When my cousin Susan and I were young girls, we would delight in listening to our mothers talk about their childhoods. Their backgrounds as children of immigrants growing up in the South Bronx sounded so exotic and fascinating – and so different from our lives.
While we loved the warmth of the discussions, we also noted that no matter how poor our mothers were growing up and how happy they were to have risen to the middle class, they somehow always concluded that morality, business, politics, whatever, was kinder, gentler, better, back then. Not that they wanted to go backward in time, of course, but modern times seemed to present problems and concerns that were not an improvement over what they remembered.
As we grew older, Susan and I pledged we wouldn’t become the kind of adults who dwelt on the back-when-we-were-girls line of thinking.
We also noted that our grandmother and her peers spent a lot of time discussing gout, lumbago and goiter concerns. I’m still not quite sure what a goiter is and whether I need concern myself about mine, if I indeed have one, but all that medical talk seemed rather uninteresting to two healthy and somewhat self-absorbed girls. We wouldn’t do that either when we got older.
I’ll bet you know what’s coming next.
Well, fast-forward many decades, and here Susan and I are – women of, as my son puts it, advanced glamour, and with grown children of our own. Her two sons live near her, and she busies herself with grandchildren and community activities. My two sons don’t live nearby, and I busy myself as a freelance writer and with community activities.
She lives in Florida, so most of our visits are by phone. They are long and fact-filled, and we always have much to talk about. Politics, of course. How our progeny are doing. What’s doing with our spouses. Trips we’ve taken. Contacts with other family members. All the usual. And – wait for it – lengthy updates on medical matters and lapses into how much nicer and more civil (fill in the blank here) it was when we were kids.
Once on the phone she was telling me about the observance of a religious holiday tradition that one of her daughters-in-law no longer adheres to. She loves this young woman dearly and would never (unlike me) say anything about this, though she was a bit sad that her own attachment to the tradition was not recognized or acknowledged in the family. That’s as close to a complaint as she’d ever come, being the kind person she is. She sighed and began: “I remember when I was a girl, it was so wonderful when … ”
I suddenly flashed back to our childhood and our vows not to be like our mothers and I made a noise, that ungraceful snorting sound you emit when attempting to stifle a laugh. She was pouring out her heart to me, so it was a most inappropriate moment for such an eruption. I quickly apologized. Interrupted, she asked me what had happened. “Do you remember what we said when we were kids about all that remember-when stuff?” I asked.
There was a second or two of silence, and then I heard her laughter. Busted! We were both guilty of not only doing but somewhat wallowing in that very thing we – in our youthful certainty – said we’d never do.
We talked about becoming our mothers and even our grandmothers and how these once-ridiculed topics are now more integral in our own lives. Health concerns do loom larger when you’re older, and not necessarily because you’re at death’s door (though that door is larger and closer than it was long, long ago). They are a bigger part of our conversation because they now take up more time in our days, because they affect the quality of our lives and because we love each other and want to hear that the other person is OK – or at least not losing ground.
And for that nostalgia thing, I’ve discovered that as I now have reading glasses in order to make out small print, a pair of rose-colored glasses seems to have arrived at the same time. I really do know that lots and lots of things are better today than yesterday, but (can you hear me, Mom?) I can’t help but gravitate toward the feeling that morality, business, politics, whatever, was kinder, gentler, better, back when. And that shared feeling does tend to come up when talking with someone who lived those back-when days with me.
So in that conversation a few years ago, after Susan and I had our laugh, she finished telling me her story. I commiserated, and then we moved on to inquire about each other’s ongoing health issues – in detail, naturally.