An Unexpected Immigrant Turns Seventy

This blog is more personal than most.

March 18 I turn 70. I’m not exactly sure what 70 is supposed to feel like. What I do know is that it is a curious state. At this age you are simultaneously dealing with the diminishment of the body and the growing richness of the mind-all going well.  Living for the Biblical life span of three score years and ten gives you time to make sense of your experiences. Mostly. When I look in the mirror I wonder why my mother is looking back at me. But, aside from the fact that my knees creak when I get up from the floor, and reading glasses are not optional anymore, and sometimes I don’t hear so good, I can still keep up in jazzercise. For that I am most grateful.

Milestone birthdays tend to bring on reflections that seem singular in the moment but are later understood as somewhat universal, at least by folks who are seventy. On the way you pick up information about the mystery of living. Thirty is angst-ridden since it is confirms that youth is fleeting. Forty is a daily hurricane; work responsibilities and teenagers are a challenging mix. Fifty signifies some release from duty—with luck the kids are making plans to leave home. Sixty is a time of exploring life’s alleyways that were not open before; a time of reinvention.

Seventy. I don’t know yet.  In a ritual familiar to my age group, known as downsizing, my husband and I recently sold our big house for a smaller one on level ground. It has a garden in great need of rehabilitation. Getting the landscape to a state where it slows traffic would be a lovely enterprise given my affection for gardening. Still, I shouldn’t limit myself. The celebrated American folk artist, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting till she was 78.  So, there is no telling what’s possible across this decade. I once met the late holocaust survivor and author, Eli Weisel who explained there is no such thing as a former writer. Simply, one is a writer. Perhaps, as someone with aspirations in this regard, I could fashion the Great American Novel despite never having published any literature.

Being almost seventy has brought deep appreciation for the cards life dealt me. My parents guided me to adulthood in a loving and interesting home, despite dealing with my sister’s suicide when I was 13. My storyteller father taught me our family lore and life’s lessons through his tales. Mom was a small businesswoman in a time when such a practice wasn’t common, particularly among mothers. Her positive response to the second wave feminism that burst during my teenage years, taught me about proclaiming space as a woman. Together, my folks taught me about marriage as a partnership of love with integrity. 

As an adult I’ve marveled at how life can turn on a dime and how little thought actually goes into the big decisions that govern our existence. Marriage is a crapshoot if you think about the institution rationally.  Bruce and I didn’t. Fortunately, the dice came up in the right order for us and a 50th anniversary is entirely possible. We moved from New Zealand to the US on a five-year contract, after a relatively short conversation one winter’s day in our sunny kitchen. Like marriage, that decision was made in a moment and had profound personal implications.  Five years stretched unexpectedly into forty plus and citizenship. We never would have guessed. In between we experienced the mystery of raising two children, enjoyed satisfying careers, and had our hands in two different cultures.

This latter has been both a gift and something of a discomfort. It’s true we are at ease in each country but not fully and completely at home in either. We don’t share the cultural shortcuts that people who grew up in the US utilize. No one I know in New Zealand has ever urged me to give it the “old college try.” Kiwis, as New Zealanders are called colloquially, have periodically expressed offense we chose to live away from the islands considered as “God’s Own.” On the other hand, the gift of this dual life is a significant attachment to both places and we have doubled our family traditions.

As a new resident I came to the US with singular advantages. Since our time was to be limited to five years, I wasn’t immigrating. I was merely on an extended adventure-entered into with a light spirit. English, the language of my new country was the language of my old one. And, I came from a society that shared many cultural touchstones with American life and was made welcome. Despite all of this I sometimes felt awkward and lonely in a strange land. (As in the time I responded, “Go where?” when the cashier asked if my order was here or to go.)  

A consequence of such experience is that I feel a strong and particular sympathy for families who arrive more refugee than immigrant. Their experience is the mirror opposite of mine: they have no choice but to leave their home countries because of war or violence, often struggle with English, frequently lost touch with family, have sometimes lost the professional standing they enjoyed in their riven land, and don’t have fiscal resources. I cannot imagine how utterly bereft and alien they must feel at times.     

Personally, I have found two soothers for the immigrant soul that always battles with having to leave part of itself behind in another place. Geography is one. When Bruce and I moved to Seattle from the east coast I felt utterly comfortable, even before I made friends or knew the way in and out of my new neighborhood. The landscape of lakes, coast and mountains we moved to is that of my childhood and the memories associated with it are part of my deep being. Seeing snow on a far distant peak is lovely when times are happy and a comfort when they are not.

Lacking geography, it is still possible for an immigrant to experience home and in some measure, integration.  This time it is in the soil. Seattle is dotted with community gardens made up of plots tended by individuals. I worked one for a spell. It was then I discovered a garden plot full of vegetables provides the easiest conversation starter with complete strangers on the planet. A tentative overture to a fellow dirt-in-the-nails gardener can quickly become a firm bond. It happened as I explained the virtues of heirloom tomatoes and radishes and my gardening buddies explained the joys of tomatillos and daikon.  “Politicians should have working in an ethnic garden as a condition of the job,” I often lamented to Bruce when I returned from my garden plot. “It’s the most direct way to world peace.”

Dual citizenship, in combination with travel to varied corners of the world, has provided me insight and challenged my thinking. I now have a particular affection for Arab women after visiting Kuwait and experiencing much kindness and many frank conversations with them. I no longer think of the arranged marriages of India as a complete travesty as I once did.  Collectively, these experiences have provided me with a tolerance of people I didn’t have in my younger days and about which I blush when I think on it.

So, what comes next based on what has come before? Pragmatism rather than modesty makes me predict I won’t be showing off my great novel, written over my 8th decade, to our grandchildren. I lack the skills for fiction, the ability to bring a nuanced expression to a plot. Pity.  One based on the immigrant experience would appear to be ready made for me.

My fall back position is having a hell of a home garden to brag about. This goal is not so unlikely. At nearly 70 I remain delighted by my position as executive director of Dunn Gardens, am still an obsessed personal gardener and have a new yard to transform. My particular canvas will be landscape and I have an eight-year head start on Grandma Moses! The chainsaw Bruce gave me for Christmas will be a great help when clearing the site and already I am mentally filling it with flax and grasses native to New Zealand and the proposed raised vegetable beds with tomatillos and daikon.

On the other hand, there is that turning on a dime issue too that kicked off my immigrant status. You just never know.


















Beth - preschooler copy