Bloomer: Life in an old age home after a name change, a second mid-life crisis and no bra
Completely early pandemic “locked down” in an old age home, 70-year-old boomer Maggie ditches her bra, browses an old diary and reconnects with her artist self.
“While the world is happier with its oldies locked away, the lovable and maverick elders of Hazyview Mansions, galvanised by Maggie and her four close friends, have their own ideas. Romance, old loves; individual, local and global issues drive the story of this consequential movement with sustained and gentle humour”. Read this excerpt from ‘Bloomer‘ by Anne Schlebusch:
Maggie’s tray arrived at 7 am. Her tummy had just been moaning a bit. Food was provided for the entire day. Never so glamorous when you lift up the fancy lid and peer underneath. She panicked a moment at the lack of choice, but quieted herself that it was fine. At least she didn’t have to build up grotesque piles of uneaten food. Eat it or return to sender.
She pulled at her wrinkly midriff skin flaps vaguely. Legacy of her larger days.
“From fat to flap. Maybe Covid will erase the flaps for me and I will morph into a svelte senior instead of a cuddly gran…”
Politeness didn’t matter anymore. What a thought.
“Quite liberating, actually,” she said out loud. She smiled broadly. Said it again.
“Get organised” was her first direction to herself. That was something she loved.
Several of her fingers were crumpled with arthritis, her eyes were one-cataract-in and one-cataract-fixed, her knees were dodgy, her back hurt after a while when she was sitting too still. Her left ear was a little deaf. Her ankles swelled and she sometimes had a moment when she coughed and her bladder muscle-thingy failed. But her brain was as sharp as sharp.
“This thing is going to be my saving grace,” she gleamed, as she looked around at her dear world and her microscopic balcony.
“This Covid thing. No need to be polite. No need to…”
A strange look crossed her face. A “cheeky grin”, you would call it if she weren’t such an old lady.
“No need to wear a damn bra!” she shouted in glee, peeling off what she had just put on with such difficulty, given her crooked fingers and the necessary yank around her back.
“No worries about when to go to sleep because I don’t have to get up for the early breakfast shift. No need to say ‘after you’ at the awful lift. No need to eat what I don’t feel like.”
As she talked, she packed her bras into a bag, and her smart streetwear too. She dug out her comfy slippers and put on “something rich and strange”.
“The Tempest,” she murmured as she got into her floral zipless non-iron pants, an unwise purchase from that crazy Mauritian holiday. She patted her pixie hair fondly and gave a twirl. Oops. She hit her knee. Bad idea.
DAY 2 ticked by. DAY 3 as well. Phone calls. Messages. Anxieties. Jokes. Statistics. World news devoured. Weird dozes. Strange cravings for food that she now couldn’t pop out and buy – like Marmite, apple sauce, Boudoir biscuits, custard – all random comfort foods from her childhood. How ungoverned her appetites now were.
As the days inched by and she fiddled with her new phone as best she could, learning some of its tricks, she found she was getting tired of making lists of things to do and new ways of thinking she should adopt.
“Time for action,” she declared, lying down gratefully. “Let’s start,” she added, feeling a bit like Winnie-the-Pooh.
She put aside her list of fears (death, terrible illness which would not kill her but leave her wrecked, death of loved ones, hating too much of the delivered food, depression, panic disorders, agoraphobia, muscular weakness due to lack of exercise, loneliness, infecting someone else) and looked at the plans list.
ITEM 1: Keep body going
Maggie’s (occasional) diary put it like this:
So, here’s some of what happened in this “Work on Body” POA: Couldn’t find free Pilates course on my new fancy phone, but found a nice thing for Parkinson’s patients. Try to do about five minutes every ninety. E.g., leaning on counter. Standing on one leg holding onto back of chair. Very bad at this – doing exercises for getting rid of what is called “Upper pubic fat” (can you believe what they come up with these days?).
Anything that starts with the words “Lie down” is good news for me! It’s like riding a bike lying down. Slowly.
ITEM 2: Shed excess clobber
Maggie’s biggest opus involved doing a gigantic tidy. After a couple of weeks, her tiny kitchen was full of piles of everything. She had asked Cath to drop off a whack of bin bags at the gate. Actual junk into bags for disposal. Things to keep went back into cupboards. Piles ranged from items classified as “sentimental but only to me”, or “sentimental so must go to the kids or grandkids or old friends”, to “valuable – Allie must check”, to “can’t be bothered today”, and so on.
She couldn’t endure this for more than a few chunks of time a day, to be honest. But some of it she truly loved and sat sniffing away as she read old love letters or peered at faded photos. Sometimes she fell asleep while she was busy and would wake up to find, for example, her granny’s old glass beads lying on her chest, or, worse, that she was lying on them.
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Through much of her time she kept up a running commentary. Some of it was in her head. Lots of it came out loud. Every now and then she would chide herself, saying things like: Oh, come on now – shut up for a while, you old bore!
Maggie referred to The Universe a lot nowadays.
The Universe has spoken – she would declaim, as she irrevocably tore up some old birthday card from a lost love or small twin.
The Universe seems to be bent on destroying itself – as she peered from her balcony at idiots flouting Lockdown rules.
The Universe frankly wants to just get bloody rid of us, was her hottest topic as the mortality statistics prompted beleaguered leaders to typically sound more upbeat than mournful when they noted that it was the oldest and most vulnerable that were being annihilated. “It’s like they just shrug us off!” she would roar, several times each day.
With Covid-19 incarceration, and the breezy authority accorded her due to her advanced years, she felt completely liberated to yell and perform at will. Every time Trump said “scourge”, with his silly head on one side, mispronouncing the word, she stopped her undertone commentary and yelled at him.
She often laughed at herself as she sat there in her Covid-choice wardrobe of colourful clothes, mostly impulsive purchases, or vintage favourites. She rather fancied a divine knitted tea cosy and adopted it as a jaunty hat, placed atop her wavy pixie cut – that looked nothing like Judi Dench’s but still made her preen with delight. She waved her socked and tracksuited legs under her layers of blankets and laughed for the sheer nonsense of it all.
About 30 days in, Maggie found herself twisting an old Topcopy packet round and round. Yes, she knew she’d had some big thing printed, but what was it again? She peered into it and pulled out the wad of pages. “Ohhh yess,” she snort-laughed as she recalled. It was her print-out of her seven months of keeping a diary. She looked at the date on the top sheet.
It was a big year for her, that year. She’d even, literally, changed her name. “Take charge of your life” was the year plan: and what more potent way to do that than to reclaim your own birthname? She smiled. It had seemed like an unnecessary flourish to her children, who had been rather reproachful when she announced she planned to revert to her maiden name.
She remembered clearly how scornfully she had spat out the words “maiden name” when she was talking to them. So anachronistic, that word and all the trappings that came along with it. Her married name was an identity that just didn’t work for her anymore. She felt strong in her birthname and she was taking it back – de Leeuw she had been and now would be again – to hell with all the paperwork. It would be worth it.
“No regrets,” she now said aloud. She became Maggie de Leeuw again that year. It had felt like climbing back into her welcoming skin. She had relished it. It rolled off her tongue just right. She spoke it out often. For so many years she’d been just “Maggie” when she met new people. Now she was “Maggie de Leeuw”, a character.
‘Beating the Bads and Blues’ she’d subtitled the diary.
She wondered if she could bear the embarrassment of reading it all. Fifty-two-years-old she’d been and having a second wave of mid-life crisis. Maybe, more accurately, a kind of menopausal panic, come to think of it.
Ha-ha, what the hell! Plenty of bloody time now. She grabbed a cup of coffee, found her specs, snuggled her knee rug round her legs and started reading. DM/ML
Like Maggie, the protagonist in her exciting debut novel for adults, Anne Schlebusch is 70 years old. She has written three Young Adult novels, becoming a 1995 Joint Winner of the “Young Africa Award” with one of them. In 2020, her short story was longlisted in the Kwela Corona Competition.
Bloomer is published by Modjaji Books and can be found in bookstores across the country. It retails at R320.