Archive for February, 2014

ImageWhen the dentist asked if I felt like keeping all my teeth for the rest of my life, that’s when I started to feel my age. The rest of my life? I started to count. How many years does “the rest of your life” mean? Maybe it’s actually not that many — 30 if I’m lucky, 20 or 25 if I’m like the average American 60-year-old woman. I don’t like making such calulations, since when I look backward, 20 or 25 years is the blink of an eye ago.

So, yes, I said to him, I’d rather keep all my teeth for the rest of my life if possible, thank you very much.

The question got me thinking about Grandpa and his dentures. Back in the 1960s, when we were growing up, being old automatically meant you had a mouth full of false teeth. In fact, when Avuncular was little he used to ask how long he’d have to wait until he was old enough to have teeth you could take out every night and put in a little water glass by the bathroom sink. He and I would wake up early when our grandparents were sleeping over, so we could stand next to him as he stood at the mirror with a collapsed old-man face and would transform before our eyes: grab the top teeth from the glass, shake them out, put them in, shake out the bottom teeth and put them in, and there he is again, our handsome Grandpa.

No one has dentures these days, so what we’re going to do with these problem teeth at the back of my mouth is put in crowns rather than yank them out. It’s a long slow process of oral restoration.

Is this the first of a long line of such procedures? Will a doctor soon ask me if I feel like keeping both my hips for the rest of my life, or if I’d like him to insert a fake one to replace the one that’s wearing away? How about one of my organs? My kidneys are likely to putter out, if they’re anything like my father’s were (and I suspect they are), so maybe that will be a question some day, too. Do you want these kidneys? Do you want a different one? Do you want to plug yourself up to this dialysis machine and pretend you don’t have kidneys at all, just let the machine do the work for you?

As Ur-Momma says whenever she notices changes in her skin or hair or ability to breathe when walking up the hill near her apartment, a body isn’t designed to live 89 years. No, it’s not, no matter how much care you take in how you feed it and exercise it (neither of which I’m doing quite enough of). So what happens when it starts falling apart, by inches — especially when you’re only 60? My two back teeth might be the beginning of a long line of decay — decay is actually the word my dentist used in describing the problem that leads me to need a crown — and I suspect that all I’ll be able to do about it, at least for a while, is try to shore things back up as well as I can.

(By the way, the teeth in that photo belonged to George Washington. I saw them in a photo on Twitter posted today by Lindsay Fitzharris, a British medical historian and creator of a web publication called The Chirugeons Apprentice.)

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5920123882_08625a21cb_zI love this series of photos of empty nesters standing in the room their kids used to live in, which was recently written up in Slate. The project, by Dona Schwartz (who also took a series of photos of couples at the other end of parenthood, standing in the rooms they were preparing for the babies they were about to have), is a fascinating one, trying to capture the emotions of this particular rite of passage using images rather than words. But there’s a weird sameness to the photos, too, and I can’t figure out whether this is reassuring or discomfiting. Almost all the couples (and one solitary mother, who is either divorced or widowed; the text doesn’t say) stand side by side in the bedroom of their college-age son or daughter. Maybe it’s because the kids are still coming home for school breaks that the beds are still there, though some are piled so high with boxes, books, and clothes (and, in one case, a discarded exercise ball) that it’s hard to imagine Junior actually finding any place to sleep.

The only couple that’s gotten rid of the bed is the oldest one, whose children have been out of the house for five years. (The length of empty-nestdom in these families, at least those whose photos were used in the Slate piece, ranges from two months to five years.) No one in these photos is smiling. Is that the way they really feel when they go into their children’s empty rooms, sad and lonely and regretful? Or are those hangdog expressions just the ones Schwartz chose among the many photos she took of each couple, because she was trying to say something about how it feels when a child grows up and leaves? Her own picture, alongside her partner Ken, is the last one in the Slate collection. She says her somber expression is largely because she’s sad about the end of this interesting project. But shouldn’t she and Ken be a little more elated now that the last of their SIX children has flown the coop?

The expressions of these empty nesters are a contrast to the ones Schwartz caught in her series of parents-to-be. While there were a surprisng number of serious (frightened?) expressions among the younger subjects, about half of them were smiling, some quite expansively, as they looked happily into the future, their eyes shining and their faces lit with expectation.

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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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