Introduction to Gerontology

by Chelsea Rathburn

These were the trappings of old age: pitchers
of sun tea steeping on the patio;
the TV tuned to General Hospital
or Wheel of Fortune; tall brass ashtrays
by every chair, sentries ready to swallow
another lipstick-smudged Benson & Hedges
at the push of a deco button; a ’58
Pontiac Bonneville, impossibly long,
all chrome and fins; and our next-door neighbor’s
white silk blouses and pressed white curls, both wilting
only slightly in the heat. Widowed
some twenty years, step-daughters long estranged,
our neighbor shrank inside her rocking chair
as the days stretched on, an orphan in reverse.
Mrs. Down talked to the soap operas
and game show hosts until the doorbell rang.
Because I had no grandmother to speak of,
I ran across the lawn each afternoon
and rang that doorbell and was let inside,
sitting with her as she smoked furiously
and complained about the weather, the plots,
the TV dinners she picked at, and later,
after her eyes had gone and the Bonneville
was garaged forever, the dinners my mother cooked
and I delivered on a flowered tray,
keeping her company as she ate and smoked
the cigarettes my father bought her. Some nights
I stayed over, and we played Spite & Malice
with two decks of Eastern Airlines cards.
She grumbled curses when I won, which wasn’t
often; she shuffled her stacks when I looked down.
I thought old age made everyone angry,
though now I know her rage was hers alone.
I loved her anyway: the downy white hair,
the hump of her back, her tiny bottles of perfume,
how she remembered everything, and told
it all to me—her family’s first car,
white gloves and dances, her days as a Matron
in the Order of the Eastern Star. And now
I remember nothing but scraps of stories
and objects, the turquoise of the lounge chair,
the crepe myrtle’s bloom. When I was twelve,
she let a nephew talk her into moving
so that she’d “never have to be alone”—
she built two houses side by side upstate
and signed over her power of attorney,
though we didn’t know it then. When we visited
that sterile living room, her furniture
looked out of place and her voice had lost its edge.
The emphysema came as no surprise,
but we didn’t know she’d died until I tracked
the nephew down. By then, all was sold
or burned, the glittering Eastern Star pins
and paperweights, the dusty-red Pontiac,
the body with its lipstick and its pearls.

CHELSEA RATHBURN is the author of two poetry collections, The Shifting Line, winner of the 2005 Richard Wilbur Award, and A Raft of Grief, which won the 2012 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in PoetryThe Atlantic MonthlyThe New RepublicThe Southern ReviewNew England ReviewThe Threepenny Review and Ploughshares, among others, and her prose has appeared in Creative Nonfiction. In 2009, she received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Young Harris College, where she directs the creative writing program.