When my mother was in her mid-nineties, she began asking a lot of scientific questions: Why is the sky blue? What’s inside of a cloud? How does that crow over there pecking at a MacDonald’s French fry dropped on the side of the road recognize such a thing as food? How is it that, as trees grow taller, both sides stay balanced?
She was trying to catch up on things never taught at the small prairie town school she’d attended and had never thought to ask about, or perhaps might have been embarrassed to ask about, as she passed through her life in a series of only slightly larger Midwestern towns while raising children, keeping house, and now and then working as a telephone operator or in a shop.
Once she entered her nineties and settled in near me here in Portland, all barriers to seeking knowledge fell away. If she asked a question and I didn’t know the answer, which happened quite a lot, we tried to find out the facts together. Her curiosity fed mine, and also I became aware that something happens as we grow older: Unless a person is extremely foolish or just not paying attention, she will stop taking things for granted, especially the physical world, the very world, she realizes, that she is really not so deeply rooted in, after all. Sooner, rather than later, she’s going to be leaving it. What is this place? And how does that crow know that a French fry is for eating?
Reawakened curiosity or searching for a new life direction are two reasons more and more people over the age of sixty are now enrolling in college classes for free or for a pittance. Every state offers an opportunity once you reach a certain age. There are also free online courses on anything from Buddhism to activism to dinosaurs at a site called Coursera.
Because of failing eyesight, my mother did not take online courses, but I’m sure she would have loved them if she’d been able to do so. Through her last years, she continued to ask questions about her immediate world. Sometimes she turned from scientific inquiries to philosophical ones, including an ongoing inquiry about death. This began to drift into her conversations casually and unexpectedly, like a regular visitor who spent most of his time reading in the hall and now and then passed through on the way to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee or make some toast. She tried to look at things squarely, but admitted she was puzzled. In conversations about those we’d lost in our family, which was pretty much everyone by the time she was nearing 100, she once shook her head and asked, “Where are they?” She did not have religion, as the expression from her era goes. She’d never been interested in a formal structure that would tell her what to believe and what to cast aside, but from time to time she did say, “There’s something. I can’t call it God but there’s something.”
She began to use the word “precious” more and more frequently. If I brought her a rose, she’d gaze at it, lightly touch the petals, and declare the flower precious. I was precious as was my partner, Meg, and my friends who came by for visits. Some of the aides at the assisted living facility where she lived were precious, as well as a fellow resident with whom she’d become friends, her dining partner, Irene, who lived to 110. A tree outside her window, to which she had recited a poem she’d learned in childhood, “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, shimmied in a flutter of leaves top to bottom the moment she spoke the poem’s last word. This mysterious dance, too, was precious.
I listened as that word gained momentum, casting its net and catching hold of her world. This earth, its plants and animals and birds, various of its human members dear to her, its scientific facts and strange occurrences, all were precious in the truest sense, that is, of exquisite value.
It’s never too late to ask just where, exactly, we are and what we’re going to look into while we’re here. That’s the wisdom I received from my mother and the wisdom I’m trying to hang onto in old age as I ask my own questions. What a lot there is to gather close and hold as lightly as possible while exercising the maximum amount of curiosity and appreciation.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.