Toussaint column: Weighing the ungainliness and grace of age
This morning, while re-gluing the shelf our two-year-old cat Moki had knocked off the wall, I heard my 88-year-old husband shriek.
“Help me! Help me!”
I turned to find Mason trying to staunch a shower of dry spaghetti. It was raining down from a high shelf in our pantry as he struggled to stop it. Dropping the glue, I grabbed for the spaghetti clutched against his chest. As I bent down to seize handfuls splayed across the floor, I felt still more falling down the back of my robe. Moki, of course, came to investigate and “help.”
After unloading the vitamins, boxes and juice bottles from the closet, I trotted out the vacuum. As I sucked up broken spaghetti mixed with cobwebs and crumbs, I calmly commented that the closet floor needed cleaning. It really hadn’t had any attention for a couple of years, not since a box wine had leaked, splattering the walls, shelves and door with bloody Beaujolais.
No sooner had I put the vacuum back and reloaded the pantry than I heard another crash. Mason, opining that there was really “too much stuff” jammed onto the high shelf, had dropped a bottle of sun-dried tomatoes. This time, glass, oil and tomatoes splayed not only across the kitchen floor, but also into the dining room, hallway and inside the just-cleaned pantry.
The path into old age is littered with mishaps. It’s a bit of a regression. We seem to move from adult competence back into the klutzy awkwardness of adolescence, or even to the dependency of toddlerhood. But with luck and intentionality, as our physical skills wane, our wisdom waxes.
The detective novel I’m reading describes a dinner scene in which a youngster spills her milk. In reaching to save it, mom knocks hers over, too. Lieutenant Glitsky, who has mellowed while raising his second family, raises his own glass and says, “Let’s not have a meltdown.” He then pours his milk on the table, exclaiming, “Let’s have a milk-down!”
Most women who have raised children get plenty of practice dealing with milk-downs, tempests and tantrums. I haven’t had that, so I’ve had to make do with pets, elderly relatives and my own infirmities. My hearing was damaged in infancy, and nowadays, neither my vision nor my memory is as sharp as they once were.
I like to say, “I have been tested for patience, and found negative.” That’s been true for most of my life, but I think I’m improving. Although I didn’t have a meltdown over the broken shelf, or the spaghetti or the sun-dried tomatoes this morning, I didn’t reach the goal I aspire to — a kind of social graciousness I once experienced on the French Riviera.
The occasion was dinner in a Beaulieu-sur-Mer restaurant honored with several Michelin stars. I had been enjoying an aperitif in a sun-washed, flower-bedecked gazebo while awaiting our reservation time, but I still felt awkward and self-conscious. I grew up in Denver during an era when its cuisine ran heavily to fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. Unlike my then-husband David, a well-traveled amateur chef, I couldn’t speak a word of French. Not even “menu French.” I had no culinary background. I didn’t even know which fork to use. I feared I would prove an embarrassment.
When the maitre d’ invited us to follow him to the dining room, I inadvertently brushed against the side table holding my wineglass. A single-stemmed, glass-and-metal pedestal, it toppled with a loud crash. I was aghast. The impact spewed glass and regurgitated Cabernet across the floor. The white marble tile looked like a forensic scene. I dreaded David’s humiliating censure, and I’m sure it showed on my face.
Stepping nimbly through the minefield, the maitre d’ gently clasped my wrist. Leading me through the wreckage, he cheerfully exclaimed, “But Madame. To break a wine glass in France is the best of luck. You will be blessed.”
Alas, my response this morning fell short of that panache. But the maitre d’ was right; I am blessed: Our Saltillo tile is so variegated that culinary calamities don’t show. We still have plenty of spaghetti left for tonight’s guests. Neither of my boys — not the terrible-two feline who leaps up onto my shoulder to head-butt me nor the octogenarian has who served me morning tea for going-on-30 years — suffered a scratch.
These days, I don’t mourn over broken glass. I have lived long enough to understand the Buddhist saying, “Everything is already broken.” I also understand that it is love, not belongings, that need to be kept intact.
As my age and infirmities multiply, that bit of wisdom might just weigh enough to balance the scales.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent.