My great-Aunt Molly wore mismatched patterns and taught us that people raised in Ireland might not be the best source for edible lasagna.
It was her go-to meal whenever we came over. My sisters and I used to hide her uneaten mess in wadded up napkins or throw it out her dining room window when she wasn’t looking.
That wasn’t the only rude and awful thing we did to my elderly aunt. Or that I did. I was the ringleader and possibly the only perpetrator.
Molly couldn’t hear very well but refused to wear hearing aids, so I’d have my fun.
“Did ye’s eat dinner already?” she’d ask.
“We did!” I’d say. “Mom cooked the cat. And then we had spiders for dessert. It was delicious!”
She’d smile and tell me how nice that all sounded, and then I’d get in trouble with whichever adult heard me say the thing.
They all used the same punishing tactic, too, which was to say my full first name. That’s it. Just my name with a harshly pronounced “E,” which is where I believe most of the “Shut up” resided.
Looking back, I realize now that Molly never asked me to repeat myself. She just smiled pleasantly and pretended she could hear me.
Maybe she had already heard everything worth listening to in her life. Or maybe she knew that most of what gets said is nonsense and filler anyway. Or maybe she actually did hear me and got more joy out of letting alecks think they’re just so smart.
I have been thinking about Molly a lot recently because I’ve noticed that I keep asking people to repeat themselves, which is alarming. It either means I’m going deaf ahead of the curve or I’m suddenly more interested in the nonsense and filler.
Every TV and radio in the world still sounds too loud, though, so I think I’m good.
I generally don’t like to write about aging. It’s boring to me and I have nothing to add to the already-existing and generally accepted deprecation. Also, I learned everything I needed to know about it the day my then-husband, who was in Florida with his dying grandmother, unexpectedly handed her his phone so I could “say good-bye” to her.
“Liz,” his grandmother whispered into the phone, “don’t get old.”
Without thinking and with the sweatiest of pronunciations because I had never been asked to say good-bye to someone over the phone quite so literally before, I said “OK.”
Not to talk ill of the dead, but it wasn’t exactly great parting advice. I want to get old. Isn’t that the point of being alive?
Like anyone else, I suppose, I don’t want to be old. And that’s probably what she meant, now that I think about it.
Already, getting older for me has been the act of perpetually saying “Oh.” Of realizing that the kindnesses I didn’t extend to my aging family members are the very kindnesses I’m going to require — and maybe sooner than I thought.
I’m ashamed of myself for having committed the very worst of crimes in my book: That is, not counting another person’s experiences as real unless and until they’re your own.
I think back to the times I snapped at my mother for not being able to instantly recite the current ages of her siblings when asked, “How do you NOT know how old your own sister is? I mean, come on.” I think back on this at exactly the moment I hear myself say “Um ...” while I lamely and slowly perform calculations after being asked “How old are your sisters?”
I think back to impatiently waiting at the bottoms of staircases or the edges of blocks while my elders caught up, to rolling my eyes as they complained about aches and pains and politics, to mocking them for their 25 sets of reading glasses, to not understanding how someone could possibly be alive in 1984 and not know who Madonna is, to my father saying “WHAT?” after everything we said.
I’m never going to be like them, I used to think. I’ll take vitamins and I will always know what’s cool. Always.
Assuming I can hear the news, I guess.