Life Begins At Forty…

When I was a young kid in the middle Sixties, I thought anyone above forty was old! And even in my twenties, it was the general assumption that once you hit forty, you were no longer a youngster. You became a newbie in the middle-aged group.

Most girls would get a college degree, a B.A or BSc, even if they weren’t thinking of being ‘working women’ and marriage was their goal. A degree would ensure an educated groom from a good family.

Girls who wanted to work before they got married studied for a professional B.Ed degree and/or a Masters too, to bolster their B.A degree. As did some who were practical and wanted to add qualifications against a stretch of misfortune, where they might have to work after marriage. This assured them of a teaching job and a better salary. These girls usually married a little later… 24-25 years old.

There were not many educated girls who remained unmarried in their late twenties. At least that’s how it was in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana. My elder sisters were in this last category. They were career-oriented girls and got married in their late twenties, just before hitting their thirties.

I was in the first category. I had some professions in mind that I aspired to, but my father didn’t approve of any. He gave me a couple of professional options, which I shot down. So I stubbornly dug my heels in and said I didn’t want to do anything beyond a Bachelor’s degree. He said I should go in for an additional degree to augment that. A bachelor’s degree in education. A B.Ed degree. I told him the last thing I wanted to be was a teacher!

Long story short, I was the girl in the first category who got married as soon as she passed out of college. I was lost when it came to domesticity. I hadn’t any experience in domestic chores, except for helping mummy now and then. And then, I was a mom at twenty-one! Totally ignorant about motherhood. That’s when I realized the wisdom of my elder sisters.

All I can be grateful for is that I was an observer and learned a lot just by observing my mother and grandmother. Also, I was very communicative. I would ask them about the why, how, and what of many things they did or didn’t do. And I always hung their gems of wisdom on the hangers in my mind to refer to and keep whichever proved its worth.

I had ignored the wisdom my father was trying ever so hard to knock into my nineteen year old head. I couldn’t get it then, I couldn’t see the sense in what he was saying. Why he wouldn’t let me do whatever I had chosen. Years later, in my forties, I knew why he had counselled me to change direction to other careers.

Why is it so hard to pass on wisdom to others? Why do we find it hard to accept wise counsel too? Counsel we can lean on later in life when destiny knocks on the door. Fortunately, I had kept all the wisdom I had been given rather than throwing it out before testing it. I rifled through all the pearls on the hangers in my mind-closet.

Coming back to the forties. By the time my elder son reached his fortieth year, the scene about age had changed. Hitting FORTY was now a huge celebration. ‘Life begins at forty’ had taken a totally different color. At our time forty meant the start of winding down.

I can recall talking to my husband about planning and saving for the future. And we were in our early thirties then. I’d caution him that life happens, as he was on tours traveling by car three-four days a week. Anything could happen. What would I do? I wouldn’t know what to do!

He smiled and reassured me he had it in mind and would start thinking about it when he got to forty. That was how we considered the forties in our day. It was the time to shift our thoughts to plan our after-retirement life. In the forties, we’d be in a pre-seniors batch! Life wasn’t “beginning” for us. It was the start of the downtrend.

We didn’t think much about the wisdom offered to us by people wiser in experience than us until we reached our fortieth year.

But I didn’t share his views. I began to almost nag him about it. I wanted to do something concrete so we could secure things for the future, earlier than later. And then freely enjoy our lives and the relative freedom we’d get as the boys grew older and more independent.

I was thinking mid to late forties, well before the official standard retirement age, which was sixty years. I was thinking vacays for just the two of us. Dinners for two. I guess I was thinking more progressively than our middle class society did then.

Retirement for most in our social circle and in the family too meant – Sit at home. Be on-hand and on-call grandparents (if you have grandkids). Become super religious. Attend as many religious functions as possible until you feel a shining halo above your head, and then you could preach to all and sundry. Be staid. And “act your age” whatever that meant.

I didn’t subscribe to any of these silly notions and I didn’t bother about what anyone thought or labelled me. I wanted to start living our twosome lives with some more to it than just the grind of dull routine even during the weekends or festival holidays. The forties held more promise for me than what the others thought of it. I was looking forward to it with a lot of hope and expectations. It held a promise of new chapters beyond just run-of-the-mill stuff. Adventure, new experiences, new learnings, growth, and more freedom.

So, he was waiting for his fortieth to build a strong, secure future. And in a way so was I looking forward to it. I was looking forward to a more secure future and more freedom. But life has too many lemons and curve balls. It tossed the lemons and curve balls. Eight months before his fortieth birthday, my husband died on one of his tours. Three massive heart attacks, within a few hours, took him away at the young age of thirty-nine. I couldn’t even be with him at the time of his death.

I was thirty-six. No knowledge of the workings of the big, wide world. Cocooned and safe in my little world all these years. From parental protection to a hubby’s protection. Everything had been taken care of for me. I only ran the house. The only time I went out alone was to work in a school and back home. I had lots of bookish knowledge no real, practical knowledge of how things are in the other sectors of the world nor how to handle them outside of the home and school. All theory.

For me, Life Begins At Forty, stands true, in a very different way. It took me two-three years after his death to find my bearings. I floundered, struggled, fell, got up, and kept moving forward. I was able to keep the home fires burning. Keep my boys’ education going. Keep wolves in sheep clothing away. Keep both my jobs going and money coming in. Learn how the world runs. And how I had to change. And also deal with how friends and family can change.

Coincidently, the age forty kicked in at this point of my life. And in truth, my life really began at forty. I found my bearings, confidence, and the strength to rebuild my life even better after it fell apart only in the forties.

I learned about trust… how and who to trust. I was learning bitter truths on the way. I was also growing along the journey. This is when I fell back on the wisdom that had been given to me when I was a girl. It helped me to understand better what each meant. It also opened my eyes to the hypocrisy of some whom I trusted implicitly. I was gaining experiential knowledge and experiential wisdom.

The hubs had been at the helm always. I was in the backseat when it came to matters outside the home. I was the Queen of the home. It was my “Queendom”! Earlier I was carried along, I was not in the driver’s seat. Now I was steering the ship. Choppy waters, gales, smooth runs, breakdowns. Through it all, I was in the driver’s seat, and I had to keep the home running. It meant dealing with everything.

It was scary because I knew nothing about this new position that was dumped on me out of the blue. I had no time to crib or cry about fate and how unfair life was and all that. I had no time to dwell on the faithlessness of those I relied on and trusted for help and support. The wisdom that had been shared with me kept me going trusting in God’s grace and mercy. And I learned more about faith through these years.

Yes, life begins at forty. This period found my life rebuilding even better after crumbling around me. Wisdom tells us that life is a book which has many chapters. We write some chapters and life dictates some. Are we writing a good story? Are we rebuilding and making the best use of the experiences, and the opportunities that come our way? We have failures. We have losses. We make stupid mistakes. Wrong judgments. Are we using wisdom to set the wrongs right? Are we being wise in the choices we make? Are we writing a glorious story of faith and trust in God? Are we making good friends along the way? Are we being the good neighbor or friend we ourselves want to have?

I realized how important wisdom is. Wisdom that was shared with me, and that I have picked up from reading, from stories, from sermons, the Bible, and some wise people I’ve had the good fortune to meet. This is why we share our stories and wisdom. Someone might need to read them. People can read our experiences and stories and find something similar to their situations in a way that helps them.

I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t study for my B.Ed despite my father insisting on it. But, eventually, I took up a teacher’s job when my youngest started going to school. In those days it wasn’t important to have a degree in education. If one was proficient in their teaching subject and had studied the subject for their Bachelor’s degree, they got the job. I taught English.

But a few years before my husband died, I got this strong desire to get a Master’s degree in English. He was totally against it. But the gut feeling inside was too strong and I went ahead and with the help of a friend in church and an English professor they knew, I got into the Master’s program for private study candidates who were working. My husband didn’t like it. He thought I’d not be able to see to the home and needs of the family with a job and studies to boot. I assured him nothing would change at home. And I made sure it didn’t by studying after domestic work was done for the day. This meant I was studying while I was cooking and then late into the night when the family went to bed. I used to study from after ten in the night to 2.00 in the morning. I’d be up at 5.00 am to start the day… breakfast, packed lunches for the boys, lunch for the family and then I’d rush off to work where I had to check in at 7.00 am! Long story short… I passed with a good second division. Two years of hard work. My husband was surprised and confessed that he had allowed me to go ahead because he thought I’d flunk and give up studying further!

A year later, I wanted to do my B.Ed. He wasn’t for that either. I went ahead anyway. I’d have to first give an entrance exam. As usual, nothing changed in the running of the home… nor the hubs’ guests who we’d have for a meal, dinner usually, quite often. I never fussed and never failed to serve delicious meals. I studied as I had done for my Masters. When the results came in, I couldn’t find my roll number in the result sheet. I couldn’t believe it! I knew I couldn’t have failed this exam. Then a colleague at school congratulated me as did the Principal and Vice Principal when I went to school the next day. I was surprised and told them that I thought I had failed because I didn’t find my roll number in the Pass List. They asked me if I had checked the section of toppers. No, I hadn’t! Well, that’s where I was among the toppers! I got through that with flying colors. Then I applied for the main course.

Before the course started, hubby dear had died. I was shattered. My whole world had crumbled. I was scared. But I didn’t give up. The very situation that had devastated our lives, gave me the courage, strength, and determination to go on and complete my B.Ed studies even as I went through the turmoil of settling into a new life which put me, an ignorant driver, in the driver’s seat.

Well, this wasn’t the only challenge. I found that for my B.Ed exams, I didn’t have any notes in English. I mean even Psychology was in Hindi! I am not very good in Hindi but not so bad either. I was working and now playing both the roles of man and woman of the house. Meaning, I had to see to all that he used to see to… paying electricity bills, rent to the landlord, groceries, any job that needed professional help – electrician, plumber, gardener etc. So little time for study.

I didn’t give up. I sat and translated the notes into English, writing them in registers. Then I’d study them. Along with that went my teachers work too of checking note books etc. and exam papers. I never gave up even when I’d be in pain… headache, body ache.

Final day arrived. I went to write the exam. I was so nervous that when the doors of the examination Hall opened, I felt like puking and I just made it out into the garden outside the hall and puked my guts out near a bushy plant. Someone gave me water from her water bottle to gargle and wash my mouth.

I sat down to write my exam and forgot about fear, nervousness. I wrote and wrote and felt relieved when I handed in my papers. But it wasn’t over yet. I had to go for a practical exam in a higher secondary school. I wasn’t nervous about this. I had to make some charts etc., I conducted a class there while two examiners sat and assessed my teaching skills.

I got First Div. marks in both written and practical. I was thrilled. And so grateful to God for giving me the will power, strength and ability to go through this.

Looking back, I realize how important it was that I get these qualifications. If I hadn’t gone through the difficulties and around the spokes my hubby put in my way to dissuade further education, how would I have looked after my boys. The rules had changed already in the Education Department. All teachers had to have a professional teaching degree, and for higher classes, a Masters as well. I had both, and just in time.

Turning 40 is often a big symbolic point in one’s life. In the 20s we feel we can do anything, but as the 30s progress we become more mature emotionally, and in terms of work tend to focus. These two things combined: emotional maturity and career focus, often produced an explosion of self-purpose in our 40s.

-Tom Butler Bowden

Tiny Conversations – no colors for a widow

When I was widowed, we lived in a very conservative and restrictive society in a rather backward province at the time. So things were pretty bad for me with my sort of disregard for their stifling conventions that made no sense to me.

It was a society that took away the colors from a widow’s life, literally and figuratively too. Any kind of fun and enjoyment was banned for her. Dressing up was absolutely forbidden – no jewelry either. As if that weren’t enough, society had decreed that these unfortunate women could only wear certain colors – specifically, a dull, dark maroon and a dull greenish-blue. This identified them as widows. It horrified me that such rules were imposed on them. Imagine wearing clothes that put a tag on you WIDOW for everyone’s information! As if they hadn’t suffered enough. And for what purpose? It wasn’t their fault that fate had dealt them such a blow!

I recall a social acquaintance of mine, one who is a non-practicing, lawyer, telling me why the women of their society “willingly” accepted these social norms. She tried to explain it to me by quoting her widowed mother:

“My mother accepted it because she believed, ‘Once a husband dies, there is no color left in life. Life becomes totally colorless.‘ This is why it is okay for them to wear these colors and not wear jewelry nor participate in festivals and entertainment of any kind.”

“Oh, really?” I interrupted her with undisguised sarcasm. “What about the men, the widowers?”

“What about them,” she countered. “They are men. These things don’t apply to them They can carry on their lives.”

“Exactly my point – Why doesn’t it apply to them? Why does everyone start looking out for a wife for the widower, but push the widow into deeper misery? Why do they strip her of her dignity and self-respect? Why do they want to kill her spirit? Why make them like living corpses that way?”

“That’s how it’s been for years and that’s how it will remain. Who can stop it? At least it is better than Sati.”

“If the practice of Sati (burning the wife alive on the funeral pyre of the husband) can be stopped and declared a crime, this can be too. All it takes is the decision to fight against it. All it needs is one strong person to stand against it.”

“That’s what you think. We women don’t think so.”

“How many young widows have you asked about how they feel and what they think about this, with the assurance of confidentiality and secrecy?”

“I don’t need to ask anyone,” she was riled and het up. “This is our ‘rivaaz’. Our culture. And our society will follow it.”

“And are women in this ‘rivaaz’ consulted? Are they even represented when rules are made and imposed on them by ‘society’?

“It is a male dominated society. The women will never be consulted.”

“Not for long. Take my word. Change is coming. The winds are changing direction. But I’m keen to know, will you accept and support the change when it comes? You yourself have broken the boundaries of your social culture, you went against all that your society deemed wrong. Didn’t you? You are living your life on your terms. Will you be brow beaten if, god forbid, diktats such as these are imposed on you?”

She preferred to let silence speak for her. And the silence spoke louder than her words.