Living Life @ 70
For instance, I got married, like most women by the time I turned 24, settled to a traditional married life, became a widow at the age of 42 , obtained my first degree
I can’t find my glasses.
I looked every nook and corner of my little house – I can’t find it.
I stripped my bed and it is not there, hiding under the sheets.
I checked my face twice – not there.
I remember 40 years ago attaching it to string and hanging it around my neck so I won’t misplace it. And then I read somewhere, in a woman’s magazine, quite possibly, that hanging it around the neck is ageing. I was only 41 and definitely not old and promptly dismantled it. Has the time come for me to hang it around my neck?
Couple of months ago I had to take my glasses to the optician. It had gone wonky and uncomfortable to wear. The young woman behind the counter, examined it and looked at it and ‘How did this happen?’ she asked. I sat on it, I replied. “You sat on it”! I nodded. She took it in, adjusted it and put it back on my face. “Is it better now” ‘Yes’ I nodded. “Well she said it will break if you sit on it again. So don’t sit on it.” She directed.
I met a friend, after a very long time, and we talked about our ‘golden years’. How do you spend your time, I asked her. She is well into her 80s but immaculately and stylishly dressed and made-up.
Oh. She said, I wake up late, get dressed, go out and walk around the malls. She has covered every mall in town and know which foodcourt sells the best food.
I wake up late too, I said. The day doesn’t seem too long, that way. Yes she does that for the same reason.
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe,
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn
The ceramics of Iskandar Jalil delights the eye and the heart and brings to mind John Keats’ Ode.
So would poems be written in two hundred years praising the beauty of Iskandar Jalil’s pottery?Will it be deconstructed to explain the historical origins, the cultural influences that created these pieces of art? That would be nice.
This morning at the National Gallery I was overawed by an amazing exhibition of ceramics by Singapore’s most famous potter Iskandar Jalil. He is a hugely influential instructor-mentor, and he occupies a pivotal place in modern ceramics art history in Singapore. The characteristic features of Iskandar’s works include tactile, rich surfaces, use of twigs as embellishments, use of Southeast Asian motifs and Jawi calligraphy, use of Iskandar Blue, his one-hand technique and local clay, his admiration of Japanese ceramics aesthetics and philosophy (e.g. Mingei Craft Movement). Iskandar has produced large public art works alongside the modest chawan bowl.
My early memory of moving into this estate, my first HDB estate, is how visible people’s everyday lives were. There was this old man- partially blind, very unstable on his feet, wandering round the neighbourhood and sleeping wherever he can. One day my friend had to help him from falling and on probing found that his family didn’t want him during the day and only allowed him home at night to sleep. He is no longer around.
Another old man used to wheel his wife, now with dementia, around and take her around the neighbourhood, stopping every now and then to tenderly wipe the sweat off her face. They were around together for a while and then she died. A year later he was being wheeled around by a foreign helper. He too is now gone. But he had an amazing funeral.. the kind that I had not seen for a long time.
Then there was this old woman who I used to see at the window of the second floor, always looking out of the window…What could she had been thinking, I wondered. What was her life like? Did she have a family? Was she married? Is she thinking of what could have been. Or is she just waiting to die. Was I making assumptions about her life. She is gone too. Was one of those funerals for her?
I had a neighbour Betty who having just retired, bought a flat and was going to bring her mother in to live with her. She and her mother had till then lived with her brother and now on retirement she had decided to move out and be on her own. Except when she was ready to get her mother in, the mother who was in her 90s, had a fall, was hospitalized and never recovered. Betty made her daily visit to her mother, starting at 8.00 in the morning and returning at night after her mother fell asleep. After about six months to a year her mother died and Betty for the first time in her life was alone, and living alone. It only took Betty a couple of months before she moved herself into a home. She was happy, she said, because there were other people around her, her meals prepared and entertainment organized. She is still there and I don’t think she is 70 yet.
Two doors away lived another old lady with her three sons and her husband, a bend old man, who I used to see drop his plastic bag of rubbish at the lift lobby when he caught the lift to go down. Never quite understood the logic of that. Slowly her sons disappeared, marrying quietly without her knowledge – one of the sons told me that his mother is very foul-mouthed and hard to live with. But she and I had something in common – our plants which we lovingly nurtured. She even gave me one of her plants and we spoke to each other in our limited Malay. One day she had a fall, went into hospital and came back after weeks of therapy. She then walked around with a stick. She became even more difficult to live with and chased her husband away. She was alone. My neighbours tell me that she used to knock on their door in the middle of the night accusing her sons of stealing from her. Her flat was in shambles, cooking utensils and plates and stuff, pilled up in a sink that had not seen detergent for months. The bathrooms were black with grime. My very generous neighbour, armed herself with cleaning gloves and the strongest of detergents cleaned out the dirt, the grime and the stink. I raise my hat off to Rita, my neighbour. I couldn’t have been able to do that. The old lady has now been removed from her home, I know not to where. Her plants are neglected and dying.
That old generation is going. There have been many funerals. They are usually sent off to the next world in style – amidst prayers, feasting and noisy music. One day I watched two expensive cars(Bentley?) drive into the car park. Expensive cars in an HDB car park? It piqued my curiosity and I watched. I wanted to find out which block they lived. They parked their cars. Two very nice-looking young men, elegant and well-dressed, came out and headed for the funeral at the void deck. They were monks who had come to lead the ceremony!
I can always tell when there is a recession. The car parks which are usually full slowly become partially empty. There is a recession now. There are not many cars around.
As old people die, young people take their places – young busy, working people whom I hardly see. Occasionally when I bump into somebody new in the lift my conversation always begins with “ are you new here” and the answer is invariably ‘no’. They would have been here for 5 years, 6 or even ten years, he or she would say and I wouldn’t have seen them in all these years.
Here it is my next labour of love and hard work. I will be talking about it during the Singapore Writers Festival.
I suppose I can keep writing more memoirs since I have no talent for writing fiction. I am ever so glad and grateful that in the autumn of my life I have something worthwhile to keep me interestingly occupied.
Here I am almost at the end and to quote Diana Athill in Yesterday Morning my beginning rises up to meet me…it was always there. And because in my eyes it was always so beautiful, it delights me yet again’. Part of those memories are in this book Never leave Home without your Chilli Sauce.
Thank you all for your expressions of sympathy. I wrote that piece about Elizabeth, on the advice of my sister, Fil, who saw how affected I was by the news of Elizabeth’s death. Writing will help, she said. And, yes, it did. It did more than release me of my pain. Writing about my experience showed me what an impact she has had on my life and how I live it. (those of you who have not read the full article in my blog do go to connie.sg and read. She was an amazing woman and you too will be inspired).
When I first went to Melbourne, I was doing one of the bravest things I had ever done in my life: go to university, live in foreign city, and live an independent life after the death of my husband. I had up to that point in my life led a very protected life. I was 44 then. I was diffident and disempowered. And in Melbourne I met a group of women, all older than me, seizing the opportunity to earn a degree and having fun. Elizabeth and I got along and became firm friends. She was generous and had a positive attitude to life. We had common interests: music and the arts.
Old age never bothered her. For her it was natural to continue living the way she had always lived with vitality, laughter and energetic activity. When she found herself crippled with arthritis, she fought it with vigour, with diet and exercise.
The last time I saw her, she was 92, and she came to see me in the city using public transport. I watched her striding away from me, a little bent now, but still confidant.
The way she lived her life up to the end is an example of how to live as I age and a particular challenge for me in this time of my life. I live in a society where old people are invisible and are seen as feeble. Just as I have imbibed Elizabeth’s energetic attitude to life I fear that I will fall victim to our cultural attitude towards old age. The daily challenge is to fight that attitude and my own inclinations to slow down.
” What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.”
Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
William Wordsworth, 1770 - 1850
My friend Elizabeth died on Tuesday 16thAugust 2016 at the age of 93. I will miss her very, very much. She was my inspiration, my cheer-leader-in-chief. And I weep. I weep not just for the loss of a dear friend but I weep for me too, for losing friends; for dreams forever gone, hopes not fulfilled, loves lost, risks not taken. That is the sadness of old age. My heart is heavy but the tears won’t come.
But I think of Elizabeth’s death, our friendship and how that friendship had enriched my life. Elizabeth John was my friend for almost 40 years. She was so full of vitality; so full of grace. Her face ageless and always lit up with warm, embracing smile. She was my role model to live a full, energetic and elegant life till the end. During those 40 years she visited me twice in Singapore and I visited her three times. She wrote every now and then, keeping me informed of her life and activities and we spoke on the phone.
She showed me Melbourne, the concerts, my first opera, my first contemporary dance performance (”are they nude?”we asked each other. They were), visits to the theatre and to the art galleries and she and I flew to Sydney to catch the first performance in Australia of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats”.We sat together at our music and visual art lectures and then took ourselves off to the café for cups of cappuccino. I remember escaping to a nearby village to have our regular fix of cappuccino when we both spend a week at a health spa just outside of Melbourne. She persuaded me to pick up the violin again after a lapse of 20 years. She was a wonderful violinist and teacher. She was the only woman that I know who knew and did fly an aeroplane.
When we met at Monash university I was 44 and she 57 years old. We were both widowed and had been married to traditional men. I was experiencing female friendships for the first time. I didn’t know her age then and not till she turned 90, three years ago, did I realize our age difference. She called me a ‘spring chicken’ during the course of a conversation when she revealed to me of two relationships she has had, the first when she turned 69 and the second when she was well into her 70s.
Elizabeth loved walking and travel, and the more adventurous the better. She was an enthusiastic bush walker and was a member of several bushwalking clubs including the Melbourne Bushwalkers. She was prepared to work hard to enjoy these activities and here are a few snippets -
- To combat arthritis in her late 50s she rose at 5 each morning to run round Elsternwick Park .
- at 63, she went trekking in Nepal and on return happily let it be known that ‘big strong men’ had fallen down from altitude sickness, while she went marching on.
- at age 65, she ceased music teaching “to do other things” and first on the list was a rubber raft trip down the Colorado River. Asked why, she said “if I don’t go now I might get too old!”.… the rapids were difficult, and the boats capsized and people had to swim, and she loved it. She was browned by the sun, and in a reservation was delighted when two small boys asked “are you a red indian?”
- at age 69 she travelled the silk road with many adventures, and found a new companion to share her life, John. John was older and unfortunately died just a few years later.
- determined always to keep fit, Elizabeth loved dance aerobics and kept at this until her late 80s – and even in the Gym she would always dress with style
Later, in her seventies she once again found a companion to share her adventures in Mac Caton. Mac was an experienced walk leader from Melbourne Bushwalking and very happy to take care of the everyday needs of living, and was attentive and devoted. They both loved dancing, and Elizabeth and he went on many trips – as Elizabeth said one day ”we came home, and the house was a mess, so we just went off somewhere else!” These happy years came to an end quite suddenly when Mac passed away in year 2000. He was 65 and she 77, and Elizabeth felt his loss greatly.
Determined, she kept walking even in her late 80s when mitral stenosis slowed blood circulation, and at the age 91 underwent a mitral valve replacement and recovered to an extent. She came out of hospital to find that her car had been taken away from her. When I met her last year she was still very angry about being deprived of her car.
I watched her, for the last time, a year ago, after we had met to see an exhibition at the Gallery and had tea together at a café by the river, walking – she strides rather than walk – towards Flinder’s Station to catch the train to her home. I marvelled as I watched her, this 92 year old friend, still energetic, still smiling, still elegant, striding away from me , I realise now, for the last time.
My breakfast this morning:
Piglet and Pooh eat your heart out.
Having got out of bed this morning I made myself , I actually made myself a breakfast of Puttu which was eaten with ghee and sugar no less. I have lived an incredulous 80 years and a bit of ghee and sugar is not going to kill me..if it does it is time to go! Meanwhile I shall stay in bed as long as I like and eat a late breakfast. This morning breakfast was at 11.00 am.
The highlight of my week is the Monday evening art class that I attend. I don’t know why I waited so many years to do something that I had enjoyed in my younger days. Of course I do know why. I was always too busy.
It is a delightful pastime during a more leisurely phase of my life. Here’s the result of 6 sessions and I am one happy girl!