Thursday, April 28, 2005

Finally, a reprieve from idleness:

Okay, I know what the book says. Little ole ladies are essentially fit for little more than bridge, church socials, and the occasional book club outing. Grandmothering is supposed to be all consuming, and (for those of us still in control of our wits) social activism should be carefully assigned by the deacon and should involve little more than cookie baking with the girl scouts and/or collecting recipes for the church fundraiser. Not so. There are still a few of us stubborn old women who insist upon staying in there until a suitable replacement turns up and takes over. Some of us may be carrying around talents and abilities not so easily replicated, and in such cases, opting out simply isn't an option. Yes, I'm one of those. I knew Mable Kuss!

A couple of weeks ago there was a call from Elizabeth, Park Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter Historic National Park. She was calling to invite me to attend a social event being planned for tomorrow that would involve the volunteers from four newly-combined national parks in the area; John Muir in Martinez, Port Chicago in Concord, Eugene O'Neill's Tao House in Alamo, and Rosie the Riveter Historical National Park in Richmond.

In an interesting move after the recent retirement of the former park superintendent, the National Park Service chose to bring together under a single adminstrative staff, all four parks largely for economic reasons, I'm sure. Three of those posts most certainly require extensive educational backgrounds in curating, interpretation, and fiscal policy. The fourth will be a people position, one requiring knowledge of and experience in the social/cultural life of the area. It is called community outreach, I believe. Guess who?

On Sunday, we'd attended a concert hosted by the city of Richmond and featuring the East Bay Symphony orchestra under the baton of Maestro Michael Morgan. During the reception that followed (it was the opening event for the city's centennial year celebration), we chatted for a few minutes with the new acting park superintendent. It brought to mind the fact that -- already in motion -- were our plans to visit Tao House on Tuesday. (Do you see how my life serendipitously has these periods when I'm acting on information not yet received?)

By coincidence, Tom and I drove out to Alamo on Tuesday to visit Tao House -- for no particular reason. About a week before I'd suggested that we might enjoy this as our next field trip (we've been doing a lot of touring of interesting local historical sites of late). I'd been busily chatting as we drove.

When our family lived in the rural Diablo Valley during the period before it became heavily populated suburbs, Tao House was that lovely isolated stand-alone estate that we could see from the Danville Highway. We knew that the celebrated but reclusive author, Eugene O'Neill lived there but no one ever saw him. The O'Neill family name appeared nowhere -- but the house sat highly visible about midway up the slope on the edge of the heavily wooded Las Trampas area in the foothills. We'd heard that Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre) lived in Orinda (never quite sure this was true). He never turned up in our circles, either.

What we did know was that on Wayne Avenue -- in the flatlands below Tao House -- lived my husband's parents. There were fewer than a dozen sprawling one-story ranch homes, each surrounded by open lands, orchards, or truck gardens. Tom and Reba Reid kept a couple of horses and the extended family held the annual Fourth of July picnic on their grounds. We could look up and see high in the distance, Tao House.

Then there was Mabel Kuss. She was from a pioneer family whose home was halfway up the foothills and may have been the only one within walking distance of Tao House. She was also a member of the Unitarian-Universalist fellowship that we were deeply involved in. I'm certain that Mabel would have known the O'Neills and/or their daughters. Mabel was elderly (perhaps the age that I am now) at the time that I was a young wife and mother. She was a lovely woman with a serenity that I can recall still when I close my eyes.

On Tuesday when scanning the road maps in preparation for our trip to Tao House, there it was. The street leading up to that monument bears the name, Kuss Lane. I've lived long enough now so that those I knew intimately have been memorialized in the signage. No honor could be more fitting in this case. Mabel was much-loved.

Driving along in what was now completely unfamiliar territory, it was almost impossible to tell when one small town started or ended. The orchards had been replaced long ago by lovely homes and tasteful retail businesses blended carefully into the landscape. I almost drove past Wayne Avenue (The Reids had lost their home tragically in a fire years ago) and wouldn't have recognized anything, anyway. We turned up Del Amigo on our way to Tao House only to be stopped by a mechanized gate partway up the hill before we reached Mabel's old home. We could go no further as residents of the area pressed their remotes and moved past us to the access road into the main streets as we clung to the side of the road so that they might pass. Tao House now sits in a gated community. One can only visit by appointment and such visits are limited to 3-4 per day and can only be arranged for by being picked up in Danville by a park van for the trip to the site. It seemed curious that a publicly-owned national historic park monument would have such restrictions, but in some ways it seems a continuation of the legacy of reclusiveness that had shielded O'Neill's life and home from prying eyes and ears. In a small way it fit nicely the sense of mystery that was a part of Tao House.

Which brings us to yesterday when I drove out to the Rosie office on the Richmond marina after a reminder call from Elizabeth -- to pick up a detailed map telling us where we're to meet for tomorrow's bay cruise from the Berkeley Marina. In a brief chat I was able to ask her my questions about Tao House (she'd visited earlier in the day) and in the process learned that (according to Elizabeth) there were job openings under the reorganization and that my name had come up during the discussions but that staff was under the impression that I'd accepted another position and was not available. "Howard is in his office now. Do come in and see him, Betty." Which led to the conversation with the new park superintendent that ended with him saying, "...I'll send you the information packet right away, Betty."

During the conversation, it was clear that three of the new positions will require extensive education and training within the national park system, as well as experience. The fourth is something quite different. The community relations job would draw upon my experience as a field representative for the state of California over the past years; a time when I worked in almost all of the geographic areas in which these four parks are situated. In addition, I now have the experience of the two-month contract fulfilled with the park system last winter, serving in the same capacity, and for which I received the best evaluation of my entire career.

But beyond all that, I'm the only person who remembers Mable Kuss! Or, who knew Tao House when the author lived there. Or, who wrote an article on a memory of the tragic explosion of the munitions at Port Chicago for the Berkeley Daily Planet last fall. But now I need to bone up on John Muir whom I didn't know, but I can fake it. (Okay, so I'm just not quite that old!)

Tomorrow we'll take the Bay cruise with the 4-park volunteer group, and I'll get a chance to visit with the national park service staff again.

The Delphinus is described as a large, two decked, white vessel (32 guests expected), and is ordinarily chartered by small groups for trips up to Alaska. We'll tour the entire Rosie the Riveter park with a view from the water for the first time (for me), visit the Rosie Museum Collection, stop and board the Red Oak Victory (ship being lovingly restored by some who served aboard her in WWII), then back to the Berkeley Marina for a 1 o'clock lunch.

And, maybe, just maybe -- when the decisions are made and the new hiring begins (within the next few weeks, I presume) -- I'll be back in the thick of life using up and transforming old time into new.

That's as it should be, I think.

I'm beginning to believe that I've stumbled onto the formula for living that works for me. With no sense of being driven or denial of aging or awareness of diminishing power -- I quite naturally continue to bend into the winds of change, intuitively, with neither compass nor map in a kind of effortless dance -- and at times get out of sequence with events because it's all so organic.

Wouldn't it be great if I could use this whatever-it-is to read the stock market or to predict whether the country will survive the present administration through the next election cycle?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Today the grim truth dawned. As certain as the fact that the planet is now firmly on the path of global warming -- I will outlive my hair! Since there is every indication that I (barring being hit by that proverbial truck) will live at least another ten or so years, that will be about 7 years longer than my hair will be with me. By the time I reach the next milestone on this road of life, I should resemble a 5'3" caramel-colored Michael Jordan; a whole lot shorter but just a tad prettier than he. Why did I not know that the hair supply is finite; that there are just so many strands to a customer?

What with the boomers coming up so fast around us now, shouldn't I be putting some money into wigmaking enterprises? Could make a killing, maybe, but I may not have the smarts to count my winnings by that time ... .

Felt an attack of terminal female vanity rising as I realized that having my crowning glory back sits right up there with my wish for world peace! least that's the way it looks this morning.

But this afternoon I'll join others in a demonstration at the Federal Building in downtown Oakland; in protest of the attempt to eliminate the filibuster and to seat those appalling federal judges in the continuing drive of the Right to take over the country and the world. While there I just might look around and see how many of my contemporaries are hair-challenged and just how they're handling it.

Maybe great hats are the answer. In the immortal words of Stephen Sondheim, "...does anyone still wear a hat?"

Photo: It's occurred to me that -- it matters not at what point in which decade I've been photographed, my hair was simply caught back in a clip at the nape -- with little attempt at being fashionable. There must be a message someplace, but I'm not sure what it is. This was taken in 1974, or thereabouts.

Monday, April 25, 2005

There's an old blues song by Bobby Blue Bland ...

named, "Age ain't nuthin' but a numba." I think's that's about right. I've never been able to guess anyone's age. My mother lived to be a still flirtatious 101 and enjoyed almost every minute of it, partly because of her personality and her lifelong naivete. She was still quite lovely to look at 95, small-boned and slightly built with a feminine soft roundness; always nicely dressed with hat and gloves as she went tripping downtown on the bus every Saturday afternoon to window shop and browse the sales (especially lingerie) -- and in 3 inch heels, to boot. Having that as a model of aging while mothering a mentally-retarded daughter who is a perennial teenager really bolluxes up the works. I lose all sense of what is or is not age-appropriate. I suppose it's all in the genes and/or one's consciousness. Have never obsessed over fleeting youth; having never really felt old. Really didn't begin to notice wrinkles and age spots until the past year or so. I hate my thinning hair, but love the dusting of white just now beginning to appear around the edges of my face.

Except for the fact that my wardrobe grows less and less age appropriate, it still works. I've always loved to wear "art" and "ethnic" and such pieces rarely grow out of fashion. Almost everything in my closets has been hanging for 25-30 years. There is little change in my height and weight since high school, still 5'3" and 127 pounds dripping wet, so it's been easy to simply grow past the age of acquisition and to continue to savor beautiful purchases all with connecting memories. I have dresses from Morocco and Egypt -- batiks from Thailand, silk brocades from Japan -- mostly gifts from Bill from long ago brought back from his travels to faraway places. There are lovely garments sent from Rewalser in the Himalayas by my friend, Lama Wangdor -- a cave dweller refugee from Llasa, and all garments once belonging to his mother. He brought them out when he fled the Chinese Invasion long ago. Brought them out with precious dzi stones sewn into their seams for safe passage through the mails. My jewelry is almost all antique with stories attached that stir dreams still vibrant; a beautiful chunky widow's bracelet of silver and ivory, and pendants of coral and turquoise purchased right from the neck of a Tibetan woman Bill met in a marketplace high up in Lahdak on the edge of Tibet in 1985 or thereabouts. There is the magnificent sherpa's choker -- silver overlaying some kind of black wood, so old and well-loved that the silver is worn thin or through in some places -- enough to cause me to wonder upon whose throat it had once rested and how long ago... and had it seen Everest...?

My kids grew into being my contemporaries at around the age of thirty, I think. From then on it was a case of sharing the search for the promises of maturity; my having never identified quite what that was.

Because of a deceptively youthful appearance, the men I tended to attract over the years were almost always far younger then I. But age usually reared it's ugly head right in the middle of such potential romances upon the realization that experience counts for an awful lot, and that young men lacked the essential life experience that adds to the wholeness of a person. Now, a "younger man" for me must be over 70 in order to meet the criteria for a meaningful relationship. The man that I married (the second time) was 7 years older and more than capable of keeping me envious and ever reaching for understanding of all that he knew ... .

I suppose what makes this post relevant would be the fact that it took at least 70 years to even begin to fully understand what it was that I needed for a sense of completion, and of how much of that was physical, emotional, or even available from outside of myself.

I'll bet Susan Sontag would understand what I'm talking about. Always wanted to share a cup of tea with that lady, but now it's too late ... .

Indeed, "age ain't nuthin' but a numba," and that numba becomes less and less relevant as the years pile on.

Photo: Beautiful very old ivory widow's bracelet Bill brought back to me from one of his Himilayan trips. The necklace is made of dzi stones from Tibet -- gifts from Lama Wangdor of Rewalser, India.
Okay, so I waited so long that I got busted!

Dorian's case manager called this morning to learn just why that call had never been made. She was doing followup as all good case managers should -- but suddenly I was in tears! All of the resistance that got bottled up behind my eyes now spilled in a non-stop rush of self-pity. How could we be asked to do this again, after all these years? Hadn't I lived out this separation many years ago, and why on earth should those aches be still so fresh and renewable as if I'd sent her away for the first time only yesterday?

It was obvious that this professional understood. I owned up to having "lost" that critical phone number and that I'd done nothing about investigating the new home, and she went on as though I'd said nothing -- as if this was not a new situation at all for her -- and that we would surely grow beyond the setback. It felt better. After some questions from me and answers from her to re-acquaint me with this housing opportunity, I was back in the saddle and ready to take some notes and make the calls.

What I learned this morning may have been what touched off my attack of resistance in the first place. The group home being recommended was situated in an area of the city that I know well from my work as a state representative. It has a somewhat dark reputation for safety and was isolated. The home was one for seniors so would be less than ideal for Dorian and her level of abilities and interests. She's interested in competitive athletics and visual arts and is used to more freedoms than I'm guessing she would have in a privately-operated group home. Maybe that's what sent me into limbo ... .This time I heard the words fully and my resistant had now found a home. My reactions had been instinctive, but now I realized that they have some foundation in reality.

If we're going to think of her next home as one where she would be living with elders rather than people more in keeping with her mental age (something I guess I've tried to give her), then some re-thinking needed to occur. She's far more like an late adolescent than an elder. There has obviously been significant growth over time. At one time she was far more like a child. Haven't given that much thought until now. I have no idea how she would be affected by being suddenly tossed into the life of a senior without having had the time to grow herself through mid-life. Maybe the system is not designed in ways that can allow for an orderly progression through time for the retarded. Maybe the system has to skip necessarily over this in its need to provide the best for the many and whatever it can for the few. Something to ponder ... .

That being so, I will now make the trip to visit the recommended group home (about which I am surely unenthusiastic) for the sake of simply being able to say that I'd done so. Then -- I'll give myself some time to think hard about how to weave us through the problem presented by that last paragraph -- there's something important here for which there has been little or no preparation. But my intuition has rarely led me astray, and the burial of that phone number had some hidden meaning that will surely be revealed over the next hours, days, or weeks.

I've about decided that a group home with seniors may not be appropriate, but an apartment in a complex for seniors may be quite adequate. There's one nearby; HUD-developed and quite nice. Eligibility requires that one be 55, I believe, still a ways off for Dorrie, but there are some tenants who have younger family members living with them. The head-of-household must be at least 55, I believe. She would be less than a block away -- still within walking distance of the mall that she loves, still eligible for transportation to and from NIAD, and with no need to give up possession of her much-loved and well-cared-for (2) cats.

There is a lovely little lake just at the bottom of the hill with occasional ducks to watch. It is a favorite dumping ground for feral cats who are fed daily by benevolent cat lovers who live in that complex.

I think that I've been rescued for the moment. At least I now understand better why I was so torn, and just why I couldn't make that call.

So saying, I'm off now to visit the not-quite-right group home, and then to learn what I can about that senior housing complex just across the way from here. I'm not sure that I can get them to make the exception to the age requirement, but her case manager may be able to handle that.

There is always some logical reason why, isn't there?

Betty the Seer