Love on the compost heap

2011-06-29 00:00

I WILL not move. I will not move. I will not be moved. I will not move into an old-age home.

Famous last words. A 90th birthday, a bad fall chasing the neighbour’s dog that had the temerity to chase my cat, the terrifying experience of not being able to get up without help, some cracked finger bones and a sprained ankle had in combination led to the acceptance of the inevitable. I would move. I would move into an old-age home and that was that.

Shedding once-precious possessions, books, china, ornaments, pictures, furniture, beloved cat, in fact, shedding one’s life, is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. No, perhaps it is exactly what I would wish on my worst enemy. Is it really necessary? Did my cat really have to go, my little fridge and personal items that would have made my life so much more like home — comfortable and independent?

So here I am. God help me, I thought, here I am forever. (But perhaps at my age “forever” won’t be so long after all, I comforted myself.)

Then reality hit. Having spent up to a day before I moved looking after myself at home, mending the fuse on my iron, changing the plug on my heater, it was stupefying to find myself regarded as being too old to be trusted with my electric kettle — dangerous things, kettles and electric plugs. Having cooked my own dinner the night before I moved, carrying saucepans of boiling water from the stove to the sink and cleaning up generally, it was with benumbing horror that I heard that it was far too dangerous for old folk to fill hot-water bottles. What would I do if I burnt myself? As my language has been known at times to upset the more delicate, I refrained from giving the obvious answer. But I knew this was something I had to fight.

From that moment I knew I must not allow myself to be turned into a helpless old crone. I was not one of the masses. I was me — could nobody see beyond white hair, old bones and wrinkles — I am still very much me — 90 going on 35 and wanting to make the most of this season of my life. What could be more cruel than a life sentence of time standing still and no living for fear of what might happen? Why is it necessary for people to think for me? Why not ask me what I want?

Rules at school are necessary. Get the children to meals on time, into the classrooms on time, onto the hockey field on time. But rules for adults with a 30-year age range, with an intelligence range of 90 to 190 (well more or less, I’m modest …)? I think I’m reasonably intelligent. I often forget the name of an author, which is infuriating when recommending a good book, but one need not be good at dates to prove that one is reasonably intelligent. I can still knit, sew and crochet, but now I was suddenly incapable­ of pouring out a cup of coffee­ or filling a hot-water bottle. Nasty things hot-water bottles.

Why is someone trying to make me older than I am? I was right, I should have kicked the neighbour’s dog, crawled back into my flat and stayed put. But fight for it, girl, FIGHT. Ninety years old is not necessarily senile dammit — I’ve got a whole lot more living to do. I had moved 20 minutes away from my old home, just five kilometres, and in that short space I had become disenfranchised. For 50 years I taught and made a difference to young lives and in 20 minutes I had lost my capacity to think, to have an opinion and, God forbid, make a decision for myself.

But there is still something not quite right. What? The food is excellent, well prepared, nicely served and plentiful. Everything is spotlessly clean — although Rosie and I sometimes have words when she complains that I leave my bathroom floor too wet. (Ever tried getting out of a bath backwards while hanging onto the jungle gym for dear life, Rosie?)

The carers are poppets, friendly, helpful, kind, caring and they come cheerfully whenever one rings the bell — even if it is only to hand one one’s dressing gown from behind the door. But something is still missing.

I miss my garden desperately. The grounds here are beautifully kept, the trees superb, the touches of colour here and there sometimes quite exciting, but I didn’t plant them or water them or watch them grow. All I brought with me was one dark-pink miniature African violet. It had been a riot of blooms, but it needed repotting. So I set off one day to find the gardener and beg for a little compost. I found Will, the under-gardener, at the bottom of the grounds making a new compost trench. We washed the flower pot, filled it with delicious, black friable soil from the old trench and replanted my precious violet. “Would you like an English violet to go with it, ma’am?” Of course I would. (This young man actually asked me a direct question. You see he saw me as a kindred spirit, someone who loved plants as much as he did.) We found another pot and planted a root, not a whole plant. I wanted to coax the single root to flowering stage, as I had with so many young lives in my teaching career. Then we inspected the new compost trench — a fascinating mixture of potato peels and tomato skins, carrot tops and spinach leaves, orange­ quarters and lemon halves. You name it, it was there. “All you do, ma’am,” he said, “is cover it up, press it down , water it occasionally, and in a year or two, presto, good, dark-brown soil to spread over the whole garden.” I wandered back to my room, washed my hands and made my way to the dining room. I smiled to myself as I realised that a small act of kindness from a young gardener who loved the earth and was prepared to share his joy with me had given me purpose. Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. It was then that I knew what had been worrying me. Each one is an individual and as different as chalk and cheese. No two people should be treated in exactly the same way — think of Will’s trench — some are like the hard potato peels, or the soft pretty tomato skins, hardy cabbage stalks or feathery carrot tops, some are soft, sweet oranges­ and others pale sour, sour lemons. Unlike compost, we do not want to be pressed down and turned into nice friable compost. Lord knows, we may not have two years to wait.

However good, kind and loving these institutions are, there is a desperate danger of people becoming “institutionalised”. Acknowledge people’s differences, encourage them to continue to develop differently. Age is not a disease, just a rather inconvenient stage of life which needs much encouragement, a sense of humour­ and tenacity to get through. If I’m going to be here for the ride, best I make it a roller-coaster ride — one to remember — so that I can smile on my deathbed, saying: “Now that was a life well lived.” Remember our budgets are limited, but our brains aren’t.

My challenge to all out there is individualise, don’t institutionalise.

We oldies have too much time and little to do in it. How wonderful it would be to have interaction from the greater community. We have wonderful activities, but what about the excitement of day-to-day happenings in your home — being able to go into a home for a few hours and share a cup of tea, to hear about the cat that had kittens, the dog that bit the postman and the funny stories of what the kids have been up to. It’s been so long since anybody asked my opinion on anything and where are the children, the animals, the people? I have an opinion on most things — try asking me — whether it’s on politics, the last cricket Test, the French Open, global warming, the latest fashion in women’s shoes or the price of chocolate.

I have decided that I shall be an activist­. Now all I need is someone to listen. Don’t talk over me or down to me. I gave up my flat, not my intellect. And do you know, I do believe that life may just begin at 90.

About the writer


DIANA Pitcher was born and educated in Eston. She graduated with a BAUED from Natal University, whereafter she joined the army and was a radar operator during the war. She taught in Durban for many years and lectured at Teachers’ Training College. After this she moved to the then Rhodesia where she first taught at Teachers’ Training College before becoming deputy head of Umtali High. Tired of politics, she went and lived in the UK where she taught at Heathfield School and later went on to lecture at BHASV1 College. Upon retiring she returned to Pietermaritzburg and recently moved from her flat into a retirement facility.

Having cooked my own dinner the night before I moved, carrying saucepans of boiling water from the stove to the sink and cleaning up generally, it was with benumbing horror that I heard that it was far too dangerous for old folk to fill hot-water bottles.

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