I am sitting on the sand, hair in a sopping wet lump of a braid down my back, face tingling from the cold water and the thin veneer of salt that has lingered on my skin all week. The sand is warm. It is gritty between my toes. The sun too is warm on the bare skin of my upper back; I can feel it drying the swimming costume that covers my lower back. I am on holidays. I am, unsurprisingly, feeling rather content.
Gazing towards the waves, I spot an old woman walking very carefully out of the shallows, on the arm of a middle-aged woman I assume is her daughter. The uneven surfaces and the small waves are difficult for the old woman. Perhaps she will not be able to come to the beach for much longer.
I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother years ago—I’m not sure how many, but long before she died—where she told me how much it saddened her when she realised she could no longer walk safely on the sand. When she had to give up on going to the beach. I think too of the many hours I spent on a beach as a child with her, the story—well known in our family—about the time as a young woman that my grandmother ran into the surf with her glasses on, such was her joy at being on the beach, only realising she’d done so when she came out of the water later, noticed she couldn’t see and realised she’d been able to when she went in. I think too of her feet. Of the olive skin and scrunched toes. Of her troubles with bunions. My grandmother’s feet in the sand.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about feet and knees for the blog of the yoga business I teach corporate yoga through. About how to look after them so they work well for longer. Remembering my grandmother’s feet, it doesn’t surprise me that she found that she lacked stability on the beach. But it saddens me. And the full meaning of that conversation with her all those years ago—although I must have guessed at the strength of her sadness at the time or perhaps I’d have forgotten the conversation—sits with me suddenly here on the beach. And I miss her. Immensely.
I miss her because I am watching another old woman who may one day soon say something similar to her own granddaughter. And the old woman probably knows this now. I hope so much that the knowledge doesn’t mean she is frustrated or sad, I hope it means she is enjoying this time on the beach now.
This is the difficulty of bodies. They break down, they slow down, they fall apart. They waste away. And when they do it’s painful, it’s confronting, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. My own body has fallen apart in its own way at times. The most significant so far was in a big and lasting way, when I was just a teenager. I used to feel hardly done by about this—angry, resentful, ashamed even—but now I feel grateful. Yes. Grateful. Because this happens to everyone, in some way, eventually, and that it happened for me in my teens was shock enough at an age when I was old enough to be pushed into finding out more about this thing I get around in. Actually, this thing that is me, just as much as my mind is.
On the beach, my own feet are covered in sand, stuck out in front of me here, off the towel. I am suddenly hugely grateful for them. I have my own issues with stability (baby-sized, perhaps, compared to so many elderly and not-so-elderly folk), and my earlier run-in with bodily dysfunction has left its mark, but even so, this body is incredible. The processes that happen under this skin, the things that keep me breathing and eating and moving around, really are amazing.
I just wish I’d been able to talk about these things with my grandmother, that I’d known how to respond when she talked about the challenges of ageing. I wish this was a conversation more people knew how to engage in meaningfully and compassionately—about the challenges of having/being a body. Because not talking about these things means we feel isolated when things go wrong. I see it again and again in my yoga teaching work. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own response to a lack of these kind of conversations.
More than anything, in this moment in the sunshine on the beach, I miss my grandmother intensely and wish she could be sitting here with me on the sand now, water dripping from her hair and dribbling down her spine. Watching the waves come in.
The post on knees and feet I wrote can be read here.
This is really beautifully written. It made me think about my grandmothers’ bodies, how my body is now resembling my mother’s, how important it is to think about strength and suppleness now rather than later.
Thanks Kirsten. And yes, you’re right—our bodies are quite literally the embodiment of our daily physical habit, so it pays to have good ones.