I just returned to the somewhat cold of Minnesota after spending “pre-Christmas” (or, as this former airline spokesperson calls it, the relatively sane travel spot that exists between Thanksgiving and Christmas) with my mother at her retirement community in Arizona.
Now some of you might think, oh Christ, how exciting could THAT have been to have spent time in one of those places with the billboards at the entry gate that show people who look about ten years too young to qualify for residency, claiming to be Valley of the Dolls delirious while playing vigorous sets of tennis every single day of the week.
Well, no, it was not that exciting. But I’m not sure that visiting one’s parent or parents is always meant to be as electrifying as heli skiing or partying in Vegas or South Beach. Although I didn’t see anyone playing tennis while I was there, I did lead two yoga sessions at the clubhouse and saw a few people in the pool and some doing tai chi in the courtyard. More on the yoga later.
To my mind, part of accepting and even enjoying what you can find in any retirement community, or, for that matter, any holiday time spent with a senior citizen parent is not expecting things to be as they were when you went “home” for Christmas to the same house you might have grown up in, with both of your natural parents still there, one or both still telling you to not spend money on sweaters and podiatrist-inducing heels you don’t need and to maybe take some fresh fruit home when you leave.
Because the reality is that a good many of us over the age of 40 or 45 or so cannot claim to have both natural parents still alive and around to give you a paper bag full of tangerines or Fuji apples. And even if they are still around, they more than likely are not living in the ancestral home. I’d wager that a fair share of them are probably in either Arizona or Florida, vowing to never go back to the “North” and its bitterly cold and snowy winters and need to wear stockings or a necktie to funerals. And they may be living a lifestyle that isn’t completely in line with what you might think your good and decent parents ought to be living.
I kind of lucked out with my mother when it comes to these visits and a good many other things. As she was but 56 when my father died, she had time to see a side of life she’d heretofore only seen in movies or heard about from similarly sheltered friends who might have shyly admitted to knowing people who might be called “wild.” She’d gone out with divorced guys, possibly closeted gay guys, and some definite players before she met the thoroughly decent, charming and generous man who became my stepfather. As such, she’s nowhere near as shocked by a whole lot of things as is the case with the parents of many of my friends. A mother who spent some time in the Amazon of single life can sometimes understand a daughter who has never seen fit to machete her way out of that jungle. Sometimes.
Anyway, my charming stepfather died three years ago and afterward, my mother was determined to get out of the tundra known as Wisconsin and into the supposedly carefree and deliriously happy life in Arizona. Which just happens to be where both of my brothers live. I was glad to see her make the move.
So my mother has lived in this community (some call it a resort, but I think that’s pushing it as there is no spa or golf course and the houses are all nearly identical sand-colored faux adobe) between Phoenix and Tucson for about 15 months now. She’s one of the oldest of the residents and yet is among the most physically active. She’s also a widow in a sea of couples. Some of the couples are married and some just live together. Keep in mind that someone who is currently 65 and participating in Medicare might have graduated from university in the unforgettable year of1968. So this is not the Lawrence Welk generation we’re talking about anymore when we talk about today’s seniors. Anyway, she’s also a member of what I call the Knights Templar, given that she is a Democrat who plans to vote for President Obama while living in the state of Arizona. I know there are Democrats in Arizona. It’s just that there are damn few of them willing to admit as much at my mother’s community, which also includes a large number of Canadians who are members of the Conservative Party of Canada.
The evening after I arrived, my mother told me we were going to a party at the home of some people I’d met earlier that day. At that meeting, they brought up politics and I probably should have said nothing but I don’t know, warm weather in December and an innate and admittedly sometimes unhealthy desire to debate compelled me to learn that these people think the president is just a few inches short of being the anti-Christ. When I told them that I greatly admired the work of a prominent staff member at their fairly liberal hometown major newspaper, they told me the work was admirable. But only if one was a Socialist. I’m guessing they thought I looked like a Socialist or even a Communist, though I’ve never been into the Che Guevera look for myself. Too dirty. Not enough eye shadow. Still, they invited me to their party and my mother said we were going and I was going to behave because she needs to be able to live in this place until she can sell it and that these people have a few bucks so they would serve a lot of good Pinot Noir.
Well, we went to the party, they did have a few bucks, there was a very great deal of good wine (never underestimate someone’s ability to drink based on age alone), and I made myself leave early because I got into it with some conservative Canadians who disliked the French and disliked my French pronunciations of French words. Then I made the mistake of telling another couple I had worked as a speechwriter in D.C. in the second Clinton administration. These people, who also were among the millions of members of the Church of I’m Retired and Looking Stylish Doesn’t Matter Anymore So Just Wear Tracksuits, Sequined Teddy Bear Sweatshirts, and Huge Jeans and Sneakers, went on and on about the loss of clean American family values. This was charming given the fact that one had been divorced twice and the other three times and that they were currently living together without the benefit of marriage, but hell, I suppose family values depend on one’s point of view. Just ask Newt and Callista Gingrich.
I did talk with two very lovely couples from Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, Oregon who told me that they had to stay strong in the face of such opposition in the midst of very, very affordable retirement housing and I must too. They also told me that certain fragrant herbs make their days sunny and mellow. They were not talking about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. As I said, people need to start putting aside at least some of what they think about most seniors.
On the way back to my mother’s house my mother told me she was sure a lot of the people at the party thought I was one of the lost members of the Sex and the City tribe (although less sluttily dressed) and that as such, and given my demonstrated prowess at the clubhouse yoga session I was given permission to join that morning, some of the women asked my mother, no, told my mother, that they’d like me to lead at least one session that week. I ended up doing so and was a bit surprised to see how fit some of the women were, even though it was hard to tell upon first examination given the volume of their track suits. I spoke of no politics or men during our poses, though I couldn’t help but tell everyone that the First Lady’s arms are the standard to aim for if one wants to wear attractive sleeveless dresses. More than a few of the women just looked at me and I knew they were thinking, you youngish bitch, finish torturing us with your demands and take your considerable butt and all of that eyeliner and mascara back to the Socialist North. But a number of them were quite friendly and complimented me effusively on my leadership skills. Some were in quite stylish yoga wear that was of the correct size.
On my last day, my mother took me for lunch to a real resort that reeks of early 1960s Mad Men (desert version) glamour. I guess John Wayne and several members of the Rat Pack frequented the place in their day. It’s an establishment my mother would never have dared go to 25 years ago. Well, not unless my father had been along to provide protection from, I don’t know, daiquiris made with real fresh squeezed lime juice. We had a nice time overlooking the lush golf course and tall palm trees. We saw a couple from her community at another table and my mother said, oh boy, they’re brave, he’s not yet divorced from his wife who still lives in Canada. I looked for real disapproval on her face. It really wasn’t present.
I flew home on a redeye flight (after having a most delightful meeting with the stars of Open Salon-Phoenix, including the hostess, Oryoki Bowl, and Macco, one of the first Open Salon stars to read my work) and thought that instead of putting up billboards of youngish people out to play tennis, these communities ought to promote their wares by showing pictures of people at cocktail parties. Arguing about politics. Contemplating herbal essences.
I do have to say that I am proud of my mother for finding a way to get along and even enjoy herself in such a setting. I never would have expected as much from her at this age. I was wrong. Like a lot of us are about our parents.