Friday, February 26, 2010



Editor's note: JoEllen Collins' column is part of a column rotation that runs weekly in the Wednesday paper. The column was not published Wednesday because of a short-term change to the configuration of pages.

When my grandson started to crawl, his mommy and daddy child-proofed their house. They live in the Presidio in San Francisco, which I'm sure most of you know has been a military base since before the earthquake of 1906. It is imbued with history and noted for the fine buildings constructed for officers and other military personnel. The last time I visited, I felt a palpable sense of the past. The complex, which also houses the new George Lucas film studios and offices, still radiates a feeling of its former inhabitants; signs everywhere point out places of interest, including the housing structures, beautiful white clapboard or stucco, red-tiled homes once designed for a different way of life.

One of the leasing rules in the Presidio is that no one is allowed to change, paint or repair anything in the dwelling without the permission of the historical trust that manages the whole place. Therefore, the rather treacherous, pre-code stairwell in my kids' duplex cannot be widened or necessarily made safer, even though the step at each corner is miniscule on one side. Likewise, the downstairs basement/garage rooms can't be updated to be more habitable than they currently are (no windows can be added to let in more light, for example). One positive about these requirements is that the crews of people who care for the buildings and grounds are at the ready to fix anything that goes wrong—even if it should be according to Presidio rules.

So when my kids began to child-proof their home it was a daunting task; some outdated electrical plugs, slippery floors and odd configurations exist in a place meant for a previous generation. They completed the job with the help of my son-in-law's parents and lots of elbow work, all worth it to live in such a beautiful spot so convenient to the other delights of this city.


At the same time they were using their elbow grease, I fell down in my kitchen and sustained not only a very sore elbow but also a (luckily) minor hairline fracture of my upper arm. I had two contradictory thoughts as I felt myself hurtling into the oven door of my small, tiled kitchen. One was that I thought I had never fallen as hard and would most likely die from a traumatic head injury. (I flashed on the image of my condo neighbors smelling something funny and finding me dead a few days later. I'm a drama queen, after all!) After landing, when I assessed the damage, the other was that I was lucky not to have incurred a great deal more injury. (All the milk I loved as a child and still do must have helped.) In fact, I am rather clumsy; my nickname to some is "Grace," an ironic appellation because I do trip a lot. I claim I am awkward because I was a very sickly child and thus didn't build up some of the skills most children do by running in their neighborhood streets, parks and playgrounds.

The juxtaposition of these two events forced me to realize that I am entering into the final stages of man, according to Shakespeare, when we start to need the kind of care we gave our babies. I hate to think of being there, but I now acknowledge that I must adult-proof my living space—taking away carpets on kitchen tile without full rubber pads, keeping my cell phone near enough to reach (at this stage I always forget where I put it), removing the jerry-rigged cords and wires ready to trip me when I sew or move my computer to the living room, looking at my feet when I walk anywhere and giving a copy of my key to my neighbors so they could get in should I have the door locked while catapulting.

A few weeks ago I caught myself before I fell on a treacherous slice of ice. I would have slipped right under the adjacent car at the post office and, since that engine was running, might have been run over! Thus, while not wanting to be an alarmist, I am facing, along with my daughters and their husbands, the emerging reality that I can no longer be called middle-aged. Sorry, but that's the truth. And while I plan to be a zippy nonagenarian, I hope I will be a bit more careful along the way. It's sometimes the pits to grow old unless, as George Bernard Shaw said, you consider the alternative.

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