By Enid Medina, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®
She awkwardly leans against the rake, and as if she were pushing and leading a dance partner, she drags the rake and moves one large banana tree leaf. In one hand she struggles with the rake, in the other she holds a cane. At 85 years old, one can see that the years have taken their toll. Her skinny, dried frame of a body weighs all of 100 lbs., even with the rake and cane included. She continues her drag-rake, drag-rake motion until she is satisfied that many gigantic leaves have been cornered in her small scrap of a yard.
Collecting the many beads of perspiration that have come to stand at attention on her brow, she says, “Ya acabe” (“I’m done!”)
This is my Tia Delia (my aunt); living in Puerto Rico all her life, struggling to raise two children after her first husband left her and her second husband left her a widow, early on.
She is my aunt on my father’s side and over the years I have seen her indomitable spirit pick itself up, run a mini general store, purchase a home, walk several miles a day (she never learned how to drive) and bring up a family in the poverty that was Puerto Rico in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
I have always lovingly tucked Tia Delia in a special place in my heart. She had conquered that place ever since I was a little girl and has remained firmly there throughout the ages of my life. Admiration and awe might be better words to describe how I feel about her. On this, probably my thirtieth trip to Puerto Rico, I have come to really see her and understand by her attitude, that aging can be a time of progress, productivity and cause, or it can be terrifying and debilitating.
Tia Delia, now wracked by frailty, Parkinson’s disease and a slightly twisted body frame, still lives each day as if she had fifty more years to go. Her stance is one of perseverance and managing, by ignoring the day to day aches, pains, stiffness, shakes and other consequences of an aging body. She says she opens her eyes in the morning, scans her body mentally and before she scoots out of bed, she moves each limb as if to pump life through it, “calentando el cuerpo”, or revving up the body, as she calls it.
Yes, this is my dear Tia Delia! How much longer will I have her? When I am with her I feel safe and happy. I absorb her resilience and carefree nature. How did she acquire all this “good” stuff? She says she is a soldier of life, taking on each day as it comes, making the necessary adjustments and maneuvers to get through another day. Tia Delia admits to being slower and impeded in some ways, but she’s joyful each day that she wakes up.
“Gracias a Dios, estoy viva y no le temo a la muerte” (“I thank God That I’m alive, and I’m not afraid of death”), she preaches, and so on she goes…
I have for some time now had the feeling that I must write at least a short story about what it’s like getting older. I can only describe what it’s like for me personally, but I know that many women often ponder the same question.
Enthusiasm, energy and eagerness have always been a part of my psyche. I have lived my life up to now with contentment and purpose. Some of it is nature and the rest is nurture. I have it in my DNA, thanks to my mom and dad and his sister, Tia Delia. All three were and are positive enthusiasts when it came to living!
My younger years, 15 through 21 were filled with academia, fun, surprises, first jobs and naiveté. I married at 22 years of age and became a mother at 28. My husband and I didn’t change our life style much after becoming parents; we just included and took our daughter along with us, as we lived our life, giving her rich cultural, artistic and familial experiences. People always asked how we managed to keep our marriage fresh and how we maintained our closeness as a couple.
For me, it was a promise to myself that I would love, honor and cherish this beautiful man every day of my life. Our relationship has always been one of deep love, respect, communication and light heartedness. When our daughter came into our life, we became further bonded and promised to do our best for our child. We wanted her to feel loved, safe and proud of her parents and their relationship. I knew that this would greatly influence the relationships in her later life, so we made it a point to be good role models when it came to couple’s behavior.
So my late 20’s, 30’s and into my 40’s, life was good! I was strong, fit, career-oriented, and also I was a mom, wife, homemaker, etc. I did it all and I basked in the glory of what that all meant. It is important to be proud of yourself and toot your own horn, because we, as women, take on so much. We always deliver while putting ourselves second or further on down the totem pole of life.
I had been in the field of education since I graduated from college. I worked in an urban school district with all the problems that come with the package-poverty, despair, poor parental involvement, lack of supplies, large number of students, yada, yada, yada. But, being the incurable optimist, realist, the never give up hope, the persistent person that I am, I struggled forward and onward! I knew that no matter what my kids suffered in their lives, when they were with me, their life would be good, and it was! I treated my charges with tender loving care and I gave them something to hang on to for their future. My heart was into helping them, no matter the stressors involved, I had youth, energy, harmony and balance on my side. I chalked up many years in this endeavor.
Stressors are things, people or situations that, no matter how dedicated you are, will knock you for a loop! By now I was in my late 40’s and beginning to feel physically, emotionally and spiritually different. These differences are subtle and evasive and difficult to pinpoint, but as time marches on and you assess your life, you can take that pin and point these subtleties right out, as they crystallize and become more palpable.
First, my body was changing. I have always kept an exercise routine as part of my weekly practice, but even this didn’t keep the few pounds from creeping on. A smidgeon of an ounce on my arms, another on my thighs, hips, abdomen area, etc. The smidgeons added up to,”Oh no, my clothes are not fitting the same!!” I cringed at the ability to pinch more flesh around my tummy area. This leaves you feeling weird and as if your body is doing what it wants without your permission. You figure that you can eat as you’ve always done, exercise, and it would balance itself out. This is what would normally happen in your 20’s and 30’s and maybe early 40’s, but as the calendar pages are ripped away and we enter our 50’s, our body takes on a life of its own. Our hormonal infrastructure begins to dictate what will change next. Your middle spreads, your joints ache, your hair thins, your libido is on a roller coaster ride with no stops, mostly dips and you are screaming internally!! Who let the dogs out??
The 50’s bring a sense of fogginess and confusion. You still look good but your inner workings are huffing and clanking. Am I still beautiful, do I still attract my hubby; do I dare don that mini-skirt? I feel vibrant and young in my head but my outside shell is changing. No! I want to be able to have those male eyes follow me as I strut down the street, if only for a bit of a psychological boost.
In Puerto Rico there is an expression: ella es un coño (cohn-yo)/carajo (ka-ra-ho). The best way I could translate this would be: she’s a wow/goddam. This is a woman who from behind looks spectacular, that’s the coño/wow part and when she turns around and you can see her face, that’s the carajo/goddam part! You notice that her fine body does not match her face. She may be trim, well-dressed and refined looking from behind but on her face, she wears her true self, her life’s story. Her face may be lined, wrinkled and aging. Her hair is losing its battle with the hair dye, and gray is slowly conquering its birth right on her crown. She can color and re-color but the gray is relentless and comes back with a vengeance, as if saying— stop fighting nature, girl!
I feel like a coño/carajo at this moment in my life in some ways. I have youthful emotions, thoughts and feelings, yet a sense of being ridiculous wells up in me when I think of letting them out. I want to run, do cartwheels, hop, skip, laugh raucously, wear shorts, bat my eyes, giggle with a sideward glance, yet I do not. I want to, but my age seems to hold me back. A voice clamors, “Older women don’t do that, act your age”, and I cool my heels and freeze!
But on the other hand, I know that I am now wiser, more experienced and that I can see way beyond bends in the road and corners (figuratively speaking) and that I have earned my title of —-elder. I am a beautiful, learned, well-spoken crone, full of experiences, ideas, secrets and stories that would benefit those who wish to listen. I call on all the women out there who may be going through some confusion as you age; surrender to it, embrace it, let nature in, for it will give you peace, clarity and a sense of –this is the way it’s supposed to be.!
I take stock of my life up until this moment and cherish what it has given to me- a strong, healthy family, solid friendships, trials and triumphs, blessings, love, meaning, purpose and so on… The essence of all this is my life, and I can proudly share it with my daughter and any other young or old folk that may want to hear me and learn. Our younger generation needs their elders now more than ever!
Returning to my Tia Delia; she is now gone– but her grace, courage, unflinching spirit and strength still flow through me and have helped to solidify my spiritual essence. Que Dios te bendiga (may God bless you), Tia.
Growing older is inevitable, so I now approach it with poise, acceptance and nobility because it is what we make it to be…and it can be a magical, life-affirming journey. It also brings joy, light and surprises—- like grandchildren. All is well…and so it is.