Strangers in Good Company

One of my favorite movies is a 1991 Canadian film—Strangers in Good Company—in which seven elderly women and their young driver, on an outing from an old-folks home, become stranded in an isolated part of the Canadian countryside when their bus breaks down. The women—who are not professional actors, and who use their real names and backgrounds in the film—spend a few days in an abandoned house awaiting rescue, reflecting on their lives through a mostly ad libbed script. Through their shared crisis, they become a band of sisters: listening, revealing, encouraging, comforting.

I decided I needed to watch the movie again—now that I am in the company of a nonagenarian—and spent a rainy Monday afternoon on Netflix with the women and their stories.

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As they go about their simple chores, seeking to survive until help comes, they chat about their lives: all of them unique, interesting, and meaningful—as all our lives are. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the elderly had lives before they became centered on the business of mental and physical health, on the business of dying or trying not to. It got me reflecting on my mother’s life and the recording she is making of her memories.

I listened to a bit of a tape this week, helping her find where she left off on her last session. It was a story of playing with her brother in the creek at the foot of the hill in Tennessee their house sat on, amid the watercress and in the presence of a blue-winged dragonfly. She picked some watercress for her mother, thinking she was doing a good thing, except that it was baby lettuce and her mother was furious and punished her by tying her with clean diapers into a chair in the corner. “I got so tired,” my child-mother said.

The detail in what she remembers is astounding. (Equally so, how the brain works, that she can’t remember something I told her five minutes ago.) As I listened, I could almost see her brain remembering that scene, the words spoken, the blue sky and clouds, the fact that the dragonfly didn’t sting like the ones at a previous home did, the sound of her mother’s voice calling them to come home. Her voice on the tape is tender. I could feel her recall of the water and the air and the thrill of being “allowed” to play in the creek; but not of how the punishment may have robbed her of the pleasure. She seems to have forgotten all of her mother’s ill temper, both when she was a child and when she was trying to care for her in her old age.

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Stellajoe in a dress made of paper.

How old are we in our minds? As the elderly return to a more childlike state, do their brains go back to childhood too? Could she have remembered the details 20 years ago when her mind was cluttered with the present? If the memories are happy ones, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I would like to return to the halcyon days of my childhood and escape the insanity of the current political campaign.

There is a gathering storm of nearing death on the horizon for the melancholy oldest of the women in the movie; and for all of them a sense that, even though most of them are still delighting in the present—as they deal with their heart issues, stroke recovery, aches and pains, loneliness, sorrow—there’s not much life ahead. But the movie doesn’t emphasize impermanence, rather a sense of the coming storm as an impetus to seize the moment, in spite of the fragility of their lives. It is a shining interlude of friendship, freedom, and unexpected adventure.

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This blog has become a community of strangers in good company. Comments left on my posts reveal a silent sisterhood of family caregivers around the world, having many of the same sometimes frustrating and bewildering experiences I write about.

The mother of one of two sisters in mother-care with whom I am in close touch, died recently. As I looked back at the beginning posts of the private blog we have shared for nearly two years, in a journey of accompaniment, I found this first post I wrote to her:

“As we begin these letters, I am grateful for your company in this journey we find ourselves on: bidden, and yet, not. It is a lonely journey; and still there are many of us silently walking it. As you say, ‘the silence is broken here.'”

I invite you to tell your story in the comment section of any of these blog posts that resonate with you, and to reply to the comments of others you find here. It is an isolating existence, but we are in good company. When we break the silence, strangers become friends.

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“I’m not going to die. I’m going fishing.” —Alice Diabo, Mohawk Tribeswoman

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9 thoughts on “Strangers in Good Company

  1. I saw that movie last year and I loved it !
    I love your description of it. I may have to watch again too. I’ve been thinking today about the difference between old and old-old. I talk with my Mom every day on my way home from work. Some nights I hear her as old-old, though I know she isn’t there yet. I think about the two years she cared for her father before he passed at 98. I think that experience exhausted her. Aged her. I know she needed it and he needed it too. Very different things for each of them. I think much of what she did was out of obligation rather than love and affection. I want to be able to be present as she ages. Reading everything I have (of your story) so far is helping me to be aware of how and who, I am with my own mother. I hope she gets to be old-old. I hope she shares her stories with me. I remember thinking she was a lot like one of the women in this show but now my own memory of it is fading. I only hope I can remain present when it counts and am surrounded by strong women as I begin that dance in my own mother/daughter journey.

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  2. I too deeply appreciate Jude’s response! This telling is truly beautiful, Gretchen! I sense your heart…meeting your mom in a gentle way that actually feels nourishing for you…a gift of connection.

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  3. Well, now I have to watch that movie! I wasn’t the main caregiver for either of my late parents, but I love the concept of women sharing their stories at any age, making sense of their lives through narrative. I wonder of the meaning we make changes over time as our perspective changes. I imagine it does.

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  4. Oh, wish I had the experience with my mom as you have in the telling of her story here. It is so beautiful. My mom went to 90 yr of age and if I tried to get memories from her she would just say, “I don’t remember,” and I know that was her truth.

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  5. Dear Gretchen –

    I love your use of this movie as a metaphor for the journey you, and other care-givers are on, together and yet separate. While I am not caring for a parent, I am helping others navigate the process of finding meaning in their lives after retirement. Letting go of one identity and trying to claim another, is part of this journey as humans that writing can help us go through, together, but separate. I continue to be grateful for your ability and willingness to share the tender, humorous, scary and fearless moments of your journey. Thanks for sending a greeting and hug through Joanna – I, too, hope that someday our paths will cross in person. For now, please know you have my love and support. Jude

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    • Thank you for being such a faithful commenter, Jude. Together, but separate. Indeed. “Letting go of one identity and trying to claim another” is really what most of us do throughout our lives, isn’t it. Now you have me thinking of all the times I have done that. I would love to hear more about your work some day. Thank you for your support. G

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