By Sandy Burgham
Reflections on lessons learnt from my late mother
As my 50th birthday loomed, I experienced the usual angst mixed with incredulity that I had probably passed the halfway point. The wake-up call was also due to my own mother having died in her 50s. At the time, she had seemed so old, but as I crept toward the age she was at her death, I recognised how much more she had probably wanted to give to life. So I decided to really make my 50s count; to set the tone for future decades. I kicked it off with a blog (theWTFproject. com, signifying a Woman Turning Fifty) and that experience helped me clarify my intentions for living in my 50s and beyond. Here they are:
Keep my health in check.
Well, naturally that was Mum’s intention too, but these days we have so much more help available to us. Not only can we confidently challenge the medical profession, we can blend it with natural therapies and take advantage of what science can offer. I use my birthday as a reminder to book an annual breast screening, eye check, dental check and gynaecology visit (to check if my mystery date Men-opause has come knocking). Yeah, fun times, but it’s only once a year.
I am well past caring if I have a bikini beach body. My reasons for exercise are not about “letting myself go”, but letting myself get places. Oh, the places I will go.
My mother’s education was cut short by WWII. I decided this decade I would take at least one paper a semester at university, causing me to often think, “I can’t believe I have gotten away without knowing this stuff for 50 years”. One of my biggest regrets is that my mother is not around to have some really stimulating conversations with. Oh, the questions I would ask.
Keep giving back.
In my self-involved 30s I remember doing some sort of personal development plan which challenged me on my “community contribution”. I translated community into “neighbourhood” and nothing seemed appealing, let alone authentic. I really just wanted to tick the box to seem wellrounded. But now like many others in my 50s, I truly feel there are many ways I am — and can — contribute to a variety of communities.
Mum had started dabbling in arts and craft later on in life; it was the “macrame and homemade wall hanging” era. While I have prided myself in being a creative thinker, I am less a creative doer, leaving that to my hands-onclassic- car-restoring husband. But I have pledged to exercise my hands-on creativity with my own restoration project – a 1960s caravan…..bringing me on to the next point.
Keep it simple.
It is common in one’s 50s to question previous “frameworks for success”. After spending my 40s taking on a difficult bach project on remote Great Barrier Island, I now realise that actually I would have been quite happy with the caravan we started with. (Don’t tell my husband that). While I used to panic about how much money we would need to retire, and fly business class to exotic locations, now I think actually how much money do we honestly need.
Before her health gave up, I was proud of my mother for making real strides in a career laterun, at a time when it was still unusual for women to do so. I have no intention of retiring at 65. My work life is simply a joy; it keeps me stimulated and challenged and I feel I am making a valid contribution. Just before she died my mother told me that she was not worried about leaving me, because I was a “survivor”. It was empowering to me, whatever it meant. She knew about survival, having lived through the Hiroshima bomb and then moving to New Zealand as a Japanese war bride, knowing no one except Dad. Her cryptic message had always puzzled me but now I choose to interpret it as someone who knows how to live.
– Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson May, 2014