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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age

My Mother's House

Conventions Of Age

Other People's Medicine

Compensations Of Age

Spending Of Time

Land Of Old Age

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

Young People And Old

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

Other People's Medicine

( Originally Published 1911 )

ANOTHER convention that shackles the lives of most older women is the methods which their grown children employ to conserve their elders' health. Each family has its own particular fetish as to what " Mother " ought to do for her health almost all older women who have their children living with them have to submit themselves to the hygienic fads of their sons and daughters. In my own case it is carriages ; they are the bane of my life. I could keep an accurate record of how years are crowding on me by the way my children send me around instead of letting me walk. When Margaret begins, " Colds are terribly prevalent at this time of year. Have you heard, Dudley, that Mrs. Sears has got pneumonia ? " then I know that she wants me to drive to the reception or wherever I am going.

To any one who has not passed from middle age into the place where people live who are already counted old, it may seem a far cry between Mrs. Sears's pneumonia and my having a carriage on a sunny fall day, but those who are living in that country where older people dwell will understand. To listen to our children talk to us, you might think that all we older people might live a thousand years if we only did all the tiresome, unpleasant things for our health that our children want us to do, and I suppose that I ought to be glad that my Margaret has a mania for carriages. That is the word for it, a mania. At the slightest excuse I am driven in a jolting, germ-laden, livery-stable hack to and from the reception, concert, or lecture or church. This procedure has saved me, according to Margaret, all the diseases and ailments of mankind except perhaps the bubonic plague, and if that disease were prevalent in our neighborhood, I dare say Margaret would find means of proving a carriage had saved me that.

Still, there are friends of mine whose daughters have so much more unpleasant ways of preserving their mothers' lives, that I should be glad that it is nothing worse than hacks.

My friend, Mrs. Wellington, for instance, is taken out and walked and walked about until she almost drops, because her children believe that people get old and stiff because they don't walk enough. As if it wasn't because they are stiff in their joints that makes them want to keep quiet !

Mrs. Granger is dreadfully afraid she will have to give up breakfast, which is a meal she has always especially enjoyed, just to keep peace. Every little turn of any kind that she has, her children put down to her liking for griddle - cakes and syrup in the morning, since they have gone in for the no-breakfast fad.

She says that every time she eats a good comfortable breakfast, the family sit around with faces as long as her arm, and she is just on the point of giving in, although she knows it will be bad for her.

Mothers cannot bear to see their children worried and distressed, and it is here that we are as much at our children's mercy as we were when they were little things at our knee and could always get around us with tears welling to the eyes and quivering upper lip.

When Margaret spoke last about a carriage, she had a little worried _expression on her brow that was so like Margaret when she was two years old that I would go to church in a hay-wagon to please her. I never could bear to see that little puzzled, distressed look on her face. So I submitted with fairly good grace to the proposition that I should go to Mrs. Carter's reception in the hack. I made a little protest, however, because, unless I did that, I should soon lose the use of my legs altogether and perhaps degenerate into a person who has to be pushed around in a wheel chair before I am much older.

I said:

"Well, Margaret, I will go today just to please you, but the next time I am going to use my own judgment about it. I have been going in a carriage all summer to avoid sunstroke and apoplexy, and now that fall has come, I must avoid pneumonia and tonsillitis, and in the winter I shall be avoiding slipping on the ice , but there's got to be some cranny in the year when I can go to places on my own two feet."

But while I will submit to carriages, I will not submit to everything, and I draw the line at a trained nurse every time I am a little ill. Recently I sent one of them flying, and while I might have made the scene easier for every one, still it did me good to get rid of that woman in the summary way I did, or, rather, made Margaret do; for this was one of the occasions when I shirked and took advantage of one of the privileges age gives us. Indeed, I went so far as to tell Margaret that the trained nurse or I would leave the house.

Of course, when I am really ill and prostrate, and have to be watched at night, then I am willing to have all the discomforts to say nothing of the needless expense of having such a woman about. But when I am well, or pretty nearly well, to have a capped and aproned and uniformed woman, with a strong, dominant will, following my every footstep and bringing me inpalatable things to eat every two hours, why then, I shall always rebel, as I have done this time.

I said to Margaret : " This illness has been a trying one to me in every respect. I have never had to keep in my bed any longer than a morning at a time since you were born. I have lain in bed now six days ; three of these days I might as well have been up.

At which Margaret replied: " I am sure you are better for the rest, darling."

I know I 'm not. The reason I know this is that the last three days, whenever the nurse and Margaret left me alone to go down and get some unpleasant eatable from the kitchen for sae, I got up and sat in my rocker at the window, which rested my back, though I hated to hurry back to bed, as of course I had to do whenever I heard them coming. So I might just as well, as you can see for yourself, have been up and dressed all the time, without having the nervous strain of listening for their return.

Then, too, the first day I was ill, I dressed and went downstairs. Everybody made a great outcry, and they sent for the doctor again, for the sole purpose of making me do as they said.

He is a very sensible young man, and I approve of a great many of his ideas, but at the same time, like most of the modern school, he carries much too far the modern theory of keeping a person in bed until his muscles grow weak and his back aches, though, of course, he is not nearly so unreasonable about this as my own children.

" I'd like to ask you a simple question, Doctor," I said to him when he told me that, as long as my temperature was above normal, I would have to stay in bed. " How do all the workingmen do all the people with livings to earn when their temperatures go to 102?"

He pretended, when they have a fever, that even workingmen have to stay at home first or last; but I don't believe it. When people have to earn a living, nothing will convince me that they pop thermometers down their throats every time their stomachs get upset.

What neither the doctor nor my children understand is that I know more about matters concerning my own health than any one else. During my long life I have, of course, had my ups and downs of health like other people, and with the advancing of years, especially the last three, my strength and endurance have lessened perceptibly, and I, like other middle-aged people, have had to give myself care, so I have learned pretty well what things to avoid and how to treat my own idiosyncrasies.

During this illness, how I longed for scme of those old, easy-going days, when, even though I didn't feel well, I managed to get downstairs and sit quietly around with my book or even have a whiff of fresh air; and how I longed for the days when I lay down or sat up as I felt inclined, instead of lying rigid and aching in my bed, watched like a cat by a strange woman from morning till night and from night till morning. How I disliked that cot put up in my bedroom for her to sleep in!

And this was not the worst of it. It seemed to me as if that woman deliberately hid all my things. One would think, for instance, that, having made a painful attempt to do my hair, and she almost pulled out the few remaining strands that are left me, and with which I am naturally unwilling to part, it would have occurred to her to replace the brush and comb and other articles where she found them. When I slipped out of my bed to do my own hair in a comfortable way, I could find nothing whatever to do it with; all my toilet articles, which ordinarily I could have put my hand on in the dark, had disappeared. I looked all over the room for them; they had vanished utterly as if she had swallowed them. I wandered up and down, trying to find them, and, I will confess, so vexed that I hadn't any ears for Margaret's approach.

When she came into the room and found me up, she exasperated me still more by saying, " Why, darling, how did you happen to be up? Why didn't you let the trained nurse get whatever you wanted?"

" Margaret," I said, " keep that woman out of here for fifteen minutes, because I don't want to say anything that I shall be sorry for later. I suppose she does what she conceives to be her duty, but a more disorderly and illtrained woman it has n't been my lot to meet. Where 's my toothbrush? Where are my brush and comb? What has she done with my licorice tablets? And I can tell you frankly that if she has touched my pen and paper, even though I don't want them now, I shall have to tell her what I think of her. Be so kind as to find my brush and comb so that I can do my hair with some comfort. Trained nurses ought to be taught not to do one's hair up in wads and make them feel like English walnuts to lie on ! "

I don't pretend that this was a gracious speech, and it is not the way that

I usually feel or talk to any one, especially to my daughter. I merely quote myself to show to what a state of exasperation a woman of my age and training may be driven. That woman was there to take care of my health; the reason I suffered her about me at all was to save my family anxiety. But it is extremely trying for a woman of my years, except in cases of the most dire necessity, to have fussing about her person an outsider who upsets all her little personal ways; meddles with her personal belongings, and renders her far more uncomfortable than comfortable. I am sure that my temperature remained above normal partly through the continual irritation that I suffered because of these things.

Then, too, I know it was not good for me to have to watch every chance to slip out of bed to brush my own teeth. Brushing my teeth in bed, or, worse still, allowing some one else to brush them for me, is a thing which I should have to be far sicker than I have ever been to have happen to me. When I give up getting out of bed to brush my teeth of my own accord, then my children may know I 'm really ill, and can send, if they like, for a day nurse and a night nurse, for I shall be past caring how many troublesome and disorderly women I have about me.

Three times in one night she got up to ask me if I spoke, or if I wanted anything, just because I cleared my throat as it's my habit to do. Finally I said to her : " Miss Jenkins, if you came to my bedside less often, my chances of going to sleep would, I think, be greater, and I 'm sure it is better for your health as well as mine for you to remain in your own bed."

All of which shows under what a nervous pressure I have been forced to live. I explained my point of view to Margaret after the departure of the nurse. I said to my daughter : " Margaret, I 'm taking five kinds of pills and tonics, and as I've lived with my own stomach now a large number of years, I am perfectly sure that the reason why my appetite remains so poor is that I 'm constantly dosing, and you need bring me no more of those strychnine tablets and you can put the pepsin away, and as for the liquid things in bottles, I won't take them either."

I stuck to this for quite a little while, but Margaret had got it into her head that my whole life and existence depended on a few little pasteboard boxes of pills. Lines that I don't remember having seen in her face since Betty was so ill appeared there. Finally, she came to my bedside and took my hand and said : " Mother, I simply can't bear to see you trifling with your health in this way, and I don't think it's fair to us to do as you are doing. You can't get well, and you can't get strong, unless you will take care of yourself."

Her tone and her whole manner touched me, and I saw what people who live in the Land of Old Age sometimes forget, how great and pressing the things we know to be of little importance seem to our great, grown-up sons and daughters. There was in Margaret's tone and in her attitude almost that poignant agony that a mother has over her sick child.

She could not bear to have me sick.

I saw then that each meal that I could not eat, each time I did not take my medicine, even my just rebellion against my trained nurse, had taken from her a little of her strength and vitality.

It is hard, when one is ill and suffering one's self, to realize the extent to which this reacts on those about us, especially for us older people. I had a quick vision of Margaret's seeing me walking off wantonly, needlessly, into the land of shadows. I know, of course, that when the day comes, pills and trained nurses and gruel will not retard my footsteps, and I shall very much like to pass through the series of minor illnesses that may be before me in my own way, comfortably, without too much nagging and without having my hair-brushes hidden, or having to lie in bed when I know it is bad for my back. But after all, I think I saw on that morning that my annoyances had been small compared to Margaret's anxieties. She threw aside for the moment the smiling " You-will-be-better-tomorrow " mask that she had consistently assumed from the beginning of my illness, and I realized for the first time that the week had been one where shadowy fears had pressed about her, taking from her her gayety, her confidence. Each time I had sprung from my bed to get something I wanted, she had seen the shadows about me each moment of my weakness had whispered desolation to her.

I thought of the long evenings that she and Dudley had passed together, discussing with the trained nurse my shortcomings and my willfulnesses, and I saw that my small rebellions had been to her not small rebellions at all, but willful throwing away of so many of the days that it may be yet permitted us to pass together.

For one moment I was almost sorry that I had sent that woman away, but that moment of weakness did not stay long, because, after all, it's I who will have to be the judge of how to lengthen out the span of those days. At the same time, as we sat there together in silence, Margaret holding my hand and I looking at the anxious lines in her face, I made up my mind to take the pepsin and the strychnine and all the other things that they make such a fuss over.

So I told Margaret when she implored (and I can't translate to you her accent of anxiety), " Now do take the medicine the doctor left for you ; it certainly will strengthen you," "I will, Margaret."

But even then a flicker of spirit rose in me ; for all of Margaret's and Dudley's agonizing, I'm not dead yet, very far from it, and it 's very seldom that I get a good chance to influence my children's lives. So that is why I said to my daughter :

" Margaret, I can see that you are very anxious about me. But I'm equally anxious about you, though I don't presume to nag you and make such a fuss about it. I will take the tablets and the tonics and the powders, and even the horrid things put up in gelatine capsules, which are as hard to swallow as any hen's egg in its shell, if you will make a few concessions on your part: that heavy tailored skirt that you've been wearing I know is the cause of your backache. Will you promise me to put it aside, for a while anyway ?"

"Yes, mother," Margaret agreed.

" And will you try to eat your meals more regularly ? " (For Margaret has been doing a great deal of outside club work, and half the time comes home to lunch ten or fifteen minutes late, when all the meat is cold and spoiled, and I know that it will injure her stomach in the long run.)

" Margaret," I said, " I've studied the rules of health for a great many years, and as you are fond of boasting,

I'm in pretty good condition as a rule, considering my time of life and the things I'ye been through. So if I'm to do what you want me to, I think it is only fair that you should, in smaller matters, be guided by me a little bit and this sitting and reading so far from the light and spoiling your eyes is a thing that has got to be put a stop to, if I am to take another strychnine tablet."

Margaret agreed readily to all these things. It may seem to you that I was taking an unfair advantage but I do my share of silent worrying on my own side, and it seemed to me only fair exchange, because undoubtedly it will benefit my health to be saved these small anxieties, besides benefiting Margaret's.

Margaret agreed readily because I

hink she saw the reasonableness and justice of my remarks.

" May I bring you tapioca now ? " she asked at the end of my talk.

" No, Margaret," I replied. " I am going down to dinner today, and I am going to eat some solid food - things that I want to eat, which I know will be much better for my health."

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