Conversations about bodies I wish I’d had with my grandmother

Feet in sandI 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.

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Family holiday, part four

‘You know we have to run up the stairs too,’ I say.

‘Aww.’

The younger of my two brothers and I have been running barefoot across the grass and the car park near the beach. It has started raining, and the weather patterns from the last few days suggest this light rain, after a stinging hot morning, will soon get much heavier. The rule about also running up the stairs is not related to the likely weather outcome though; I’ve just made it up arbitrarily, the way children often make up rules for games they’re playing.

We’ve just come from the playground at the other of the beach. We had to wade through ankle-deep water to access much of the equipment (hence the bare feet). We stood together on the platform atop four large springs, our weight on either side of the bar spinning it around. We squealed. We were disappointed to discover on the monkey bars that our adult-sized bodies were harder to lift than either of us ever remembered our child-sized bodies being, our upper body strength, perhaps, not having kept up with the increase in size and weight. We climbed over the top of them instead. The slippery slide seemed shorter than when we were children, and the woodchips covering the ground sharper.

Ostensibly, we left the playground to beat the weather home, but it’s probably no coincidence that we made our decision shortly after a small child and his parents arrived.

At the bottom of the stairs we pause briefly. Look at each other. I can hardly believe this man is my little brother; that when he looks at his sister he sees a woman. We run up the stairs together, and across the road, the cement and asphalt roughing up the soles of our feet.

Family holiday, part two

We stand side by side in front of the mirror. Our arms and legs are slick with sunscreen. Mum recalls a day earlier, when Dad stood just here and half-heartedly applied sunscreen to his face so that almost none of it was rubbed in, then asked her if his face was done.

‘We should both do the same to him,’ she says, and we apply the sunscreen, leaving large white streaks and blobs all over our faces.

‘How’s this?’ she says. She begins to giggle. So do I. We can’t stop.

We are doubled-over, still laughing, when Dad comes in to use the sunscreen. Mum attempts to straighten up and ask about her face. Two words, a glance at me, and she dissolves into laughter again.

Dad shakes his head at us, not sure why this recycled joke is so hilarious. Tears rolling down our cheeks now, neither are we.

Adventure

Looking back over the last few posts here, I’ve realised that I seem to spend an awful lot of time writing here about not doing things. Or at least about needing to do nothing because I manage to keep myself busy and occasionally need a rest. But I rarely write about the things that I actually am doing.

So I thought today I would write about something that I’ve actually done. Today I went adventuring with a friend — a kind of research project for both of us. We caught the bus from Newtown to Coogee with no real plans, except to look around and maybe find somewhere we could eat pancakes. We wandered along the beach, in the rain, and took pictures of sand, boats, trees. We found a cafe in which to eat pancakes (yum!), and we wandered around a local green grocer without shopping baskets, trying to resist the temptation to buy any food. We walked up hills into the residential streets, gazing at all the interesting houses and interesting gardens.

We talked a lot, and I got damp toes. And we took pictures. Here are some of mine.