French is entertaining sometimes especially concerning expressive phrases. If someone is really bothering you, you can say “she breaks my feet” (me casse les pieds) and when you are feeling down it is “having the cockroach” (j’ai le cafard). Well, I’ve been having the cockroach now for several days. For a while I believed it was because I wasn’t doing anything. That’s a laugh! I’m doing all the time: playing Scrabble, watching movies, reading e-mail, answering idem., walking the dog, having coffee, shopping, cleaning, etc. etc. etc… Ok, so it perhaps was not doing anything worthwhile, with emphasis on the worth. But even that is questionable because, in fact, I have several clients on Skype with whom I work once a week; I am studying French -both conversation (1 ½ hours) and grammar (1 ½ hours)- twice a week; I am available to friends who are going through crises at any time of the night or day; I correspond frequently and send Amazon books to a person very dear to me who is in prison at the moment and I am taking two courses over internet to maintain my Byron Katie Certification. So doing, I am definitely doing.
While sitting and contemplating this cockroach mood for a while, I thought about my grandmother and mother, neither of whom did very much in the way of what I today would call worth as they moved into their later years, or even before that as a matter of fact. My grandmother was a secretary before she married (that was how she met my grandfather) but once she got that ring on her finger work outside of the house was not only not necessary, but actually considered degrading. As a matter of fact, her in-laws always looked a bit askance at her because she had been a “working girl”, something in those days thought proper only of the lower classes. What my grandmother did was housekeeping and bringing up the children. Even after her daughters married and up until the day she had a stroke that left her half paralyzed, she continued “dragging in the marketing” –as she put it- and her house was always whisked clean. Other than that, she played Canasta, went to lunch with the “girls”, gave or attended dinner parties and talked for hours on the telephone which along with Scrabble, watching films and going for walks is classified in my mind as doing nothing or not doing. As a matter of fact, if I’m not careful my post-seventies feminist mind clicks in and even doing housework is very, very close to not doing anything worthwhile. However, as a child, I never would have considered my grandmother’s activities worthless. She cared for me quite often when my parents travelled or just wanted to spend a weekend alone. I adored her, called her my “second mother” and was actually much closer to her than to my real mother (her daughter). I believe it was my grandmother who taught me to think: she had an inquisitive mind and developed an opinion on everything which she readily shared with me in spite of my young age. I could even disagree or argue with her without being sent to my room to learn better as was the case when attempting to argue with my father; I will go so far as to say that she was the one who taught me that I was intelligent. So it never would have occurred to me as a child to think my grandmother’s life not valuable.
If I then look at my mother’s life I have to admit that she did even less than my grandmother because she didn’t even do housework, at least not after we moved to Mexico. Apart from studying Spanish (as I study French) when we first moved, my mother’s main household occupation was the marketing, and whipping up an occasional desert or making kidney stew for Christmas morning was about the extent of her involvement in the kitchen. Her occupation was golf; she actually won the National Amateur Championship in Mexico in 1951; golf and bridge and Garden Club and Book Club and Junior League, ladies luncheons, parties and travelling with my father. She actually led a very active life, socially speaking, until a hip replacement took her away from golf and, much later, senile dementia terminated her participation in everything else. But my father always hinted –jokingly- that my mother was beautiful but not very smart (my grandmother had always voiced the opinion that my mother was the beautiful one and her sister the smart one) and she herself cultivated this myth. I remember her once saying to me when I was a teenager that “men prefer dumb women” and when the license plate for her car turned out to have the letters BDT, she said the “T” stood for “Tonta” (dumb). It took me many years to finally see how intelligent she actually was, knowing always how to get everything she wanted from everyone around her. She lived a long and gifted life; the only thing she didn’t get was to keep my father forever for he passed on many years before she did.
So, with this bourgeois background, why do I have such trouble with doing nothing in a productive sense of the word? Strangely enough as I sit here contemplating the question and wondering if I shouldn’t go out for a walk with Salomé before the last rays of sun disappear below the horizon and the temperature begins to drop below 0º once more, the memory hits me and I understand: it has to do with my grandmother and the fact that she believed that she had lived the life that was expected of her, but not the life she had wanted.
“I always wanted to design clothes” I remember her telling me on multiple occasions, “I think I would have been good too; but women weren’t supposed to want those things back then, so I just settled for what I could get. Today you can study and go to college; you can be someone and not just a housewife.” I can still hear the tone of disparagement in the “just”, the feeling of a life wasted that seemed to lie hidden behind her words. As if the extreme opposite of being a clothes designer was “dragging in the marketing”. It was my grandmother who said I should be a writer and who scoffed when I had a story –written in between childcare and marketing- published reminding me that George Sand (a real writer) wrote all the time, even when travelling, not just once in a while like I did. But above all, what stands out is what she said to me on the morning of her seventy-fifth birthday:
“I have lived for seventy-five years,” she said, looking at me through eyes that seemed to be staring into an unfathomable pit, “and I have no idea what I have done with them.” Perhaps, at that moment, she was staring at the Sisyphean chore of “dragging in the marketing” or at how many millions of times she had made a bed or set a table. I can’t know, but I understand now that it was then that I made a solemn vow to not live life as my grandmother had but to live it in a way that I could arrive at seventy-five and say “I have lived” knowing that this was true.
At the time this happened, I was twenty-five and following a path similar to my grandmother’s, keeping house, caring for my two small children and trying to make my husband happy (which I believed, at the time, was my job as a wife). When asked by someone what I did, I answered with the classic phrase: “Nothing. I’m a housewife.” The “nothing” meant: nothing really important, nothing worthwhile that I would remember when I was seventy-five. Now, in retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me to remember that less than a year later I was seeing a psychoanalyst six times a week (he didn’t give consultations on Sundays) after having –what was then called- a nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the only way to change is through madness. From then on my life began to move in the most unexpected ways and if I care to look back today, what I experience is amazement, about as far as one could be from my grandmother’s bottomless frustration.
What surprises me now, though, is that at present as I move into the “gentle” years (and approach, mind you, the age of my grandmother’s life-changing phrase), is that I should still be beating myself up for taking it easy. True, as I approach the end of this year, I will not remember the exact number of Scrabble games won or lost; and I will probably begin seeing again films I have forgotten I viewed six months previously, and the hours and the weeks and the months will eclipse into an indistinguishable blur, and perhaps I will wonder where the hell the year has gone or then again I may not. Life has a way of conducting us over poorly paved roads where the pothole that burst a tire and the hill that seemed impossible to drive up or the curve where we almost went off the cliff will stand out as landmarks if we live consciously. And as Hamlet would say: “There’s the rub!” Living consciously, being present with what is at hand makes even the smoothest of life’s highways memorable. And gratitude is what fixes it there, as a really good film is fixed forever in memory, making each moment love-filled and worthwhile. So having le cafard is no more than part of this strange life-highway that has dragged me away from Scrabble long enough to write this blog post. I am grateful. As Rumi says:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
(The Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)