Tag Archives: older women

Alternative retirement planning

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Once upon a time I wrote a personal finance column for a South African daily newspaper. The column was called “Smart Money”, and every week I used it to yatter on humorously about stocks, bonds, money markets and such esoteric entities. It was fun. I got invited to insurance company shindigs and had lunch with movers and shakers like the head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and they would ask my opinion about the economy, and listen with interest as I repeated whatever I could remember from the last shindig or lunch I’d attended.

Fun, but also scary. I was constantly aware that, at any moment, I could lose my conversational balance and plummet like a sheep out of a tree.

My friends and family thought this was the funniest thing of all the absurd things I’d ever done. In fact, the only time I ever generated more whoops of appalled laughter was a few years later, after I’d moved to the US, when I got a job driving a school bus. According to the people who claim to love me, the only thing I do worse than manage money is drive.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and pondering how much easier it is to give great advice than to follow it. Take my “Smart Money” column, for example. I knew I was entirely unqualified to advise people where to invest, or to forecast economic trends. But I figured out pretty damn quick that many of my readers were people who had accumulated money by being good at whatever they did, but were as clueless as I about how to make their money grow. They were widget-makers and dream-sellers, not investors. So instead of competing with those much cleverer columnists who pontificated knowledgeably about this or that investment opportunity, I kept just one step ahead of my readers by hearing terminology I didn’t understand, getting boffins to explain it to me, and passing along what I’d learned at a rate of about 750 words a week.

Unfortunately none of this knowledge actually stuck, in the sense of me personally doing anything with it. As a result I’m now hurtling inexorably toward 60 – 70 – 80 sans safety net or parachute. The Hubbit is a fair bit older than I am, so when he retired we chose the larger-pension-for-the-rest-of-his-life option, rather than the very much smaller-pension-until-whichever-of-us-lives-longer-snuffs-it option. Not to be ghoulish about it, I’m expecting a decade or so of widowhood (preferably later rather than sooner). I’ve always assumed I’d be the merry sort of widow – like this one:

Seniorin mit Hund am Laptop, auf Wiese liegend

Okay, so she’s not merry, exactly. Poking around Adobe’s stock photos I found lots of beaming bints with gray hair, kicking up their heels or frolicking on the beach. But this is my kind of happy. Dog, laptop, solitude, trees. That’s plenty merry enough for me.

Not like this one…

Homeless elderly woman sleeping rough in a park

If I’m ever homeless, I hope I at least have a dog.

Only … a question that lately has been coming to mind with disconcerting frequency is, “How?”

I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with all the old farts you went to school or varsity with, way back in the Pleistocene … and they all seem so darn stable. Settled. Secure. A nice house in the suburbs, a holiday cottage here, an overseas trip there. How did they do it?

I seem to have lived my life just outside the masquerade ball. I can hear music and tantalizing scraps of conversations, I can smell food and perfume, I watch the dancers flirt from behind their masks and fans. I think I was invited but … ehhh … my mask makes my nose sweat. If I tried to dance I’d be like a sheep in a tree – baa-aa-aah, two, three, plummet.

Abandoning that strangely mixed metaphor and getting back to my point (I think I have one; I must just keep circling until I close in on it) … it’s clearly too late for me to spend my adult life preparing for old age.

For a while, until a couple months ago, I thought I’d get a job. After all, I’ve spent a lot of years doing a bunch of interesting things – not just journalism and tech writing; I’ve also started and run several businesses, a mission school and a dog rescue, some of which turned out well and taught me all sorts of useful skills. So now that I’m willing to let some plutocrat chain me to a desk for 40 hours a week in return for health insurance and enough money to pay down our mortgage, wouldn’t you think prospective employers would stare in awe at my résumé and exclaim, “Wow – you’re clearly a flexible, innovative problem-solver! We need you on our team right now!

We-e-ell, no. As it happened, their response tended to be more along the lines of “Seriously? WTF is this?” And, even more worrisome, every time someone turned me down I felt quite dizzy with relief that I’d evaded having to sit down at the same desk at the same time surrounded by the same people every day, regardless of whether or not I wanted to.

I’ve pondered getting back into freelance technical writing, but the problem with that is, you have to market yourself. Back in South Africa when I partnered with my bestie, Twiglet, she slapped on face paint, donned a pantsuit with a nice brooch and high heels, and topped it off with an elegant hairstyle, and clients had no difficulty at all taking her seriously. I, on the other hand, with my swirling caftans and my hair falling out of a bun? Not so easy to sell to go-getting executive types. Plus I hate it.

So the fruit of my recent ponderings is as follows.

First, the masquerade ball is almost over. The dancers are getting tired; some have already left. I didn’t want to go when it was in full swing; why would I go now at the draggy tail-end of the party? Baa-aa-aah-plummet – and then what?

Second, I kinda like what the Hubbit and I have managed to pull together in our small corner of the planet. It’s shabby and untidy and a tad heavy on the dog hair, but I’d rather spruce it up (or not) than replace it.

ants and grasshopper

Third, in nearly sixty years of rarely worrying about tomorrow, this grasshopper has never gone hungry. I guess God likes the sound of my fiddling; at any rate, He’s provided for me this far, and I continue to do my grasshopper best to please Him. (I understand the moral of the fable; I’ve just never liked it. Those ants are a miserable, self-righteous, mean-spirited bunch – why would anyone want to be like them?)

So I have decided: enough with the worrying and pondering. Definitely don’t start with the wishing and regretting. I’m grabbing whatever time I have left and doing what I love.

In other words, work on my book continues, y’all! It’s called “A is for Affenpinscher”, and it’s the first in a series of 26, which is enough to keep me busy for a while. This first one is going slower than I like because I’m having to take time to walk in circles and get acquainted with the various characters, and then make notes so I don’t get them mixed up. But it’s moving along quite nicely; I’m having fun with it and look forward to putting it out there.

Speaking of which, two months from today is the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The cost of attending is wince-worthy, but it provides an opportunity to meet with 22 – yes, twenty-two, that’s two hands plus two thumbs up – editors and agents, all a-tremble with their eagerness to sign up fresh talent.

In two months I can finish writing the first book in the series, map out the second, and maybe overhaul a completely different manuscript (a YA fantasy) that I set aside years ago when I realized it needed … oh well, I’ll spare you the details, but I have to do a shitload of research in the form of gaming, which scares me a bit because what if I get addicted?

So, anyway, that’s my retirement plan. If you think it’s a little nuts, you’re probably right. On the other hand, look what I found in my fortune cookie tonight!

Fortune cookie

It’s a sign, right?

If you’re a gamer, which game would you recommend for fantasy, quests and magic? And, regardless of whether or not you’re a gamer, how do you plan to spend your declining years?

Marmeee’s Day

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The memories come like random pricks and stabs during the first year. First Washington summer without her. (I used to send her half-brags about our increasingly high temperatures, and she’d moan about being cold.) First South African spring without a picture of her hoya, its soft pink clashing with our garish autumn oranges and yellows. First snowfall – she so enjoyed the snow, the year they stayed with us. First Christmas. She missed her 83rd birthday, and my 59th, and their 60th wedding anniversary.

And, today, the first Mother’s Day, coinciding with the first anniversary of her death. It seemed like a cruel coincidence, but then I got to thinking about her, and about Mother’s Days with her, and other celebrations, and I couldn’t stay sad.

I’ve always loved eating in bed. I’m not at all sure she felt the same way – she was one to get up and grab hold of the day – but every Mother’s Day and birthday I insisted on giving her breakfast in bed, and it never crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best treat in the world. She wasn’t allowed out of bed until it arrived, typically several hours after her normal wake-up time. No, she had to relax, enjoy the lie-in, of course not make her own tea! What an idea! I guess she learned to listen for me stirring awake so that she could quickly hide the evidence of that essential first cup of the day, and jump back into bed before I tottered down the passage to check on her.

I don’t know what age I was when I started this tradition, but I do remember my favorite meal, which we quite often had for Sunday supper. It was easy to make, and so delicious that it was the obvious choice for any special occasion. For several years, every single Mother’s Day and birthday, I fixed it for her, and then I’d sit at the end of the bed, beaming with pride, and watch her eat every … single … mouthful. It never crossed my mind that (cold, mashed) sardines on (cold, leathery) toast might not be her favorite way to start the day.

After a few years I graduated to cooking eggs, and I rallied my younger siblings to help prepare the ultimate breakfast tray. We prepared every breakfast in the same way. First, we made and buttered the toast. (It was a while ago, but I think buttering it was the Stranger’s job.) Then, while the toast waited on a cold plate, I fried the eggs. Lastly I boiled water, heated the teapot, and made tea. We laid this all out on the tray and paraded to the bedroom, the Egg toddling in last of all with a flower in a vase.

She ate every cold, greasy mouthful of those breakfasts too, washing them down with gulps of mercifully hot tea.

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The flowers on the left are from me. You can tell by the pink carnation.

I grew old enough to have my own money and go shopping alone, and breakfast in bed gave way to bunches of pink carnations. I’m pretty sure she didn’t particularly like carnations but she got them anyway, and when the Girl Child was born, that’s what she sent me.

Those carnations arrived while I was still in the nursing home. She followed them a few days later, having flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town to help us get settled into the house baby Girl Child and I shared with three other girls and a total of six dogs. I learned later that she’d had to throw quite the tantrum to be allowed to come… The Old Buzzard wasn’t pleased to have grandfatherhood unceremoniously thrust upon him. It wasn’t the first time she’d set herself as a small, determined buffer between him and me, however, and she got her way. I, of course, was oblivious to the fuss, aware only of the tremendous comfort of her presence, reassuring me – in the face of all probability and in defiance of her private fears – that I’d be fine, that I’d be a good mother, that everything would be okay.

Every afternoon while she stayed with us in Muizenberg she announced that she needed some alone time, and was going for a walk. I would generously encourage her to take the dogs along for company. It was years before I fully comprehended her indifference to dogs. She never said a word in argument – just leashed up all six and bobbed in their wake down Ventnor Road and to Sunrise Beach, like a small, anxiously squeaking balloon.

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Sunrise Beach, Muizenberg

Oh Marmeee … you left such a rich trove of memories! I love to dig through them, fingering, admiring and sorting them the way I used to play with your big tin of buttons, lying on the carpet next to you while you sewed. You were sewing and I was lying on the carpet, a band of sunlight across my back, when I discovered that I could read without moving my lips. Another time, you sat sewing on a chair in my bedroom, while I was in bed with yellow jaundice, and you told me about sex. You were embarrassed, and I was appalled; I’d thought the girls at school were joking!

She sewed a lot. Was that necessity, or did she actually enjoy it? Dresses for me – those damn Butterick princess line dresses that I hated, but she said they were slimming. I wanted flared skirts, circular skirts, in gaudy parrot colors, and at last she gave in and made them for me, and never said they made me look fat. Later she made me caftans; they make me look like a ship in full sail, and I love them and wear them every hot summer day.

Her home felt like a sanctuary, even when money was short, and especially when the Old Buzzard was tearing it apart in order to put it together again. One year she made light shades, one out of papier-mâché and another out of string and flour paste. She did batik and macramé, she crocheted blankets and made candles. She talked to plants and they grew for her. She expressed a liking for owls and unintentionally acquired a collection.

She sang, not quite as well as her mother but better than I. For years she sang in a choir; as long as I knew her – until cancer stole her breath – she would break into song in supermarkets and in the car and while gardening or cooking and just because. Now I do it. I wonder if the Girl Child does.

She wanted to be an actress, but settled for secretary. This paid off for me in my final year of school, when I took part in an essay contest – 50 typed pages on “The Press – Something-or-other of the People”. As usual I’d procrastinated; three days before deadline I’d completed the first of four sections perfectly, and had nothing else but a collection of notes. The night before it was due, we stayed up all night in her office while I scrawled and dictated and she typed. Every hour or so I’d raid the kitchen for sugary snacks to keep us going. I’ve never read the essay, but it won me a book voucher that I spent on the collected works of TS Eliot, which I have read.

Years ago, as we were getting ready to run away together for a rare few days without the Old Buzzard, she commented how much she was looking forward to some alone time. I hastily assured her that I wouldn’t be getting in her hair – that she mustn’t hesitate to tell me if she needed me to disappear with the Girl Child for a couple hours. “Oh, I don’t mean you,” she scoffed. “Being with you is as good as being alone.” If you get why that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had … well, then, you’re our kind of people.

It’s nearly midnight. Mother’s Day is nearly over. The first year without her … nearly over. And this is what I’ve learned: She isn’t gone. She’s in me. I kill plants and I hate sewing and I’d sooner stick a fork in my eye than learn macramé, but a few minutes ago the Girl Child WhatsApped me a message that began, “Argh I forgot mother’s day! I’m a terrible child” – which is precisely the kind of message I sent to Marmeee any number of times. And I responded with “Hmph”, which is exactly how she would respond to me. And I know with no shadow of doubt that the Girl Child rolled her eyes and laughed, because that is what I would do.

When the perfect way the light drapes itself across the hills makes me catch my breath, when I warble in the supermarket, when I cackle at an absurdity that no one else finds funny, when I just can’t be bothered with makeup, when I’m depressed by my knees my calves my ankles, when I argue with the Hubbit about organic gardening, when my hair grows vertically upward, when I think about God, when I say “Oh FIDDLE-de-dee” or “Bugger it” or “Phooey”, when I see how my footprints in the sand point away from each other … there she is. There she is. She’s there.

Do you have special memories of your mother? I’d love you to share them.

 

Grief postponed

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My first day here, around the middle of last November, I didn’t think she’d make it to her birthday. I walked into the Fogies’ little house at the retirement complex, and there was noise and excitement and hellos, and a hug from the Old Buzzard, and the Girl Child finding a vase for the flowers I’d brought, and she stood quietly waiting behind all the fuss.

She looked so small.

I put my arms around her and it was like hugging a baby bird. So small. So fragile.

IMG_20151201_170217Those first weeks, when I sometimes wondered whether she’d even make it to Christmas… they were hard. There were days spent waiting for x-rays, for CRT scans, for medications to be ready to pick up. There were arguments with the medical aid, whose protocols  demanded this, that and the other painful and pointless test. There were tears and Serious Talks and figuring out what-to-do-about-Dad. There were visits to doctors who were compassionate but not encouraging. There was Hospice, a nurse who was warm and so kind, who gave us things to read with titles like “How to cope when someone you love is dying”.

There was oxygen. It perked her up. There was time working together on editing her book. That tired her out, some days we couldn’t manage more than a few paragraphs, but it made her smile. There were flowers. Visits from friends. Meals she enjoyed, at least for a few mouthfuls. A whole chocolate milkshake at the end of a morning’s shopping.

When we finally saw the oncologist (actually we waited only ten days for an appointment, but it felt like forever – Christmas was close, and I wanted, needed him to work a miracle and ensure she was able to celebrate) I pummeled him with questions. “Should we change her diet? Cut out sugar? What about exercise? Is it good or should she rather rest? We have a source who will sell us cannabis oil – she doesn’t like it but… will it help?”

He looked at her and said, so gently, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. You can eat as much ice cream as you like – and if you don’t feel like eating, you don’t have to. Exercise if you want to. Rest when you need to. Don’t let anyone bully you – you can try whatever magical remedies you like, but you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel bad. Rather, spend time with your family. Enjoy the time you have left.” And then he prescribed hormone therapy, since that worked 20 years ago during her second bout with breast cancer, along with various other medicinal compounds, and he went off on a skiing trip, and it was Christmas.

She celebrated with us.

At the beginning of January we went back to the oncologist. When she walked into his consulting room, still small and somehow fragile but walking on her own two little short stubby legs (sorry, Ma – you passed them on to me; I can be rude about them if I want to) his eyes lit up with surprise and pleasure. The x-rays showed that her lungs were almost clear of fluid, and she was breathing just fine. He didn’t stop beaming at her the whole time we were there.

When I came to Johannesburg in November, I thought for sure we’d be planning her funeral by January. Instead, we went on a road trip.

Look!

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The tiny church in Reenen

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A walk in the woods

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A stroll on Ballito beach

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Paddling in a rock pool

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A visit to my nephew’s boarding school. He played one of his own compositions, which he had written specially for her.

Last week, when we visited her oncologist again, he told her to get more exercise. He said, “You’ve been really sick, and now you’re going to have to put some work into getting better.”

Of course, technically she’s still sick. Stage 4 cancer doesn’t just go away. So she uses a wheelchair if she goes anywhere that requires a lot of walking, she takes her medications, she rests often, and she spends around 12 hours a day hooked up to oxygen.

But she’s not letting a mere disease take one flicker of the sparkle out of her life. Last week she had cataract surgery, because it looks like she’ll be needing her eyes for a while yet and she doesn’t want to miss seeing anything. On Thursday, undeterred by her eye patch, we celebrated her birthday by wrapping up the edit of her book, then we went out for dinner with the rest of my siblings. On Sunday we celebrated again with a picnic for 25 friends and family at one of her favorite places, the Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve.

Just look at her.

Isn’t she lovely?

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The joy of car hire

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Who do you see? A maiden or a crone?

Who do you see? A maiden or a crone?

One aspect of being both a mother and a daughter is, sometimes you hear your mother’s voice coming out of your mouth, and sometimes you hear your voice coming out of your daughter’s mouth. Your life is a channel, and flowing through it are all the rich juices of the savvy young woman slurping at the world’s oyster, the fuck-with-me-and-die queen bitch, and the sweet but bewildered little old lady.

And the great thing about that amorphous period called “middle age” – you know, the age you admit to having reached around the middle of your first century, and refuse to leave until you pass three score and ten – the very best thing about that phase of a woman’s life is, you get to channel all three of these gals at will.

So much for context. Now, background: Himself and I are planning a little trip to California in a few weeks to celebrate his 50th school reunion. Savvy and the Queen have been working on him pretty much nonstop to hire a car rather than adding 4,000 or more miles to our already overburdened odometer. Savvy has nattered on about how much pleasanter the trip will be in a car that’s big enough for him to stretch his legs, and for the two of us to sit side-by-side without constantly rubbing elbows. The Queen has warned of direful consequences if she has to spend any time at all sitting on the side of the road while Himself fixes the car. Even the Li’l Ol’ Lady got involved – she joined AARP to take advantage of their car hire specials, ignoring Himself’s vocal disapproval. (He doesn’t like their politics. We know nothing about their politics and care less, so long as we get a Deal. We’re principled that way.)

Yesterday, after weeks of poking about online comparing options, I decided it was time to put pedal to metal, choose a car, and reserve the bloody thing. I presented Himself with the options I had found on the AARP website. He spent several hours puttering about the interwebs, and presented me with … this.

Yes, folks, this is a detailed comparison of all the cars I found within our price range. It includes details about leg room, hip room and head room; there's a row for

Yes, folks, this is exactly what you suspect it must be: a detailed comparison of all the cars I found within our price range. It includes information about leg room, hip room and head room; there’s a row for “other nice stuff”, and there’s a lot of random technical data having to do with mileage, horsepower, and similarly magical numbers. The ones in red were his preferred picks, which he listed in order of preference, complete with an explanation as to why he preferred each one.

Last night, although tired, I was determined not to go to bed and leave this job unfinished. I plunked myself down at my computer and prepared to book the vehicle of his choice.

It didn’t go well.

So this morning I channeled the Queen Bitch and called Avis to insist, with icily businesslike courtesy, that they cancel a car hire contract that I didn’t want because their fees were excessive and their habit of keeping said fees a dark secret until the last possible minute was unethical. Further, the Queen demanded that they accomplish said cancellation without spanking her with an unreasonable and unwarranted $25 cancellation fee.

The Queen, bless her heart, completely intimidated the young man who took her call, so he referred her to his supervisor. This turned out to be a young woman whose warm, sympathetic voice brought the Li’l Ol’ Lady scurrying to the phone. It can be a little tricky when this happens, because Queen Bitch doesn’t really like giving way to the other two. There was a momentary struggle, during which I merely gibbered a bit, and then the Avis rep gently said, “Why don’t you tell me how I can help you?” Her voice was as potent as an intravenous tea infusion. The Li’l Ol’ Lady whomped the Bitch over the head with her beaded handbag and took control of the conversation.

“Oh, I hope you can, dear – thank you so much!” Li’l Ol’ Lady said gratefully. “My husband and I don’t have a lot of experience with hiring cars but I thought it would be wise this time, because we’re driving an awfully long way and I found such a good deal from Avis. I found it through the AARP, you know.”

“Oh wonderful! Yes, we value our senior customers very much,” the warm voice responded, coaxing her to continue.

The Li’l Ol’ Lady chuckled, allowing just the tiniest hint of a quaver to enter her voice. “Well, I’m not exactly a senior, myself, but my husband’s a lot older than I am, of course.”

“Oh – but of course I didn’t mean to imply you were old!” the warm voice reassured her. “But did you have a problem with your reservation?”

“Well, yes, dear! It turned out to be not a good deal at all! I’ve been researching hire cars online, you know, and I’ve learned that the only way to know for sure how much one will cost is to go all the way to the point of actually ordering it. Because you car hire people are naughty, you know – you don’t tell us all the fees upfront!”

“I know,” she sympathized. “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh, well, I know it’s not your fault, dear. But the thing is, the extra charges on this AARP deal were really, really high! I was so shocked I accidentally clicked on the wrong place and suddenly I got a message that I’d made a reservation!”

“Oops!”

“Yes! And when I tried to cancel it – which I did right away dear – I got a message saying it would cost $25 to cancel! So I decided to make the best of it, but I had to show it to my husband, of course…” The Li’l Ol’ Lady’s voice became a little tremulous.

“Of course…”

“And he wasn’t very pleased. Especially when he found out that a lot of the fees were because I’d booked to pick it up at the airport – I just thought that would be a convenient place to get it, but there’s an extra $50 in fees for airport cars!”

“Oh dear! Yes, our airport locations do have extra costs, I’m afraid.”

“Well, I can’t imagine what they are, dear,” the Li’l Ol’ Lady said, with an edge to her tone that suggested the Queen Bitch might be leaning over her shoulder. “Anyway, while my husband was looking at all these extra fees and working out what they were for, he accidentally clicked on something and suddenly we got a notification that our reservation had been modified, and the cost had gone up nearly $100! I changed what he’d done but I didn’t get any notification that it had been modified back so … Anyway, I just need this whole thing to go away. I need to not hire this car, and I really don’t think it’s reasonable to make me pay $25, do you?”

There was a pause, and then she spoke. “Well, this isn’t a prepaid reservation. You can just cancel it.”

The Li’l Ol’ Lady was bewildered. “Really? And the $25?”

“Nope, there’s no penalty. I’ll cancel it for you right now.” Some keyboard noises followed, and a cancellation notice popped up in the inbox.

“Well … my goodness … that was a lot easier than I expected! Thank you very much, dear! I do feel rather foolish!”

The voice was warmer than ever. “Not at all ma’am. I understand – things can be very confusing these days!” She hung up.

‘These days.’ Holy cow … ‘These days’??? That young snippety … Argh! I wonder what century she thought I was born in? Well, the last one, obviously – but it was during the second half, okay?

Huffing to myself, I dived back into Google and quickly, efficiently found my way to Enterprise, where I booked the exact same car for a substantially lower price with no help at all from AARP.

‘These days’. Hmph!

Now it’s your turn! Tell me what you think of alternate personas, car hire companies, and growing old…