“How are you?” I could assume the question coming through the phone line from Mama’s friend a few days ago. “Lazy,” Mama replied. It’s her stock answer. If she hasn’t slopped the pigs, milked the cow, prepared lunch for the farm hands and cleaned up the kitchen, completed her volunteer work, and climbed Mt. LeConte in her spare time, she considers her day—and by extension herself—worthless. It drives Rebecca and me to distraction.
Rebecca talked with her about it over dinner some months ago. “What kind of message,” she asked, “do you think that sends to your daughters?” She suggested some alternate responses, which Mama tried out. For about two days, then it was back to lazy.
The definition of lazy is “an unwillingness to use energy despite having the ability to do so.” Mama, at 97.5, gets herself up each morning, dresses herself, and makes her own hot breakfast. When her care partner arrives they go to the (small) mall where they walk about four rounds. Sometimes they run errands on the way home. When they return they cook something together, work on a project, and/or do laundry. When she is alone again, she prepares her lunch and often listens to a book on tape, which she tells me about over dinner. She may talk to a friend or relative on the phone, which requires a great deal of energy—often the deaf communicating with the deaf—or write a letter that she can’t see to read back to herself. After an hour of napping, she listens to the TV news while I cook dinner. After dinner she cleans up the kitchen. She rests when she needs to. That is what she is able to do in the winter when she can’t be outside, and what she describes as lazy.
If you are doing all that you are able to do, how is that lazy? Who drew the line between activity that is enough and that which is not? Is walking at the mall lazy, but walking in the woods is not? Is working at a job that devours your spirit constructive, but writing or making art for your own pleasure slothful? Have women been conditioned to believe that if they are not bringing home a paycheck (my generation) or raising children (my mother’s generation), they are lazy—regardless of their activity level? Is that why Mama didn’t read when I was growing up? She hung around the kitchen and the laundry room, because that was where she earned her right to take up space?
I have lots of questions about the way we view ourselves. I don’t have many answers. I think all of the above is part of my mother’s make up. Her own mother had to work very hard. She raised four of her own children and three step-children. She did crafts to sell and eventually ran a boarding house to support her family. Mama never describes her mother as lazy; but when I knew my Granny—who lived to the age of 99—she was a cranky and complaining old woman who did pretty much nothing that I remember, other than sit in a chair. Maybe Mama is afraid of becoming that, so whatever she does is never enough to safeguard her.
I think the best answer, though, is that she wants to be able to do more; she wants to be younger. She will not accept the losses she has suffered in the past two years. She can’t be grateful for what she can still do, which is considerable.
This morning I read, in The New Old Age about a study comparing younger and older subjects who had congestive heart failure. The younger patients were depressed by what they could no longer achieve, while the elders felt grateful to be alive and able to do whatever they could do. There is a “U-shaped curve in which people say they are happiest in youth and in old age.” “The apparent reason that people who could do less still felt they had better quality of life,” the researcher said, “is that “older people are better able to reframe [or cognitively restructure] their lives.” Maybe the key concept there is “cognitively restructure.” Is Mama cognitively unable to reframe her ability?
I am struggling under the roof of her self-talk—though just a little bit, I am pretty strong my self-concept, in spite of being raised by someone who isn’t—not to wonder if I am lazy. I’m not earning a living; I don’t volunteer other than to care for her, which doesn’t require much physical exertion though there is a plethora of emotional drain; I count such hedonistic things as enjoying the sunrise on my list of daily accomplishments. What Rebecca meant by asking Mama what kind of message her description of herself sends to her daughters is does she want us to feel like we are lazy people if we aren’t making ourselves crazy with a need to accomplish some standard set by…who? Mama does not consider her daughters lazy—it’s a word she reserves for herself. But do we consider, when we describe ourselves negatively, that we might unwittingly be sending a message to others about themselves?
This morning, at 7:45, when I greeted Mama before leaving for the coffee shop, I was a little surprised that she was just emerging from her bedroom. She had been up long enough to be already in the kitchen. I smiled, and asked what she had been doing. “Wasting time,” was her answer. I have been thinking of having another discussion of this lazy concept with her, but this was not the time. I stayed silent for several seconds, then I couldn’t help it, I said, “Or were you spending time?” She thought a moment, then said, “Using time.” Better, I thought. Better.
“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn [do] a lot today, at least we learned [did] a little” – Buddha.