Short Stories About Ageing With Grace
These stories focus on the struggle of elderly people to adjust to a world in which they feel they no longer belong. Hence, at a time when they need friends the most, they can tend to alienate people by becoming antagonistic.
My first story is under 850 words and titled “Yes as an Answer”, here a lady is forced to accept the need to compromise with a way of living she had never envisaged, as her only path forward.
My second story is under 1000 words and titled “Father’s Day Celebration”, here a middle-aged daughter does all she can to create a pleasant afternoon for her widowed father; he does not make it easy.
Yes As An Answer
A lady raised a veined and yellowed hand. When the instructor nodded, she began,
“I understand this course is meant to last eight sessions.”
Again he nodded, though a bit perturbed.
“I’m sure the catalogue was accurate,” he said.
Somewhere around his early to mid-twenties, he stood, lithe and slim, behind the podium, staunching his urge to begin his first course lesson.
“Indeed it did,” the lady said. “But then they always do. You see, I have taken courses here before, and at other centres, -those I can get a bus to, since my sciatica has gotten worse.”
“I hope you found those courses worth your time,” the young man said, extracting papers from his briefcase. “For now, I will write some of my thoughts upon the chalkboard, which I hope some of you will find worthwhile.”
Surely this lady must be finished; she was not.
“For the most part, those courses have gone well enough,” She said.
“Still, there have been, at times, during the Fourth of July hoop-la, a cancelled class, so we get billed for eight, but just have seven sessions; is that fair?”
“No, Definitely not,” the young man said, placing his papers on the podium.
“I cannot be certain when, but I do promise you there will be a make-up session, as soon as I can arrange one with this centre.”
“Now, please, if we could begin -“
“There is just one more thing I need to add,” the lady said. “A lot of us are elderly, on fixed incomes, so we cannot afford to miss even one session. When we do, we feel bamboozled.”
His equanimity about to crack, the young man said, “Ma’am, I have agreed with your request repeatedly. Now, if I have been less than clear, let me say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and one more yes, by way of a P.s., if necessary.”
The others, having signed up for this course, had begun to fidget and guffaw. They had paid to come here to explore; how long must they sit through this pointless fracas?
Silenced at last, the lady sat, quelled by humiliation. Surely she had been courteous and gracious. One of her points of pride had always been her sense of tact and flexibility. What had gone wrong?
Surely she was not succumbing to that bleakest of cliches, the wretched widow, who’s only interactions had eroded to bickering, dickering.
Meanwhile, the young man tried to clarify those musings he had placed upon the board. After some moments, he began to speak/sing some words in Hindu, bringing out an instrument he said was a sitar.
It sounded, to her ears, like a ukulele, rusting and poorly-.
The instructor gestured for the others to join in.
While none of them responded straightaway, in time, one or two tried shyly, followed by a few more, then several others, until a melody began to form.
The Lady;s flat was small, dreary, dull, but worst of all, empty.
The only things which could still bring her joy were three objects on her mantelpiece.
First came the two hearts joined as one, her fiancee had given her on the night they got engaged. Beside it stood the hand-carved wooden nutcracker the two of them had chosen during their honeymoon.
Thirdly, the most cherished of them all was the silver duck he had bought her for their twenty-fifth anniversary. Then, during that same year, he had been taken from her, so unexpectedly-how could that be? Yet, it had happened.
Still, these were objects, held within their time. They could not bring new friendships, invitations, or fill the muteness of her telephone.
How and when had this changed? It had not been many years before when people sought her company, quoted her quips, retold her anecdotes. Then, within eighteen months, everything joyous in her life had gone. Her husband died, her closest friends passed on, or became swallowed by care homes, or houses of grown children, who grew annoyed at the appearance of one of their parents’ friends.
Though disappointed, in all honesty, how could she blame them?
Now, this instructor was talking about acceptance as, “the hardest pill to swallow, but sometimes the only one left to any of us.”
What could this fledgling know, she thought, of loss and pain? And yet, perhaps …
Then, to her astonishment, she saw him beckon her to join their circle.
Glancing at him in thanks, she dared not try. Surely she could never intermingle, given her rant before. Besides, their music held no melody for her; this mantra thing was one long monotone. Yet, after some hesitation, she decided, why not at least stretch and struggle just a little, if for no other reason than good-will?
At first, her throat felt far too tight and raw to do much more than emanate a croak. Then, after a few more tries, her larynx loosened, opening just enough to free some notes which, given sufficient time and practice, might start to sound, if not melodious, something akin to singing.
Father's Day Celebration
”I did not want this damn meal,” Dad insisted. Meanwhile, that “damn meal” I had ordered was disappearing at a rate which belied his tirade. In fact, each spoonful he took stretched into a ladle full, until his dentures loosened to the point of letting an overflow of sauce ooze from his chin onto the necktie I had urged him to put on, for this occasion. It was, as I had pointed out, a double celebration of Father’s Day and his ninety-third birthday.
Somehow that soured things; I had forgotten age had become his big-time bugaboo.
As to the spill, I slid a napkin towards him, though both of us pretended I had not, and had no need to do so. Yes, true enough, he had not ordered linguine with clam sauce or the Chianti either, come to that...
Still, I had watched him all but salivate when he saw this pasta dish he had savoured so often, featured on this Father’s Day menu. Besides, how many times have I heard him ask Mum, “What is a pasta meal without Chianti?”
Not for the first time, I felt glad this cafe was sponsored by Dad’s care home, where the wait staff were trained to seem oblivious to vituperation and other lapses in accepted grace. I felt equally grateful for the festive but solid tumblers offered. While wine glasses were provided on request, their stems, though elegant, made such glasses easy to be spilled or knocked over by arthritic fingers.
My thoughts were interrupted when Dad said, “You know I should not have this wine. Don’t you remember I told you my doctor says I can’t have alcohol? It is not good for my cholesterol or liver either.”
Dad’s liver had lived quite an active life, but still remained intact enough to indicate the likelihood of staying staunch, until that end both he and I knew to be upcoming.
Why, I wondered, as I had so often, could not more doctors think within a holistic framework? My dad, at ninety-three, was shackled by many of those ailments which plagued most people who had reached his age, or a decade on either side.
Then, having disclaimed his wish to ingest, imbibe, enjoy, Dad poured himself a second glass of wine, then turned the carafe in my direction.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, “but for the moment, my first glass was enough.”
After a few more gulps, he asked, “Do you recall a dish our family and everyone we knew once called “spaghetti?”
Buoyed by its memory, I said, “Wow, do I ever; Spaghetti and meatballs- what a treat that was!”
“A treat for what?” Dad asked.
“I can’t be sure. It might have been a reward for a good report card, passing a driving test, somebody’s birthday, or just plain fun.”
“Just plain fun was best; we did not need a reason.” Dad replied.
For the first time since we had sat down, he smiled, continuing, “Mama would say the same, if she were here; don’t you agree?”
My eyes welled, as I said, “I know she would have. When I was little, I used to think, Mum has a loving face, her cheeks reminding me of chocolate puddings. Silly I know, but even sometimes, now, …”
Dad placed his hand on mine, then said, “Love takes whatever shape it does, but it is never silly.”
Finally, having argued long enough, Dad felt guilt free to gorge with his accustomed gusto. Relieved, I joined him. As we ate, I thought about that picture on the menu of linguine with clam sauce, which had enticed him, although he had not read its words.
Having left Italy at twenty-eight, he had never learned to read English, beyond its basics.
As I grew up, I slowly came to see his need for me to shield his pride by never letting on I understood. Hence, when I handed him my school report card, at times he “read” it upside-down, backwards or sideways. Although my grades were nearly always high, I had learned to expect his warning frown and words, “you got to do better”
“I will, I promised, Dad.”
“So you have said before; next term, you must.”
“I will, Dad, truly.”
In time, I think we both saw through this ruse, but kept pretending. After all these decades, we still shared the charade.
He and Mum had met while on a cruise ship, he as head chef, and she a passenger.
“A first-class passenger,” Dad often said, as if this helped to elevate his status. “A first-class wife as well,” he liked to add.
Then, on reflection, I recalled those ways Mum had helped him camouflage what he viewed as a humiliation.
Now, pouring himself the final glass of wine, he mused, “Spaghetti and meatballs. I know it is a sign of growing older to grouse about the ways the young survive. Still, calling spaghetti pasta is like calling a mud hut a Colosseum. I want that mud hut back.”
“Yes, so do I. Foods have their fashions, like so many things. People eat raw octopus or squid, served up as sushi. The same is true of caviar, made from fish eggs. Then, as to sharkskin soup …”
My rambling, combining with the food and wine, might have made him drowsy.
Whatever its source, I felt surprised, but soothed by a sound familiar from my childhood. It was Dad’s snoring, louder and deeper with his every breath. Chagrined at first, I soon felt light and glad. We were the only customers still there. The servers did not hide their aggravation and eagerness to leave an hour early. Yet, Dad was dozing, his face now serene.
This may, I thought, be our last Father’s Day together. For now, I could at least believe his dreams were filled with memories of Mum, sailing on gondolas in Venice, or sauntering passed monuments in Rome. Whatever his dreams were, I hoped they felt alive, while filled with peace and freedom.
© 2019 Colleen Swan