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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Coming of Age in the Valley: the Barrell Man Rolls on into Another Year…

Rolling stockI only met my maternal Great Uncle Newt once that I recall. He was very old; I was very young. So young, I’m sure, I had no concept of old people or even what old meant. It’s only when one grows older that he has some understanding of age; one has to notch a few years himself before “old,” "older,” “very old” have any context. Strange it is what a child hides away in the attic of his youthful memory. Stranger, yet when that onetime child discovers what he’s hidden there in the dust of time. I blew the dust off Uncle Newt and uncovered two things. The first memory is a vivid one and concerns a handheld electric massager Uncle used to stimulate or encourage better circulation in his limbs. Uncle would slide his hand through a strap loop on the back of the device, turn it on, and guide the thing up and down his opposite arm like a toy car. I still remember the humming sound the massager made as it slowly moved back and forth across his skin.

My second Uncle Newt memory is less substantial: whether it’s something I observed or was told, I’m not sure. Uncle loved gardening and it was gardening that gave him purpose in his advanced years--so much that he would crawl out to his vegetable patch daily, give it the attention it needed, and slowly return to the house on all fours. And it’s this memory of my Great Uncle that is the reason for this post.

Today the Barrell Man turns ninety. Like Great Uncle Newt he loves his garden. Last summer I stopped by on the chance he might be willing to exchange a jar of honey for some pie cherries. The Barrell Man was on his hands and knees in his corn patch methodically removing weeds from around the newly sprouted corn. We talked about gardening for a while. I mentioned the nearby pie cherry tree and suggested the trade. The Barrell Man’s sight has dimmed and he showed me how he picked the cherries. He waved his hand and arm back and forth through imaginary branches. “Like this,” he said, “I feel them.” (The season’s cherry crop looked meager, so the trade didn’t occur). “I’ll be ninety next February,” the Barrell Man smiled. When we left off talking, he returned to his weeding, crawling slowly through the garden between the rows.

Ninety years old today.The Barrell Man’s a nonagenarian. I think about the Simon and Garfunkel song “Old Friends,”one of the lyrics which states: “How terribly strange to be seventy.”I feel that strangeness coming on myself as I creep ever closer to my Biblical “Three Score and Ten.” The fact that at any moment I’m about to enter grandparenthood only adds a stranger dimension to “strange.” As I enter my proverbial second childhood, I just hope I’ll be up for my grandchild’s first.When I visit my doctor these days, he always greets me with “How are we doing?”—physician/patient protocol that initiates my next fifteen minutes of fame. I say “protocol” because if I were ok, would I be sitting in the exam cubicle instead of at home doing chores around the place? These days my response to this courtesy is, “I’m trying to grow old gracefully.” Dr. just nods and smiles, but I know what he’s thinking… “How’s that working for you?”

Ninety years old today, the Barrell Man is, and still splitting wood and gardening. I found him cutting lids from some new rolling stock he’d just received and stopped to visit. His breath comes harder for him these days, he tells me. “My daughter can remove one of these without stopping. I have to stop two, three times to catch my breath.” “It doesn’t matter how often you stop,” I told him. “As long as you have more starts than stops, regardless how long it takes, you’ll always finish the job. It’s when you can’t start up again that you have cause to worry.”

I read the other day if you can do thirty pushups, you’re in pretty good physical shape. Workdays I used to do twenty-five as part of my morning’s exercise routine. Thirty? Down and up only thirty times? That should be a breeze, I thought. “Drop, and give me thirty,” I ordered myself. I managed ten reps but that last one was a struggle; I don’t remember it being so hard to return to the up position.The floor seemed to pull me back. Four days and several ibuprofen later my arms still throb, and my pectoral muscles feel like I’ve just endured a Sioux brave’s Sun Dance ritual.

As if the ageing process isn’t hard enough on you physically, you must suffer being “old” in the eyes of others, especially those “younger” others. You fade away into the background of life as it continues to move along at a brisk pace, zooming by you on the left, whizzing by you on the right as you shuffle along in the slow lane. Again I’m reminded of a bluegrass song lyric by a group formed by, believe it or not, Jerry Garcia—he of the Grateful Dead. The song, written by the mandolin player David Grisman, is titled “Old and in The Way,”and a sobering lyric states: “Old and in the way, that’s what I heard him say; they used to heed the words I said but that was yesterday….” In a recent piece for The New Yorker Magazine the poet Donald Hall talks about his life at eighty-three (“Out the Window: the View in Winter,” January 23, 2012). “When we are eighty,” Hall explains, “we understand we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.” Hall recounts a family gathering where “A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.” The poet further laments the humiliating condescension with which the young sometimes, perhaps unintentionally, treat the old. After sharing a restaurant meal with his aide Linda, the waiter asked her if she enjoyed her meal and as an afterthought, turned to Hall as if he were a highchair seated, bib wearing toddler: “Did we have a nice din-din?” I think, too, of Dickens’ character Wemmick in Great Expectations who refers to his father as the “Aged P,” a parent so depersonalized by age he no longer has a name. Aging is debilitating enough to the old—it’s further insult their bodies can’t do what they used to—at least leave their dignity intact, please.

I may be wrong, but I believe ninety is that official milestone on the longevity scale where the nonagenarian is approached for advice on the secrets of his long life. Perhaps I jumped the gun a few days, but that’s the question I put to the Barrell Man over the rim of his barrell. He rested his hands on the rim, thought for a moment, and said something to the effect one should take better care of his health on the road to one hundred. Good advice, I’d say, for anyone wishing to live long and prosper. And whether the Barrell Man knows it or not, he gives advice by example: “Plant your garden; keep moving; keep busy; slow down but don’t stop”…and in the words of that great baseball legend Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back…something might be gaining on you.”birthday boy

February 7, 2012,…today…the day the Barrell Man turns ninety. A heartfelt “Happy Birthday”to you, sir, from The Ripple and the Valley. And don’t worry about those candles either. Like the barrell lids, just take them one at a time. No hurry. Remember, you have all year.

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