The Anna Matilda Whistler Fan Club, Lakeside Chapter
How to Celebrate Your 76th Birthday
By Don Beaudreau
Having recently celebrated my 76th birthday, at Lakeside, and suffering an identity crisis because of it, I decided I had to do something to save my self-worth. So naturally, I decided to create a fan club for Whistler’s mother. A decision my own mother would have approved of.
You might be wondering why I chose to do this. And my answer would have to be in the form of a question back to you: What else could I have done to ameliorate my existential angst? I mean to say, my mother, who only had had her charcoal portrait done on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City in 1957 by some person called “Big Al” (if Big Al’s signature at the bottom of the portrait had really been the artist’s name), reminded me whenever I started complaining about my life: “You think you got it bad? Just think of….” And then she would name the latest victim of life she knew about and go into lurid details concerning the ruthlessness of human existence and how lucky I was to have avoided the really bad stuff so far. Therefore, I’d just better shut up or my good luck might change at any minute, and she was the one to change it!
So by creating a fan club for Whistler’s mother, I was merely following my own mother’s advice/warning, and therefore I felt good about myself. After all, Ma Whistler’s 76 years of existence hadn’t exactly been a strut, but more like a skulk; whereas mine had been more like a hop, skip and a jump.
Consider the unfortunate fact that Anna Matilda (nee McNeill) Whistler already looked quite elderly in that famous portrait of hers—and she was only 67, a mere kid. But that was in 1871 before heart pacemakers, butt lifts, hair extensions, plastic surgery, self-medication, and Levis for women. In other words, it was a time when everyone was forced to look their actual age . . . or worse. Especially the pietistic ones like Ma Whistler who were expected to suffer to prove their faith. God knows what all those modern accoutrements would have done to her appearance. Or to her soul. Or to the value of the painting (which is currently estimated to be worth around US $140 million). But did she live to spend the money?
Actually, a number of satirists through the years have altered Ma Whistler’s image, and just my remembrance of seeing one of these depictions years ago, poured water on my burning identity crisis created by my recent birthday. “Ah!” I recalled, exclaiming to myself upon first viewing the satiric reproduction of her son’s Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, ((i.e. Whistler’s Mother). “Ah! What is our little newspaper up to this morning? A bit of class?” Then I looked at the title of the article that appeared under the painting: “High-tech Hugs and Kisses.” Then I viewed the painting again, and much to my surprise, I saw Anna Matilda was not just sitting there in patient contemplation with her hands on her lap (as she was in the original painting), but had her laptop computer going full blazes on that famous lap of hers.
Talk about creating a new self-identity for the old gal; about re-branding her image. She became my personal goddess on the spot. And so, naturally on my anxiety-filled 76th birthday, she became my top pick to have a fan club. Go Granny, go! And really, the woman deserves such an honor for having lived through the Victorian Age (in England, no less), and having to put up with that wisecracking, foppish, self-promoting son of hers with whom even his contemporary pal Oscar Wilde broke off a friendship. No wonder Anna looked so old, and undoubtedly would have even if she had had a butt lift.
Well, it is a world where the concept of the self is ever changing. Do any of us know who we are anymore? The lines that gave us our self-identity have blurred, a reality I am feeling intensely these days. I have asked myself the question about the identity of self many times before, but now I ask the question with more gravitas than I had when I was young and hot to trot, instead of now old and ready to plop.
Now, we might choose to think that our modern life is strange—that there are just too many changes, too much input, too many choices, and too many hassles. We can believe the sense of self needs to be protected from outside forces; that we should hide away in our closed communities. Granted, some days that way of being in the world seems to be a pretty good thing to me. Still, modern technology brings the world to us, no matter where we are on the planet. Except at Lakeside when the Internet goes down and stays down for hours.
So can we be sure that we are the self we thought we once were? Well, no, we can’t. We have changed, even if we want to stay the same. Still, in amazement for having reached 76 years of age, I have come up with a list of how to create a self-identity in today’s world:
1. If you feel you must fight the changes, do so with equanimity of spirit, refusing to play the curmudgeon. Or if you must play the curmudgeon, learn to spell the word, and wear a mask when you are acting the part so nobody suspects it’s you.
2. Become friends with someone with whom you never considered being friends before. Then after you have shared your deepest dreams, memories, and reflections, and before your new pal does that with you, drop the friendship or leave town forever.
3. Offer yourself as a mentor to others who are even more confused than you are about who their self is in today’s complex world. Or if they are beyond confusion and closer to madness, mirror this back to them, and, hopefully, they will just go away.
4, Learn, ever learn. You are not living in your grandmother’s time, so think on both sides of your brain. Or if you don’t understand neuroscience, just keep being who you are, but take up tap dancing and drinking at the same time.
5. Integrate the “what you were and knew” with “what you currently aren’t and don’t know yet.” Your life and mine are still stories being written—even if we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel but, instead, see a sign that reads Dead End.
6. Stretch yourself. Why be bored or boring? Be new and daring! You are now at the age to do so. But if you really are too tight to stretch yourself, pay somebody else to do it to themselves, while you watch with sadistic glee as they suffer.
7. With the best effort you can make, get over the “age thing.” Don’t accept what others tell you about “acting your age.” Act as old as you want. You deserve it. Crack, snapple, and pop your dry bones all over the rocky roads of Lakeside.
8. Cultivate your deep self, one that refuses to identify you as a mere bank account number, a hair color, a profession, or a golf score. So what if you really are superficial? Pretend you’re not. Do you really believe anyone else is that deep?
9. Give yourself away. Practice the art of finding yourself by losing yourself through generous acts of kindness and charity. You can start by being generous with me. God knows I need the money at my age.
10. Never give up your freedom to ask questions about meaning and purpose in your life, but know that life is a mystery. Hell, I would be happy just knowing how to turn into Walmart’s parking lot from the carretera! That’s my life’s mystery.
So, just remember Anna Whistler and her updated image. Let her be a good example for all of us, but especially for the chronologically gifted. After all, the only thing she had to do to be world famous was sit in a chair! Anyone want to join my Anna Matilda Whistler Fan Club, Lakeside Chapter? Just bring your own chair but don’t expect fame and fortune.
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