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Old Hands


One night at synagogue, I was sitting behind a grandmother and granddaughter, ages 65 and 8, approximately. They were both impeccably dressed, hair specially done for the evening. They wouldn’t have been chosen for a greeting card, or a commercial, as the ideal of a warm and sensitive grandmother offering safety and sweetness and cookies to a patient loving child. They were more like an ad for a department store, selling stylish clothes for women of every age. But as I sat there, the little girl picked up her grandmother’s hand and began to investigate. There was that puffy vein on the back of Grandma’s hand and the little girl pressed on it with her thumb, and rolled it under the skin. Then she pinched, gently, some of the skin on Grandma’s hand, and pulled it up like a tent, and then massaged it back into place. Then she ran her fingers over the lines in the skin, and the bends at the finger joints.

All the while Grandma relaxed her hand and allowed the investigation to continue. She didn’t grab her hand away, or hiss at her granddaughter to stop it. There was something so full of love in this interaction, even more so than later on in the service when they wrapped their arms around each other during the standing prayer. And it all made me think. Older women are always made to feel decrepit for their aging skin. Moisturize! Try Crepe erase! Collagen, plastic surgery, face tape! But this woman’s hands were being lovingly explored, seen as one more fascinating thing about Grandma, not to be criticized or avoided, but to be touched and manipulated and loved because they belong to Grandma. As if the granddaughter was saying, these hands make me feel safe and attached. These hands belong to my grandmother and therefore they are beautiful.

Cricket and hand

Cricket and her own Grandma

We have all of these ideas about how a woman should look, and how her skin should feel, and what color her hair should be, and what size her body should be, but children know better. They believe that whatever you look like is beautiful, if you are the one they love. Everything about how you look and smell and sound reminds them of who you are, and how you feel about them. They want to touch you and see you, not a perfected image of you.

I think this is what we love about dogs too. They don’t care if our skin is tight or loose. They don’t care if we are fat or skinny or in between. They care if we love them, and pet them, and feed them. They love the sound of our voices and the smell of our skin.


“My Grandma is beautiful.”

I want to remember this the next time I feel the need to berate myself for my body, my face, my clothes, or anything else imperfect about me, but I know, even as I write this down, that I am forgetting it, or forgetting to believe it.


“I’ll remind you, Mommy.”

How The Writing Workshop Turned Out

I was so proud of myself. I went a million miles out of my comfort zone to set up the writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I wrote a heartfelt proposal and sent it out for people to read. I presented the proposal in person in front of 20 or 30 people, and got an extraordinarily positive reaction, and six people signed up for my theoretical workshop on the spot. I sent emails and coordinated, and negotiated, and scheduled, and got furiously to work planning my first workshop session, and five people showed up – only two from the original list. But five people was good, and people talked and wrote and stayed for an hour longer than I expected. The next time there were four people, and the time after that only two, plus me.

After three sessions, I took February off from the writing workshop – because so many people were snow birds escaping the winter in New York, and because I wanted to be a snow hermit and hide in my apartment. The anxiety I felt before each class was debilitating, even though the classes themselves were a lot of fun. I could barely move on a Wednesday after a Tuesday workshop. Three naps instead of one, and a long list of self-recriminations about things I should have said, and shouldn’t have said. I spent the extra time reading for, and planning, new lessons for the rest of the sessions. I drafted and revised and cut and pasted until the writing prompts and the writing samples came together in perfect symmetry to get to the heart of a subject within an hour and a half. I talked up the workshop at the next Engaging with Aging meeting, and to whoever asked at other events.

Me, napping.

Me, napping.

Me, trying to reach out.

Me, trying to reach out.

And when we came back from break, there were three students, then two, then just one, my mom, my loyal mom. People asked for my forgiveness for missing classes, for forgetting, and overscheduling, and having bridge at exactly that time and day. Intellectually, I knew they weren’t rejecting me, or saying anything about the quality of my work or what I had to offer. I knew that I’d done a good job, planning lessons and prompts and being supportive and gentle and only pushing a tiny bit when I knew someone was ready to go a step further. But how can you be a teacher without students?

Butterfly wants to help.

Butterfly wanted to help.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

These are good, solid, interesting people, with stories to tell and a lot of strength and survival skills and knowledge to share. And yet, the idea of waking up in the morning and choosing to go to a class where you will have to write about yourself, as if you matter, as if someone else should care what you think, no, that they can’t do.

One woman told me that what her sixteen-year-old grandson wanted for his birthday was for her to write down something about how she and grandpa got together and stayed together all those years. And I thought, wow, what a lovely and loving thing for a sixteen-year-old boy to ask for, and she thought, Oy, can’t I just give him money?

I ended the writing workshop in April, a month earlier than expected, and people kept asking me if I would start it again in the fall, maybe on a different day, at a different time, for a wider audience. I was tempted to try again, but also gun shy. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience of sitting in a big empty room, staring at the clock, hoping someone, anyone, would show up. Maybe if I could have brought Butterfly with me, to sit on my lap and calm me down while I stared up at the clock, but she sheds, which means she’s not hypoallergenic and therefore I’d be treifing up the library at the synagogue for people with dog allergies. And Cricket, the non-shedding dog, would be barking and growling, and scaring the nursery school kids into cowering under their tiny tables in the classroom next door.

A bark to scare small children

Cricket has a bark to scare small children

All hair all the time

Butterfly is all hair all the time

I went to the next Engaging with Aging meeting, after the end of the workshop, because I’d gone to all of the previous meetings. I sat and listened as the discussion wandered and flailed. They needed some way to disseminate information, to share the advice they’d gathered from each other, and from the social worker at the Jewish Community Center. But how?

I didn’t mean to speak up. Words just started coming out of my mouth. Why not write up personal stories, about how you’ve dealt with a particular aspect of aging, what you learned, what you struggled with, where you went for help, and put it in the newsletter, or on the website. Maybe telling stories in order to help someone else is going to make it easier for people to open up. Within minutes, I had volunteered to interview, edit, and encourage people to get their stories down on paper. I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve done very few interviews. How did this happen?

So, this is what I’m doing next. I am not at all comfortable out here on this cliff, but it’s an opportunity to do something new, and something satisfying, that might actually help people. Wouldn’t that be great?

Cricket thinks so.

Cricket thinks so.

The Writing Workshop on Aging


I started a writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I didn’t plan to do this. I just went to a meeting on aging because it looked interesting. I had the idea that this could lead to visiting people at the hospital, or reading to patients at nursing homes, and could count on my application for graduate school. My ideal would be to walk dogs at the animal shelter, but I don’t think they’d count that as social work. I could be wrong.

So I sat in the meeting and listened. Stories flooded the room: of women at sea after the death of a spouse of fifty years; women manipulated by insurance companies while signing papers at the hospital; women looking for help for their parents; women wondering how to help their friends. The meeting was very low on men.

I took notes and listened and felt the chaos roll over me.

The decision at the end of the first meeting was to have a second meeting, and a third, and a fourth if necessary, until some ideas could start to coalesce.

I went home, exhausted, and fell asleep, and then went on with my life, writing for the blog, going to class, writing my research paper, studying math for the GRE (because not only did I forget every bit of math learned in high school, but I have even lost my short term math memory and I forget it all over again each day.)

I don’t remember looking over my notes from the meeting. I just thought about one of my synagogue friends, recovering from back surgery, and I thought about my great aunt Ellen and the interviews I did with her a few years back to try and catch some of her magic on paper, and I thought about the short memoir my grandfather started before he died, giving us a glimpse into his childhood. Bits and pieces of the stories people had told me over the past few years of Friday nights at synagogue started to bubble up. I wrote a few notes to myself about people whose stories I’d want to read, but told myself it was just a passing idea, and I’d never have to follow through and actually talk to people.

I’ve learned so much from keeping a blog and writing memoir. It forces me to really deepen into my life, to settle into the crevices of it, and not just feel like I’m a character in my own imagination. I feel like I am taking good care of myself by writing about my life, instead of letting the moments disappear into the ether. I especially like that I have a chronicle of my dogs’ lives. I don’t worry that I will forget important things about them, the way I did with previous dogs. It felt so painful to forget things about Dina and Delilah, as if I was disrespecting them, and the value of their lives to me.

Delilah the Doberman

Delilah the Doberman

Dina, pensive.

Dina, pensive.

Butterfly and Cricket

Butterfly and Cricket

I found myself writing notes for an idea of a Friday night service where people read their own stories to the congregation. And I thought about how I could make that happen, or at least help people to write some of their own stories down.

I wrote a proposal, feeling very self-conscious and a bit like I was walking into a black hole from which I would never be able to return. I would be shunned from my synagogue. They’d hate me for thinking I was so special that I could teach anyone how to write; they’d resent me for thinking I had anything to offer. I could barely breathe.

I sent the proposal to the woman who runs the aging meetings, and she loved it! And then she sent it to the social worker helping the congregation, and she loved it too. And when I read it to the group in person at the next meeting, face turning purple, hands shaking, I got applause, and six people signed up to take a writing class with me on the spot.

I think I could be good at this, but I’m still terrified. Every step forward feels like jumping from one cliff to another. I’m thinking about how to help people who have trouble seeing, or trouble with arthritis so that writing or typing is difficult. I’m thinking about how to help people who are not natural writers, but would be great interviewees. I’m thinking so much that I have little pieces of paper floating around my room like confetti. Butterfly is loving that.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly, full of joy!