Last night I watched a documentary about Lev Sergeivitch (Leon) Theremin, inventor of the theremin. The Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that makes sound whenever something with a magnetic charge (i.e. a human hand) is in its range. It looks like a box on a stand with a vertical pole on the right (which controls the pitch) and a loop coming off the left (which controls the volume).
The documentary focuses on the life of both Mr. Theremin and his friend, companion, and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore (nice last name). After he immigrated to the US in 1920, he invented the Theremin, as well as other crazy electronic instruments and mad scientist devices like a crib that protects against kidnapping by emitting an invisible shield. Theremin courted Clara Rockmore on her 18th birthday by designing a cake whose candle was a theremin-like rod. As she approached her cake, it made music.
There is film of her 18th birthday, probably around 1930. Her hair is slicked back and she's in her evening dress. Her face is thick and unripe. As she dances with her cake, her body language is shy and deferent, her eyelashes flutter. She is relaxed and drugged with attention and being desired.
That's her around 1991, there on the right. Now, don't go getting any ideas. This isn't a post about how sad it is that old people get ugly. I actually don't feel that way. For the past three years, I have worked with senior citizens from Russia, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico and all over Central America, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay, and France. And Cambodia. Sometimes they speak English and sometimes they don't. I speak enough Spanish to have the old ladies tell me "if I could do it again, I wouldn't get married."
I spend a lot of time looking at their faces and trying to see how they looked when they were young. Just like you might look at a baby picture of your lover to see his or her face (and you can see it), I like to look the other way. And people do look like themselves no matter how old they are. What was different about Clara Rockmore was that her image was caught on video.
In general, women who are seniors are tough bitches who don't put up with shit from anyone. My grandmother, Nanny, once used her cane to tease some teenage boys at Shoney's for taking too long in the buffet line. Old women have outgrown the collective habits that most women possess: they aren't trying to be nice.
I was reading yesterday in Bitch magazine (which is a feminist analysis of pop culture) that women are generally socialized to act clueless and silly. It's true, and I'm not making a judgement here (can I stress that twice? Do you understand?), but we do giggle, and smile, and look down, and act nervous. And we're beautiful and put flowers in our hair. Middle aged women do this too, but most seniors don't do this. They tell you what to do, or tell you their opinion, or remind you of what they have done. They look you straight in the eye, or they look over your shoulder and talk. It's different. It's not like another exception to typical female mannerisms: the East Coast power lawyer in a navy suit; it's keen and sharp and relaxed. They aren't trying to prove anything; when they talk, they provide information. I'm sure I'll grow into it, and if you're a lady, I'm sure you will too.
Thich Nhat Hahn says that youth is like a trickle of water at the top of the mountain whereas old age is like a broad river. God bless him.
Clara Rockmore's countenance had changed in the way that most old women must change. I only see them when they're already old, and I'm too young to have watched anyone really move into old age. As a senior, Rockmore told the film crew to step back when they were too near her theremin. She didn't say, "sorry but you'll interfere," she said "you can't stand that close. Get back." At one point she even told them to "cut" when she thought that they had what they wanted.
I always thought that the dopey bunny syndrome that so many of us young ladies posses was indigenous to our generation, that older women were raised to be direct and austere, but there she was in 1920 something walking around in her evening dress like some girl named Clarice at your semi-formal, being kissed by Leon Theremin.
I have been teaching a class at a senior center in East Oakland. The Center for Elders Independence (surely the name was chosen by a grant writer) is located in a mall in what used to be a Meryvn's. East Oakland is the Oakland that most people are scared of, and the mall that once served happy suburbanites in the 1980s has been changed into a social services/payless shoe store mall. IT'S SO BIZARRE! The police station, the social security administration, and the "Self-sufficiency Center" occupy the department store storefronts. The interior "shops" are things like the Black Chamber of Commerce and an afterschool tutoring facility. However, there are still some clothing stores and candy shops thrown in. The fountains are all dried up and the tile is chipped, and the parking lot has been reworked so that the spaces slant the wrong way and you have to back out of some of the rows to leave.
CEI is depressing because none of these seniors are independent at all. They get picked up and they come to this place where they get medical care, physical therapy, two meals, and activities. It sounds great, and it could be great, but the staff talk to the clients like they're in kindergarten. That, and I sniff that same old "office" mentality where everyone acts like they're working so much harder than other people while slyly hinting that their coworkers aren't doing their jobs. I hate both of those things so intensely; it was hard for me to go there.
I was hired to teach an ESL class, but they rolled in Gwen and Lola, who were native English speakers, along with Mary, a woman from Hong Kong who points to me and purses her lips and says "inspiration!" Frecia, a sweet gentle Peruvian lady, Mrs. Alizaga, a Nicaraguan woman with a tight perm and plucked eyebrows she raises instead of saying "I don't understand," Amadeo, a Cuban man who I delight carnally, Mrs. Figaro, a partially deaf Mexican woman who speaks English very well but says she can't, and Yao, a very quiet Cambodian man who revealed after two months that he can in fact read and speak English. I didn't know Lola spoke English perfectly and was from New Orleans. When I asked Lola what she liked to do with her family, she said, "Oh we have a good ole time!" I commented on her mastery of regional dialect.
After a week, I decided to turn the class into a poetry class. We would read a few poems written by children or people who were learning English and then we would write poems ourselves. The biggest challenge wasn't their English, it was that they felt like they didn't know how to be creative. I basically gave them a fill-in-the-blank kind of format, like "My home sounds like..., My home smells like..., My home feels like..." I taught them about metaphor and haiku and we even read William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just To Say."
Yao, the man from Cambodia, had tattoos on his hands. He surely fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge). He didn't speak for a long time, but I kept looking him in his eyes and smiling and waiting way too long for him to answer when I called on him. Finally one day during writing time I sat down next to him and said "What do you see when you think of Cambodia?" This was his poem:
My hometown is Kampong Chhang, Cambodia
I see people working on a farm
I smell romchate flowers
I hear the song of small, white birds.
I loved Yao. They cancelled my class yesterday and I said goodbye to him in Cambodian (which I've already forgotten) underneath his denim baseball cap. His walker had those tennis ball things at the bottom. I thought to myself, "what else does he have before he dies?"
So last night as I was watching the documentary, and Clara Rockmore and Leon Theremin were reunited at age 94 (at least for Theremin), and she was walking this collapsed figure around her dramatic and formal apartment, I thought about how far away her youth had receded into her body, how the flirty, laughing, probably somewhat insecure girl was replaced by someone with keen eyes and a strong voice. And if Leon looked at her, he wouldn't see the girl he had loved.
And I sat there beside my boyfriend. We are always fighting and breaking up and getting back together and in between all of those things there is a heavy, intense, familial-like, passionate connection and respect and love. And I thought about saying goodbye to Yao and how Clara looked when Theremin put his arm around her and how this is my life, sitting here, beginning, being Susanna and knowing part of what will come.