The Tension of Aging - by Susan Devan Harness

 
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I feel old.

That’s what I told a friend of mine, who is 17 years my senior!  He gave me a wry smile.

The thing is, I knew it was going happen.  I’m all of 59, but aging has been on my mind a lot, especially when I think about my mom’s aging process.    

At some point in her seventies Mom became more frail, less mobile, but I didn’t assign a value to that.  She still walked to the library once a week, she still participated in deep and thoughtful conversations, and she still enjoyed seeing my sons, her grandsons, although conversation with them was more difficult; they were teenagers.  But I never considered her “old.”

Not like the elderly couple I saw one day as I drove to her apartment—the ones who shuffled across Mulberry Street where it intersects with Remington Street.  Their backs were bent and their gazes studying the pavement in front of them.  I could sense their worry that the drizzle of rain had made the road slippery.  It was clear from their pace, from their careful, tight gait, that their joints prevented them from walking faster. She held onto his elbow with such ferocity, probably knowing a fall would change her life forever.  

I glanced at the walk signal and watched while the little red hand, which had been white when they began this journey, flashed insistently, turning solid when they reached the half way point.  I studied the drivers of the cars, protected behind their windshields, and felt their tension of wanting the light to turn green and hoping the elderly couple would not impede their own journeys to whatever important places they had to go: meetings, coffee shops, classes, shopping.  

Then, like a rubber band snapping back into place, the tension released.  No sooner had the couple’s feet touched the sidewalk on the far side than engines revved and cars began to speed by, and I thought, “This is going to be me someday.  Some stranger, perhaps even my children, will be frustrated with the amount of time I take out of their afternoon.”

I realized then that the construction of our world makes it difficult to be old.  Our roads are too wide, the lights too short.  The cars are too fast, our free time too limited.  And although our days are long, our lives are too short to get everything accomplished that we set out to do when we were young. And we sit at lights and tap our steering wheels and think about what’s going to happen next and how exciting/stressful/expensive/difficult that will be, with very little thought about what’s happening right now.

So as I think about the elderly couple who carefully made their way down an uneven sidewalk, I pondered whether they were thinking that it would be nice to be able to cross a street and not be aware that they were somehow interrupting someone’s day.

 

 Photo by Rick Harness   

Photo by Rick Harness

 

Susan Devan Harness, author of Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, and Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967) is a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.  As a cultural anthropologist, a writer, and an aging person, she is interested in people and their histories.

Empty Chairs -by Barbara Fleming

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Mortality is an inescapable fact of human existence; aging brings it into sharp focus. Recently I have seen more and more empty chairs among my circle of friends. How dear they all were to me.

Jane always sat perfectly straight. She was a cat woman if ever there was one; she devoted her later years to the welfare of cats— fostering kittens, adopting strays, volunteering at a cat shelter. Jane was intense, passionate, opinionated and outspoken, and no one ever had a truer or more loyal friend. 

Jean grew day lilies and wrote books. She tended lovingly to her aging cat, volunteered at the Gardens at Spring Creek, and faced each day with curiosity and humor. Her quick wit endeared her to anyone who knew her and her smile, when earned, warmed one’s heart.  She was a bright light dimmed too soon.

Nancy’s seat was a piano bench. A fine pianist, she played in church for years. Nancy had a robust, memorable laugh, a great sense of humor, a highly tuned sense of indignation about injustice, and a habit of speaking her mind. She was an excellent writer, a loving mother and devoted grandmother, a caring wife and a faithful friend.  She was a dog person as well as a passionate advocate for her chosen causes. She lived richly and fully every day.

Dona was a musician, too. A teacher and school principal before she retired, she nearly always found something to be happy about. She lived in the present as much as anyone I have ever known. She never dwelled on past sorrows and losses. She poured her heart and soul into whatever she chose to involve herself in. She was generous and kind and cheerful; like the Cheshire cat, her smile was the last part of her to fade away.

Coming more recently to the circle was Susan, a lover of words like me. Her smile would light up the room; she was even-tempered, cheerful and keenly intelligent, always seeking to learn new things. Adventurous, she loved to travel and often went on long hikes with her husband. Her creativity came out in the costumes she sewed for her grandchildren and her ways of playing with them. They constantly delighted her. 

Margaret—never have I known anyone quite like her. She loved to tell tales of her childhood and adventurous youth. She was fearless, managing to leave a bad marriage with two small children in tow to make her way back to the United States and start anew. She was open and friendly and completely her true self all the time: What you saw was who she was. Despite many traumas and losses in her life, she forged ahead from day to day, living the best life she could and spreading love and friendship around like flower petals. 

A longtime friend, Gretchen was the embodiment of courage and determination. She overcame many obstacles in her life and met a diagnosis of chronic disease with calm and fortitude. As long as possible she would not let it keep her from doing what she wanted to do—travel, even as far as Japan, go to plays and performances, attend church regularly.  She adapted to the altered circumstances in her life better than most, accepting what she could not change. She was a loyal friend and a good person through and through.

So have they all left empty chairs behind—but I fill those chairs now with warm memories of good times together, of companionship and support, and of shared joys, sorrows, laughter and love. I am grateful to have had them in my life and, as my own mortality approaches, to have been enriched by these very different and very special individuals. Each brought with her unique and memorable gifts, and each one has left an imprint on my heart.

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Barbara Fleming is a local author and editor. Her most recent published book, Hidden History of Fort Collins, is available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Her newest novel, My Name Is Meggie, will be published later this year. You can visit her at her website  https://www.authorbarbarafleming.com

A Long Way from Little Rock -by Linda Johnson

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I was born in 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. So I was destined, by age, to be in a high school class of 1960. That same winter, nine notable African-American babies were also born, all but one in Little Rock, who could expect to graduate in 1960. They were to be later known as the “Little Rock Nine.” My life’s path took me a long way from Little Rock, geographically and culturally. By 1949 my family had moved to Colorado and most of my school years were spent there. 

There was one high school in Colorado Springs;  everyone in our town attended it.  But back in Little Rock, there was grandiose Central High, seven stories tall, with up-to-date curricula, for white students. And there was Horace Mann, an underdeveloped school for Afro-American students, or “blacks” as they were called then.  In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that the nation’s school would be racially integrated.  The ruling met with resistance, especially in Arkansas. Amid violent white protests and in defiance of federal law, Governor Orville Faubus ordered out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering white schools.  On September 3, 1957, nine brave Horace Mann students, studious and determined, enrolled and would attempt to enter Central High School in Little Rock.   I was born in 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. So I was destined, by age, to be in a high school class of 1960. That same winter, nine notable African-American babies were also born, all but one in Little Rock, who could expect to graduate in 1960. They were to be later known as the “Little Rock Nine.” My life’s path took me a long way from Little Rock, geographically and culturally. By 1949 my family had moved to Colorado and most of my school years were spent there. 

 Meanwhile in Colorado Springs on September 3, 1957, eight of my friends and I met on the sunny sidewalk, waiting for the bell that would invite us into the halls for our first day of high school. Our most pressing problems were whether we could remember our locker codes, which of our friends would be in our classes, and whether we had on the right clothes for high school.  We all wore the same thing: a full skirt just below the knee with starched crinolines underneath to make it stand out, a shirtwaist blouse, a wide cinch belt tight around the waist, saddle shoes and white socks. We had swooned over Elvis and Johnny Mathis and anticipated fall football games and our first homecoming dance. The boys wore jeans with rolled up cuffs and collared shirts, the collar turned up like James Dean’s in Rebel with a Cause.  

 In Little Rock that same day, the nine black students (the Nine), wearing clothing like ours as shown in iconic pictures in the press, tried to enter the all-white Central High School.  Their age and attire were identical to ours, but their determination to equally and fairly obtain the best education would cost far more determination and suffering than we would ever know. That morning they had been directed by supporters and organizers to enter Central High School together.  Amid crowds of outraged protesters, they were prevented from meeting at the assigned place; one girl, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, faced the armed Arkansas National Guard soldiers alone. In the chaos, Elizabeth fled to a bus stop and rode to her mother’s work for safety. The other eight were separately chased and threatened by white protesters and could not enter the school. 

On September 23rd, President Dwight Eisenhower, complying with the Supreme Court decision on integration, ordered federal troops to escort the Nine into the classes they had enrolled in and qualified for. They were escorted in amidst a mob of white resistance.  All but one completed the tortuous year of 1957-58, with white students and teachers alike scorning and physically abusing them, in spite of the federal troops assigned to protect them. 

Meanwhile in Colorado Springs, we happily finished our sophomore year, with the biggest policy change being that we could wear blue jeans for final exam week. There was a sparse black population in Colorado Springs, but those who were there filled spots on Student Council and in sports. Thanks to some outstanding black athletes, Colorado Springs High School won the state football championship that year.  Back in Little Rock, black students were excluded from all extra-curricular activities and were prevented from even attending a Central football game.

Spring finally came sixty years ago in May, 1958. Ernest Green, the only senior among the Nine, was the first black graduate of Central High. Unbeknownst to the crowd of spectators, Martin Luther King Jr. sat with Ernest Green’s family at that graduation.

 The following year, owing to the violence and political pressure, Arkansas Governor Faubus cancelled all public schools in Little Rock for the entire year, so there was no class of 1959.  Seven of the Nine moved away and graduated elsewhere, many in 1960. Elizabeth Eckford got her GED and went on to a lifetime of civil service and activism.  The rest attended college and advanced degrees, and luminous careers in their fields.  In Colorado Springs, we too attended colleges and had careers, seemingly as seamlessly as third to fourth grade.   

 Only one of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Patilla Beals, has written a memoir. The title, Warriors Don’t Cry,   was inspired by the females in her family, particularly her grandmother, India.  Melba’s mother had been the first black woman to graduate from the University of Arkansas. (1954). When Melba was overwhelmed by violence and hatred at Central High, she quoted her grandmother, telling her to have faith and to stand up, because “warriors don’t cry.”

 Her grandmother also assured her that “everything changes.”  Indeed, Melba describes slow but positive changes in Arkansas and in the nation coming from the Nine’s harrowing experiences in the name of racial equality. The Nine have remained fast friends and relished their reunion when a statuary memorial to them was dedicated in front of the Arkansas capitol.

Grandmother India told Melba that life’s memories are composed of “snapshots of experiences” we can never forget. When Melba saw the memorial sculptures of the Little Rock Nine unveiled in front of the Arkansas capitol, she gasped at how accurately the statues resembled them in September, 1957.  Their teenage interests, dreams, and even dress paralleled those of my friends and me in the class of 1960.  And the nine or so of us Colorado Springs High School graduates still cherish those friendships.  I too have a memory “snapshot” of September 3, 1957, garbed in our teenage idealism, but on that day I was a long way from Little Rock. 

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Linda Johnson is a local historian and genealogist who has lived most of her life in Colorado Springs.   She has published articles in genealogical journals and done speaker presentations of neighborhood history and genealogy.  From 1983 to 2015, she  owned and was the  designer for   her  theatrical costume rental business, “Ivywild Costumes,”  where the history of clothing merged with family studies and history. In 2015 she retired, with her husband Patrick, and relocated to Ft Collins.