A learner's permit to old age

Pearl-1947-ea.jpgThe note was written in a rickety hand on stationery depicting the Whooping Crane: America's tallest bird. "Dear El," it read, "I sold my car. After 70 years of driving, it's going to be strange. Love, Mom." Or maybe "Mother." I can't tell.

I greeted the news with relief. My mother is 85 and has macular degeneration. She struggles to read most websites and email that isn't delivered in 14-point, bold-faced type. Always an avid book reader, she now reads only volumes in large print that arrive by snail mail from the local library, courtesy of a program that has managed to escape the budgetary ax. A movie lover, mom can't read the newspaper listings without peering closely through a magnifying glass, and no longer goes to films with subtitles.

This woman should be driving a car like Karl Rove should be saving whales.

My mother is nothing if not a realist. She hasn't driven at night for several years, and has said in nearly every phone conversation since the summer that she was pretty sure she wasn't going to renew her license when it expires in January. She knew what she needed to do. But when you've never had to worry about how to get from here to there, when you live where mass transportation is the stepchild of the private automobile, when your physical decline irrefutably signals the demise of your independence, realism is not a refuge.

We spoke the day after the guy who bought her '89 Camry with 109,452 miles finally picked it up and drove away with her self-sufficiency. She recounted how she spent her last day of spontaneous mobility: She drove to a dentist appointment, then to Good Times for an uncharacteristic (but delicious!) fast-food burger, then to a sale at Argonaut Wine & Liquor. She did not see the irony.

She was suffering. Knowing that she did the right thing was cold comfort to knowing that she had a new roommate, Reliance on Others, and that after so long living alone, the adjustment was going to be difficult.

"I was so down yesterday," she said, "I spent the whole day lying on the couch. I've never done that."

No one described the aging process better than Bette Davis, whose oft-quoted "Old age ain't no place for sissies" pretty much sums it up.

My mom is not a sissy. She has learned to deal with infirmity and now must learn how to deal with loss of freedom. For many years now, the people in her life have learned (or not) to deal with an altered personality, or what I describe as "who are you and what have you done with my mother."

Pearl1013.jpgDespite the lack of a maternal role model -- her own mother committed suicide before she could read -- my mother was a wonderful parent to her young children, supportive, patient and enabling. But it was always clear that although my brother and I were the most important, we were not the only things in her life. She was a happy mother and wife, but nurtured an identity independent of both. And she was the temperamental antidote to my sometimes difficult father.

We were lucky.

But my mother is not the same woman I grew up with. A study published a few years ago in a journal for the Association of Psychological Science concluded that "personality traits continue to change in adulthood and often into old age, and ... these changes may be quite substantial and consequential."

Tell me.

My mother, the ultimate glass-half-full person, has grown crabby. Her younger enthusiasm has matured into bossiness. She's intolerant. She's unfiltered. The woman who preached respect for others can be astonishingly insensitive.

"That cat's gonna die soon," was her response to the news that my elderly pet was ailing.

Sometimes, age-appropriate memory loss fuels mean mom. When her niece couldn't recall where her grandmother's wedding ring was, my mother accused her of losing it. My cousin was crushed. In fact, 20 years earlier, mom had not given the ring to her, but to me.

My mom got old but not too old to manage all of her finances, not too old to play bridge and work crossword puzzles. Not too old to teach me, again, forever--if only I would learn--the value of compassion and tolerance. To teach me that when she says something alien, maybe she can't help it in the same way she can't help loving me.

She would have been a wonderful grandmother. But neither of her children gave her grandchildren, and although I know it is one of her biggest disappointments, she has never made us feel bad for depriving her.

Even in the face of physical deterioration, a shrinking social circle and a debilitating frustration with technology, my mother's glass remains half full. And if it's now more tonic than gin, well, as I told her on the phone the other day, next time I visit I'll take her to Argonaut for a refill.

"How?" she crabbed. "I don't have a car anymore."

"I'll rent one. Then we'll get a root beer float at A&W, and after that we'll go cruising for boys."

She laughed. A gift. Thanks, mom.

Photos: Pearl Alperstein in the 1940s

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