Fence sitting

If my particular cocktail of genetics, science and luck follow the patterns of my grandparents, I may be at the exact halfway point in my life. I often imagine myself as tiptoeing on the top of a fence that divides youth and old age, my arms thrown wide, trying to keep it all, trying to balance; one hand still gripping the handlebar of my blue banana seat bike, the other smoothing hair that is turning more steel wool than skunk stripe. From this middle, faced with choices of change and continuance, I often think about what defines age. Who was I and who will I be? Several weeks ago I found myself literally sitting between two generations, one older and one younger. Although the parties had a pleasant history, I was prepared to be the translating link.

Not many women would anticipate spending an entire weekend with their mother-in-law. Fourteen hours of driving round trip and two days in a very small town. But my husband and I had a dilemma and my mother-in-law doesn’t fit the sitcom stereotype. The situation was typical of busy parents: two boys, two places to be – a family weekend at college and a high school play – two freshmen starring in two different roles needing support. After many discussions and a magic eight ball, I was to be the college representative and wanted a traveling companion. My mother-in-law came to mind. We asked and she accepted.

My mother-in-law is seventy-three years old. She is genteel in manner, trim and attractive, dressed by a Nordstrom personal shopper and juggling a dance card filled with parties, fund raisers and dear childhood friends. She is an active and respected force in the conservative world of Utah politics and religion. Opinionated and confident, she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind but has the social finesse to know when to edit. I know she worries about us, the family that lives the farthest away from her: in distance, in ideology, in lifestyle.

So I was careful on our drive to the college. I skirted topics where our worldviews might diverge. We had not spent much time together over past years and were content wiling away hours catching up on trivialities. We ate at McDonalds. We argued over who should pay for gas.

Then we met my son. He was chatty with a candor that I had been avoiding. Heady with his shiny new liberal arts voice, eager to share every detail of his emerging adult narrative and true to his inclination toward provocation; he managed to share his ideas about premarital sex (open to whatever happens and “will know the right time”), extract my ideas about gay marriage (“Mom, what exactly do you think are the differences between civil unions and marriage?”), announce his political leanings in the upcoming election, hint of weekend revelries and, of course, refer to religion multiple times (especially his musings on Japanese pilgrimages) . . . all before dinner. Every time he opened his mouth my shoulders tensed up to ears. My concern was that my mother-in-law would be offended and I was way out of my comfort zone for potential family conflict. What would this proper grandmother think about my son and, really, about me? I felt caught in what I perceived to be the huge gap between a freethinking young man and a traditional older woman. I felt responsible to act as a liaison and mediator, I was the one who had brought her along.

Then I began to notice her actual reactions to my son’s revelations instead of my imagined ones. She asked him questions about why he thought in particular ways, what his friends thought and what experiences he had had so far. She shared her own beliefs but in a teasing way, with a twinkle of self-deprecation and mock accusation. She looked him in the eye. He patted her on the head. She praised some behaviors while not agreeing with others. He challenged her and she challenged back. Interspersed in the conversation they both admitted to hating email, iPods and eating too much. We referenced current movies (assuring her that not remembering the plot to “Eagle Eye” had nothing to do with dementia) and old classics, music and TV, books and places we had visited.

By the time we were at dinner I had forgotten my clunky role as the link in the generational chain. There was a moment when I realized that if I closed my eyes, I could not tell the ages of each speaker. Without physical clues, without preconceived assumptions about their backgrounds or beliefs, without notions of young or old, my son and his grandmother are remarkably similar people. They are the kind of people that we call “old souls” when they are young and “young at heart” when they are old. They move in and around and through issues that separate the less agile and keep some people mired in stasis, prone to intellectual algae and murky vision.

As I observed the two of them, I began to recognize those characteristics that I see in people who seem younger or older or somehow ageless. First, they put their relationships before their philosophies. Any time the conversation threatens the other person – they instinctively soften, divert or change the tone without giving in or up their argument. They can talk about controversial topics because of a fundamental respect and affection for the other person that transcends differences in ideology. Second, curiosity connects each of them to their changing environment. They keep pace whether they participate or not, they know what is going on around them. Both engage and enjoy the moment. Both adapt and are flexible. Third, they have a profound sense of the absurd, a pragmatism that refuses to take the world too seriously, comfortable with the occasional cosmic shrug when there is no reasonable explanation. They tease and cajole and laugh easily and at everything, especially themselves.

This is not to say that my mother-in-law did not leave my freedom-drunk son without reservation. She followed up with me on a few of his declarations. But her intent was to clarify and not to judge. There was no need for me to mediate after all. There was never a gap to fill. The drive home was an open dialogue and I was less uptight. The two of them had set a precedent that permeated the car.

I read once that we don’t change as we grow older; we become more of who we are. When I see my mother-in-law and my son together, I sense that she was herself at eighteen and he will be himself at seventy-three. Which leaves me in the middle, wondering if I am more one way or another, aging or ageless, my sneakers clinging tightly to edge of the fence.  

5 responses to “Fence sitting”

  1. Nice piece. Ever since counting gray hairs in my beard has become part of growing my face-fro, it is a pleasure to read how others contemplate mapping out and traversing their middle age. A’s for writing and content!

  2. Ginny says:


  3. Tim says:

    This really is quite lovely. Moments of self-discovery like this are fascinating. I love how your expectations got re-arranged, and how you handle it in your writing here.

  4. Kate the Great says:

    I really like this, Ramona. I was often told in my high school years by my dearest friends that I had an old soul. I don’t get that anymore, but I suspect it’s because I live in Utah and my beliefs and my opinions aren’t questioned as often because I’m just another one of those Mormons who all have the same opinion. I like the idea of being ageless. You express the idea quite well here. Eloquently and gracefully. There are no bumps in your narration of a bump.

  5. Kirsten says:

    I loved this post. I wish my mother had the 3 “ageless” characteristics. It would make things much easier for me to talk to her about my political leanings/questions (Hooray for last Tuesday!) and to connect with her on my husband’s current religious mid-life crisis. All that seems to happen is surface chatter– she doesn’t “want to go there.” Ever. I think she’d rather ignore ideas that differ from her world view and wants to keep seeing things through her rose-colored glasses. (I often wonder how I look to her as all pink…)

    Also, if you need a driving buddy for another trip to see college-son, let me know. Depending on the chaos here, I just might escape and tag along!