Friday, September 20, 2013

Excerpt: Greedy for Life: A Memoir on Aging with Gratitude by Lori Stevic-Rust

Growing up, we called her Gram, but after the great-grandchildren were born, they started to call her Nana. The name stuck for all of us. Nana, or Emily Bernice Sitosky Serian, is a beautiful blue-eyed Polish woman. While her eyes are striking, it is her smile that draws you to her. The warmth of her thoughts radiates through her smile. When she laughs, her mouth is open wide without embarrassment as the sounds come from deep within. That same mouth can smile with pride, showing softness around the corners and with a gentle turning up of the lower lip her mouth reveals comfort and compassion during periods of sadness. Ironically, she is most self-conscious about her mouth, particularly the deformity of her upper lip. The scar she tries to hide with lipstick has been with her since her baptism day. Her godmother had pinned the collar of her blouse together with straight pins, apparently a common practice among women back then, and during the baptismal service, she picked Nana up and put her over her shoulder to comfort her. The straight pin went deep into Nana’s upper lip, and without antibiotics, it became infected. The doctor cut the infected area away, leaving a missing piece in her upper lip.

Today Nana stands about five feet, even with her shoes. She has lost several inches over the years, thanks to her severe osteoporosis, which has left her with a significant arch to her upper back. At five foot three I feel very tall next to her. I brag about it. She reminds me that her excuse is osteoporosis, what is mine? But she can boast about her incredible skin. It is soft, light in color, even in tone, with only a few wrinkles near her mouth. Her eyes reveal the path of her years of laughing and smiling. She attributes the integrity of her skin to the years of buying expensive and exotic face moisturizers, which she still uses today. In fact, her one and only visible age spot seems out of place on her face. When she notices it in the mirror, it annoys her, but she begrudgingly admits that, “One ain’t so bad for a one-hundred-year-old lady.” That’s right. Nana just turned one hundred years old.

While her face does not reveal her age, her hands do. Physically they are smaller, more fragile, with almost transparent skin revealing the blue lines of her veins. The joints in her hand have begun to curve under, creating a closed appearance. They look frail. But when I watch her use them, they are the same hands I remember from when I was a child. They reveal a lifetime of hard work. Below the paper-thin skin there are remnants of the strong and sturdy muscles that once worked the family farm. Her chores as a young girl on the farm were every bit as physical as those of her brothers, including milking cows and plowing the crops. Then of course there is my personal favorite childhood story she would tell about her responsibility for preparing the chicken for the family dinner. This lovely mealtime preparation began with her selecting the chicken from the coup, chasing it around in the yard, then “twirling” it until she could successfully snap its neck. This was followed by chopping off its head and pulling out the feathers before handing it off to her mother to cook. True story. We stopped letting Nana tell bedtime stories to the great-grandchildren.

Her hands not only worked the farm as a child, but also physically labored throughout all of her adult life. She worked long shifts in a Laundromat, in a diaper service company, in a factory, and cooked and cleaned in the family’s own restaurant. At the age of eighty-five, she was still doing gardening work, canning tomatoes, and was even caught once pulling shingles off a roof. But the surface of her hands, the skin that touches you, is quiet and soothing. She still uses her hands in the most unique way that it is visibly noticeable by all who meet her. Whether she is applying moisturizer, cutting fruit, holding babies, or making noodles, her hands move with both surgical precision and gentle, oh so gentle deliberate care.

I did not inherit her beautiful blue eyes or her blonde hair, but I did get her voice. The voice can best be described as raspy and hoarse sounding. In fact, people will often ask if I have a cold when they hear me speak for the first time. Depending on who is asking, I may explain that it is my normal voice; it’s actually my grandmother’s voice, I may add with pride. Or I may admit to a cold that I don’t have to spare the asker the embarrassment. My husband thinks it is sexy. Personally, I think it comes from the acid reflux disease that I also inherited from Grandma, but it’s good that it sounds erotic to him. When I hear my voice after a television interview or on a recorder, I smile at the harsh, squeaky, rough sound. It’s her voice. I not only sound like her but I am privileged to hear her voice in my head.

I put my briefcase down and stepped into the living room, where I snuggled up on the couch next to Nana and we began to talk about our day. I went on and on about the amount of work and how much I didn’t complete, and then again asked the rhetorical question, “Where does time go?”

She smiled and said, “I was thinking the same thing.” She added, “Every time I looked at the clock today, it seemed to move so slowly and the day seemed so long.” Incredible. The cycle of life—time moves slowly, time moves too fast, and then it returns to moving slowly. Nana went on to talk about how difficult aging can be when you want to do more things then you are able to do, when you want to spend time on those things that make you feel productive and satisfied. I suddenly felt sad for her and a little ashamed of myself. I realized that I too will one day sit wishing that time would move quickly when I am no longer able to do the things that I love and the things that make me feel productive and valued. I’m reminded that time went on before me and will certainly go on after me…I am only afforded a sliver of that time. My sliver to date has been almost fifty years. Yep…I am about to turn fifty years old, and that is what all this musing about time and age is about.

More recently, I find myself taking time, making time, to reflect on how in the world I was to become fifty freaking years old soon. Even as I put it to print, I can’t believe time has passed that quickly. I know that is what everybody says—well, mostly old people say it. You rarely hear a twenty-five-year-old saying, “Oh my, where has the time gone.” I think that is because they know exactly where it has gone. They can account for the years, often with great detail.

Here it is almost fifty years for me and one hundred years for Grandma. If I am as fortunate as she to live a long life, I may be at my halfway point. What a thought. Perhaps fifty more years to live...what will I do with them? And if I have less than fifty years, what should I be doing with them? I guess this is what we mean when we talk about a midlife crisis. It’s a turning point, a reality check, a time to pause and reflect on life. Will the things that I truly valued and wanted in the first half of my life be the same for the remainder of my life? I suspect they won’t, and I think that is probably a healthy and expected thing, but the unknown of it seems a bit unsettling.

I feel a sense of urgency when I think about time moving and the things I still want to accomplish. I don’t want to keep looking at the clock. I want to look at my reflection in my children, in my family, my friends, and my patients. I want to know that I have embraced my grandmother’s philosophy, “Be greedy for life.” She has spent her life absorbing moments like a sponge so they could sustain her later; giving, always giving, so she could feel good about what she was getting; and loving, not just the easy kind of loving, but genuinely loving people that I often thought were not worthy of her love. But it never stopped her. Carrying a grudge or a hurt seemed to be a waste of time…precious time for her.

Throughout her aging process (which for her I think started at the age of ninety when she moved out of her home in Akron, stopped driving, and moved in with my parents), she would often say she was not ready to die, but promised to let us know when she was getting ready.

“Lori,” she said, “I always wanted to live long enough to see you graduate, and then I wanted to be here to see you get married, then to have babies. Then I thought I would be satisfied. But now I want to see my great-grandchildren graduate and get married and rock their babies. Time…there will never be enough. I will always want more, to see more, and to be part of more. I’m greedy for life.”

I believe that she still feels that way, but I have recently noticed that some of her physical energy is fading, and with that some of her emotional energy and her greed for life have begun to fade as well. Our conversation on time continued a bit more, and then our eyes met and she said, “I wonder what kind of time I have left.”

Now, being a psychologist and relatively sensitive and an emotionally strong person, I handled this comment with all the grace I could muster. I responded, “You have as much time as I decide, old lady. I will tell you when it is OK for you to die.” We both broke out laughing until we cried. She then added, “OK, then in the meantime, maybe we both should stop looking at the clock. Time is not always kind.” I agreed.

My connection with my grandmother was born out of fate and destiny. I say this in a somewhat melodramatic fashion, but the story of how we met or almost didn’t meet convinces me I am right in believing we were destined to share our time on earth.


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Genre – Memoir

Rating – PG13

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