Feeling Useful: A Place Where Age and Love Meet
In my twenties and thirties and forties, I was a professor.
In my fifties I was a college president.
In my sixties I was a foundation executive.
Now that I am six months away from age seventy, I’ve been promoted to “granny nanny.” But what, exactly, does that mean?
Obviously, it means helping to keep a baby happy and healthy:
But it means much more when the baby’s parents are in the midst of transforming an abandoned house into a home. It means scrubbing on hands and knees, washing windows, cooking meals, painting porch railings, raking leaves into bags, going on errands, cleaning AirBnB units, watering plants, and washing dishes by hand.
When I was wearing suits and going to the office every day, I gladly paid others to do this kind of work. Now, however, I am getting tremendous joy from caring for others instead of being served myself.
That joy extends to the wider community also. I’m getting to know the women and men who sit on the porch on sunny days at the nearby retirement community.
Kate and I baked cookies today and want to share them as Christmas presents for neighbors.
On my walks with Lydia, I am usually in no rush.
We stop to chat with strangers who seem interested or look lonely. When they brighten up, we are rewarded.
Lydia smiles, gurgles, giggles, and laughs all day long. She is my calling card.
How to describe the source of this joy, this jubilación, in small acts of service, especially when I spent a great part of my youth and early adulthood trying not to be dependent upon manual labor?
Fellow blogger (The Tent Soloist) Liz LaFarge, at age 81, wrote a post about making curtains several months ago that explains much of what I am feeling. She travels the country in a camper named Scamp, and decided to solve the need for privacy by making a pair of opaque curtains on her own, buying a new sewing machine, finding.thrift-store sheets, and then tackling the task of construction.
She wrote: “I was surprised by the sense of potency this small project gave me.”
A retired psychotherapist, cellist, mother three adult daughters living on three different continents, LaFarge could have solved the problem of translucent curtains by much easier methods.
Instead, she chose her own labor, brought back memories of her teenage love for sewing on an old treadle machine even while she was learning to operate a new one.
After she hung the curtains, she was so pleased that she started vacuuming, a task she had gladly turned over to others previously. It was a luxury not to have to clean. Now, however, she felt the opposite way: “I think maybe I’ve had enough of luxury. Now a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small, is more satisfying to me.”
Reflecting on what she had learned, she settled upon the idea of self-knowledge: “I understand so many things more clearly now, including myself … For me, at this age at least, feeling useful outweighs comfort and luxury.”
I don’t think I’m quite at the stage LaFarge is describing, but I’m close enough to understand the feeling-good-by-feeling-useful part. Of course, I’m planning some vacation time later this winter, and I don’t think I’ll have any trouble enjoying a little luxury!
How do you feel about being useful? Has it given you a sense of potency? Has that sense changed over time?
From Elfrieda Schroeder: I am four and a half years older than you are, Shirley. I no longer have baby grandchildren, the youngest is 8. I miss that sometimes. But last Sunday I held our pastor’s 9 month old daughter all during the church service. She fell asleep in my arms. She is a chunky one, and my arms got quite sore, even though I shifted her back and forth. There comes a time. . . But enjoy it while it lasts! We are capable of doing much more than we think we can!
Elfrieda, I know what you mean, and I can believe that every year added to my age will have an impact on the weight-lifting part of this job. Lydia already weighs more than 20 pounds at 5.5 months. When I lift her over my head during the songs at the library’s story time, I get quite tired.
The granny nanny sweet spot is limited. It helps to be retired from other work and yet still physically strong enough to have the stamina. There’s a reason why God designed young people to have children. And to renovate houses. 🙂
Thanks for starting off the comments. Here’s hoping others will be able to leave a comment on their own. Still working on the problem! Thanks for your patience.
Your post instantly brought to mind Marge Piercy’s poem To be of Use. “But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
I am certain you know this poem, maybe by heart, but here is the link for other readers: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57673/to-be-of-use
Thank you for introducing me to LaFarge and her wonderful story of curtains. More and more I appreciate the wisdom of those whose age is marked by an “8” as the first number.
Your connection to the new generation obviously energizes you as does the sacrament of doing simple tasks that garner no applause though they satisfy. Yes, I too had a maid when I wore suits, but now I scrub bathroom floors on my hands and knees, a good prayer posture.
Thank you, Marian, for always thinking of the perfect poem. Yes to “To Be of Use”! One of my very favorite poems.
So glad you checked out Liz LaFarge. Every one of her posts is a gem. I thought you would enjoy her work.
A good prayer posture is a great place to be in times like these. We can offer up our anxieties about the future for our grandchildren to God.
Hi Shirley, just testing if my comment comes through as you suggested!
Thanks, Elfrieda. So good to see the comments work the way they should. You are a good sport.
Hello Shirley, Lydia is sure growing! I became a Great grandma a couple of months ago now, I skipped the grandma stage all together, as this great grandchild is my second husbands’ so I have laid claim to this Great grandchild as well. While doing the study on, ‘Your Spiritual Gifts’ I found out that I had help gifts. That was pretty easy to figure out even before I read the book. I have found that sometimes my gift of helps can get in the way. Like for instance, when you see some that needs help and then find out they don’t want help has gotten me into deeper water than I would care for. By giving of myself I feel more valued and over time I have seasoned my gifts of help with asking the Holy Spirit to guide me and direct me. I still get that feeling, a feeling of warmth inside when I have used my gift of helps and I really feel sometimes I didn’t do much at all.
June, good to see you here again. And congratulations on becoming a great grandma!
I like the term “gift of help.” I’m not sure I was born with this one, as you may have been, but I have always admired people who served others with apparent ease, especially if they avoided the pitfalls of assuming too much and giving the wrong things at the wrong time to the wrong people. It’s good to remember that caring is a two-way street, and the need to be useful should not overwhelm the wishes and pace of others. I have overstepped that boundary myself, almost always inadvertently, so I appreciate the point. It’s especially important for adult children to organize and direct their own lives.
Blessings as you use your gift and give that lucky great grandchild many hugs and kisses.
Shirley — I’ve enjoyed following the adventures that you and Lydia have via the Granny Nanny Diaries photos you share on Instagram. They never fail to make me smile.
And when I read this statement in today’s post: ” I am getting tremendous joy from caring for others instead of being served myself,” I thought—that’s the epitome of Shirley!
Thanks for your kind interest in our granny nanny adventures. I enjoy following you too!
And thanks for your kind words. I hope to live up to them.
That is a precious picture of you and Lydia, Shirley. One you can cherish now and one she’ll cherish when she’s older.
There was an organization I belonged to once that included in the pledge we said at every meeting, “The only right we have is the right to be useful.” I admit I balked at the idea at the time. Surely we had more rights than that. But it’s a phrase I’ve reflected upon often. Being useful to someone else brings us out of grief, keeps us from being mired in our own problems, offers a wider view of the world and what’s important. My parents made themselves useful every day, and I thing that contributed to their long lives. Personally, I find it easier to do tasks for others – the kind you’re doing for your children – that I get tired just thinking about doing for myself. The reward of serving others is mighty. Enjoy. And then enjoy relaxing when you get to vacation time. 😉
Thanks, Carol. We certainly had fun on the day that picture was taken. The Phipps was all decked out in Christmas finery. It’s hard to imagine Lydia grown up and wistful about this picture. But it will likely happen, and I am so grateful to photography for helping to keep memory alive.
The whole idea of Service Clubs in the nineteenth century was to instill character and civic responsibility. They seemed a little old fashioned after the 1960s questioned many traditional values. But now it’s easier, when language and political rivalry is so coarse, to wish for old-fashioned common agreement on the value of service, kindness, compassion, and generosity.
And glad to luxuriate a little at your behest also. 🙂
Oh Yes. The joy of the Quotidian. Doing laundry mindfully, hanging clean laundry on a clothesline then taking it in smelling like fresh air and sun and wind. Satisfying, totally engrossing when done mindfully. I started helping my mother when I was just a small girl and the washing machine was a tub with an agitator in the middle and rollers attached to wring the clothes. Mom took pride in the care with her laundry. She was a patient teacher, and I felt great pride helping her. I missed that zen-like attention when life became busy and hassled when I began teaching, the mother of two young daughters. When summer vacation came, I would take a week just to give myself to washing and mending and ironing—soul satisfying activity for an exhausted spirit.
Loretta, sounds like you managed to turn being useful into a spiritual practice even while in the midst of your most active career stage of life. Good for you! We had a washing machine like yours, and Mother taught me how to use it, but I’m not sure how mindful I was. I do remember joy in the smell of sun- and wind-dried sheets when I climbed into bed, however. Thanks for bringing me into the present through the past right now.
I look forward to the day (I think) when I, alone with my husband, will have more responsibility for keeping our house in order. Here in South Africa, we’ve had a housekeeper for many years who does the work of washing and ironing, cleaning and sweeping, keeping our home in order. The day is not too far off when we will relocate from Johannesburg to Plettenberg Bay. Even if the prospect of doing the work of our housekeeper does not fill me with great galloping gulps of goodness, the idea of being more mindful of these tasks is a pleasing thought. Sweeping is jolly good exercise and if looked at mindfully and psychologically, makes sense –
I much enjoyed your post Shirley – and the photo of you and Lydia is precious indeed.
Susan, have you read the novel The Woman Next Door? I thought of you when I read it.
I just found this post, Shirley, and it is a balm after listening to the State of the Union! I like the thought of going back to doing jobs we did previously, like cleaning, when we are in a different life stage. I’m not quite ready for it yet, but there’s something about it that feels wholesome and mellow……sending love to you and your Pittsburg family.
Hi Carolyn, looks like I missed your comment here. Sending you Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday thoughts. Keep the home fires burning for us! Blessings in your own being/doing.
Shirley, I just finished reading your book “Blush”. I could identify with it so much. I grew up in a similar situation. I went to Mastersonville school in the Manheim Central school district. I attended and still am a member of the Chiques Church of the Brethren. Raised on a dairy farm, I would rather help Dad in the barn than housework. I did graduate from MCSD and also Willow Street Vo-Tech in the License Practical Nursing Program. I married the church youth group president and I was the secretary. You were so honest in expressing yourself. Enjoy yourself as grandmother. Children and grandchildren are such a blessing. We have many of them. I do seasonal work at a green house and volunteer. I am creating comforters for relief and helping grandchildren when needed. Blessings!
Janice, thank you so much for these words of empathy and blessing. You sound like a sister, indeed.
Thanks for reading Blush. Hearing from readers makes the struggles of writing all worthwhile.
Sounds like you are finding ways to find your own life in service to those you love and to others in need. What a privilege.