. During those hours, I wonder what I will do when I no longer can drive and therefore suffer from the claustrophobia of dependence. Although counting sheep may be a cure for insomnia for some, I've always preferred some kind of alphabetical incantation: the fifty states, women's names, men's names, rhymes for randomly selected words. The other night, I was surprised into total wakefulness to discover how many words rhyme with "dog." Sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night, I picture my son having to cope with the accumulation of almost cast-off objects in the garage: an ancient TV; a dresser stuffed with old sheets and other objects I'm afraid to look at; a replaced coffee table--to name the more identifiable. But why should the dead be embarrassed by their cluttered garages? What, I wondered one sleepless night, if I am gone like Ronald Reagan but not gone like Ronald Reagan? I lie there, the sheet pulled up around my chin, and stare where the ceiling is.

*****

An elder should always say what's true and speak only when she is spoken to. She can, however, think what and how she wants because her mind has a mind of its own. Sitting on the sofa, for instance, working the day's crossword puzzle, I can read "bicycle built for two [6 letters] and before I can print the "t" and "a" in "tandem," my mind takes me to Webford Avenue where I'm riding a bicycle-built-for-two with Peter.

I always flinched when I heard David Letterman call someone "a real nosebleed" until one day when I had a conversation with a woman whose every comment was an operatic whine, arias of "They always" and "Why don't they" and "I can't." Then, then, I understood and thought, "She's a real nosebleed." What satisfaction in that thought.

Sitting at lunch, listening to a companion recap a TV show I missed, I thought, "We are identical strangers." When he finished, he said, "A penny for your thoughts." I did not give in to the temptation to say, "The horizon is behind us" but instead replied, "Oh I was just wondering why I used to like The Wonder Years and My So-called Life but can't stand Freaks and Geeks.

Sometimes I hurry down the street, going faster and faster as if to keep time from running out (and death is in our intuition banks). Efficiency buys time--to spend later (like working hard to retire early). Struck by these thoughts, I might stop in the middle of the sidewalk and think, "Time heals everything but time."

My undisciplined dream mind has its own lexicon. One night a teacher asked why I hadn't come to visit his class.

"Where do you teach?" I asked.

"You know. You've sat in the stands and cheered for the football Blueberries many times."

What a nice name for a team, my dreamer self thought. Awake, I chuckled. A team called the Blueberries?

In another dream, I was on a Chinese airplane, although I didn't know how or why I identified the national origin of the airline. The flight attendants were not Chinese but had dark, tangled curls. Although I bumped into one of the attendants and apologized, none of the attendants paid any attention to me. The chairs, arranged like restaurant seating, were not all occupied, but I couldn't find a place to sit.

*****

On a brisk autumn day, my fire, pregnant with intuitions of change and time, is the result of ember meeting ember. Earlier, when I had pulled a medium-sized log from the woodpile, something red caught my eye, and there was a dead cardinal, strangely as bright as he had been in life, but still. I stared. Then I wondered how long he had huddled in the woodpile before he died. Except for the year the barn swallows did not make the annual return to their nest in the carport and I speculated on their fate, I think of birds as being eternal. In my ignorance, I assume the bluebirds splashing in the birdbath and the goldfinches on the feeder are the same ones that have been coming for fifteen years. And now, a dead cardinal in the woodpile. Remembering the elaborate burial ceremony I had for a robin when I was a child (complete with my clergyman grandfather officiating), I felt somewhat guilty about my requiem for a cardinal: a gentle trip on the fireplace shovel to the underbrush down the hill. Kyrie eleison.

Sitting on the sofa, watching the log catch, I was attentive to my soliloquies of solitude, incantations and epigrams more complex than my insomniac chants. In Shakespeare's day, the most important guest sat next to the salt, I mused. What is the origin of applause and why do American sports fans whistle in praise while European fans whistle in derision? A poker face is impossible in a lifetime of attrition and accretion. And how can we become temporally literate?

My two clocks tick. And tock. My clockmaker says no tick should be longer than a tock. Equality. A gong sounds eight times. Then a bell-like chime. Time. Eight times. I am drawn to clocks. In catalogues. In shops. In other people's houses. But I take off my watch as soon as I close the front door. And often do not hear the clocks. At all. Time gets along very well. Without me. I almost have forgotten the spring of carpet, carpet-er, carpet-est violets and storm violents that segued into summer.

Now, though, in its place, the fire flickers. A cobweb stretches from side to side outside the study window. A chickadee (life-span twelve years) chatters at the bird feeder, snatching a sunflower seed to relish on a near-by oak branch. A cardinal (life-span fifteen years) sits on an oak branch while the bluebirds (life-span eight years) dip in the bird bath. A bank of leaves surrounds the still-blooming geraniums -- the inevitable transition from autumn to winter when time goes south slowly.

In an old interview, played on National Public Radio to honor his death (Is that what we do when we listen to the voices of the departed -- honor death?) novelist Morris West said, "You're not a complete person until you've died." I sit on the sofa, staring at that fire, and wonder what being incomplete means. Curious. Optimistic. Crazy.

*****

I remember a summer Friday. I was putting clean sheets on my bed when I heard Bruce Springsteen singing "Born to Run" in the driveway. Music pulsed through the sunroom windows. I've been irritated by the sound of a neighbor's howling dog outside my study window and startled by the doorbell at 2:00 a.m., but I never expected to hear The Boss hoping to die--"in an everlasting kiss"--right here in a house on the side of a hill in Christian County, Missouri. Barefooted, I wandered to the front door, expecting to see--well, what? Who listens to Springsteen these days? I'll tell you who: the UPS driver delivering a feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited. I was blinded by the light.

From time to time, I wonder why tears come so easily these days to the eyes of a cynic. Unbidden, tears well up, not in response to monumental tragedies like the deaths of 217 people on a Boeing 757 diving into the Atlantic, but in small tender moments, formerly described by me as too Hallmark for words. On National Public Radio, a mother tells of her eleven-year-old daughter's first attendance at a deportment class where each boy walks straight across the room and asks a girl if she would care to dance with him. She is instructed to say, "Yes, thank you very much." At the beginning of a new century, they're still using an old-fashioned word like "deportment." The mother says, "Her life never will be the same again." Just because a boy crossed the room for a polite response. I blink. Twice.

When Lindsay Davenport won at Wimbledon, my eyes filled with tears, perhaps because no one was sure she could win or because she was so improbable a champion--which makes her a champion. Dry-eyed, though, I watch images of grieving survivors of cosmic tragedies on the TV screen.

I sometimes visit the web site of the college where I began my teaching career. I am saddened to read messages from the alums I once considered imaginative and insightful students. They have nothing to say now but "Remember when?" In a detailed message, one celebrated the thirty-fourth anniversary of his first LSD trip, memorializing his image in the mirror where he saw his pupils expand and then felt them swallow him. E-ghosts, I call them, wishing they had a present and future. But I simplify. They are almost the same age as Charlie Brown: "Why me?" Perhaps nostalgia is, in its own way, a prediction because life is overlapping repetition and multiplication, semantics and tessellations. And, I confess, I may be the eeriest e-ghost of all because I don't enter the conversation.

*****

Through binoculars, I watched. I could see worldly goods lining the east edge of a neighbor's field: mowers; a butane heater; a Whirlpool refrigerator; three color TVs; 1974 Chevy Cheyenne Super 10 with, as advertised, "new transmission and brakes"; and a Kawasaki motorcycle. By 7:30 a.m., the auctioneer had set up and cordoned off part of my neighbor's circular driveway with the kind of tape police use to enclose the scene of the crime. I, the hillside voyeur, watched as pickups and SUV's lined up on the neatly mowed field, forming rows as if a parking attendant had waved them in with a red baton. Dogs circled the cars and trucks, barking at opening doors, and a choir of bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices floated up the hill. Soon the chorus quieted as the auctioneer began the incantation I expected. From time to time, I could hear a guttural "YO," and I assumed someone had just bid on a humidifier or a steel post driver. While the sun shone, rain fell, and a rainbow reached a beginning and end.

I went about my Saturday business, the usual ritual of laundry and housecleaning, only occasionally pausing to check on the progress of the auction. At sunset, as I watched the trucks pull off the field and onto the asphalt driveway in a respectful single file, I thought of a funeral procession. No dogs barked.


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