Getting ready for Phase Two

August 15, 2010 at 5:00 PM 3 comments

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Edward Albee wrote a play in the 1990s called Three Tall Women. One of the characters in it says that when a woman is young, she needs good looks; when she is middle-aged, she needs personality; and when she is old, she needs cash. In my head, where self-delusion builds sandcastles on the shoreline of my vanity, I am always that young woman. When I look in the mirror, though, I don’t flinch at the truth: Despite the blonde highlights and the Clarins eye make-up, I know I am putt-putting down the exit ramp from middle to early old age. And as with every stage in life, this one demands a re-framing of self-image.

To be honest, no mirror ever convinced me of the true and the obvious. All I have to do is think back to the days when I permed my hair or wore a pink lace camisole to a typesetting job before my son was born (What was I thinking). What finally compels me to take stock of myself is watching other people and realizing that the changes they are making in their lives are sensible because they are getting on in years. And then it hits me: So are you, babe.

Something’s wrong with Stephen

The most recent assault on my sense of time came when I ran into Rhoda* at the Whitehall, a luxury building of sorts near my home where I go to exercise. I first met Rhoda at a neighborhood park at the beginning of the PC boom. I was still fresh off the divorce boat and casting about for friends with kids my son’s age. Rhoda was friendly and had a three-year-old named Stephen. Moreover, she was the first mom I knew who loved computers. She owned a 286 desktop Commodore that she had loaded with Snapdragon, an early example of “edutainment” software.

Back then, I was always thinking of myself as beleaguered, so it was hard for me to see that Rhoda was in a leakier boat than I was. She and her husband Richard had waited a long time to have Stephen. The two of them were already in their thirties when they met at a bar in the Hamptons. To my eye, Stephen — and my son — looked like typical American boys with doting parents and access to technology that was going to make them whiz kids.

When you walk around thinking of yourself as flawed, everybody else around you looks so solid. Which explains why I could not see that Stephen was exhibiting signs of autism. I never really wondered why Rhoda and I stopped getting our kids together. I assumed it was because my son went to a Hebrew day school and Rhoda’s went — I didn’t know where. I assumed he went to the public school down the street from the Whitehall or to one of the big-name private schools in the neighborhood. Most of my acquaintanceships are short-lived anyway and as time passed and I didn’t run into Rhoda anymore, I didn’t give her and her family much thought.

On the day I ran into them outside the gym, Rhoda and Richard were moving to central Pennsylvania. They both looked older, of course (even though I haven’t changed a whit). They too were fundamentally unchanged except for an unmistakeable look of sadness in their eyes. They were leaving for good that very day to be closer to Stephen.

Thank God I didn’t make an idiotic comment, such as, “My son would hire a hit man if I moved within ten blocks of him.” Because I realized that I hadn’t seen Stephen around for nineteen or twenty years. And I recalled a long-ago remark from a mutual friend that “Rhoda and Richard are having some problems with Stephen.” As they headed past the gym to the parking garage, I did not ask either one of them any questions. I wished them well and said, awkwardly, that I hoped to see them again some day.

When do you pull the granny blanket over your knees?

At least two times in your life, you have to make a dramatic statement. The first is when you are young and untried. The second is when you are older and want to say one last thing about who you really are. Rhoda and Richard’s “last thing” is accepting that Stephen will never emerge from that institution in Pennsylvania. It’s a painful realization, and it’s decent and mature. I cannot help but wonder what major decision I will make in phase two of my life. If I were to get that teaching gig in Israel, could I leave my octogenarian parents to face their inevitable health crises alone? I have thought often about moving to south Jersey to be closer to them, but I haven’t figured out a way to do that yet.

Not that I’ve tried very hard. Because I still have that one last thing to do and I suspect it will not be quite so selfless as Rhoda and Richard’s last thing. The question is, how do you know when it’s time to settle into the rocker and pull the granny blanket up over your knees and when it’s time to go out with one last hurrah?

* I have fictionalized all names in this post.


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Image credit: Jane Luongo


Entry filed under: Bookpod, Emotions, Family, Friendship, Memory, New York City, Tenants. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pesha  |  August 16, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    Seems to me you’ve had more than 2 phases in your life and have responded with courage–masters degree, video course… looks more like Phase 5 to me!

  • 2. Janet  |  August 16, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    I don’t think it’s time for a granny blanket for you, Barbara, or for Rhoda and Richard necessarily. They are moving closer to Stephen, true, but that says nothing about what the tenor of their days will be – how much kaughter, how many new interests they might discover in their new environs.

    I like Albee’s statement, and it is true that we ned cash, but that is just one thing. Maybe that cash frees you to be and do all the other things you were too busy to be doing when running around for a cause or a mate or a child.

    • 3. modestine  |  August 16, 2010 at 10:54 AM

      No granny blanket for me. I’m still in a need-to-shake-things-up mode. — I like what you say about Rhoda and Richard starting out on a new phase of life that well might be good for them.


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