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Upon Turning 70, Reflections on Life's Lessons, Including a Hard-Learned One on Racism

In this segment of These Ozarks Hills, longtime Ozarks resident Marideth Sisco walks down memory lane to share lessons she learned "at the expense of others."
Marideth Sisco with her garden harvest
Marideth Sisco of West Plains sits amidst her cushaw harvest last summer. (Photo provided by Marideth Sisco/Sarah Denton)

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. In a couple of weeks, I'll be 70, and I've realized it's one of those "milestone" birthdays that demand special attention.

I'm attending to my surprise that I've made it so far, and the mystery of how that happened while I was busy paying attention to the next bright shiny thing. I'm also facing the realization that I'm very probably very much closer to the end than to the beginning of the story - or at least my part in it.

I was speaking with one of my long-time friends and international educator Judy Findlay on the phone yesterday, whose birthday and age are very near mine, and we marveled at the arrival of this milestone.

"I just realized," she said, "that in just 10 years I'll be 80. Eighty, think of that." 

Then, while I was thinking of that, she added thoughtfully, "That means I probably only have about 10 good years left."

I laughed out loud. Here we are, where some would tell us we're at the very brink of some massive physical and possibly mental dissolution, and instead we're plotting on how to steal every last good minute of the next decade. Of course, we have good role models. Judy's mother Lucille lived well into her 90s, and her dry wit and insights lived right along with her. And then there's my friend Margaret, who's right next door to 80 and who is too busy with a new love interest to pay attention to the calendar. You go, Margaret.

So many people grumble about getting older, as though it's some penance we have to pay for sticking around, and they totally forget the part about getting wiser. You wouldn't believe that, of course, listening to what's coming out of the mouths of most of the gray heads on television. But trust me, it's very likely they were even more foolish in their younger days. 

I know. I was one of them. I was well into my 50s before I began to really rethink some of the notions I'd grown up with that didn't fit any version of lived reality. It's true that we grew up in simpler times, and some of those truths are the foundation of my little series of episodes on the radio. But I should also say before any more time passes that some of those "simple truths" just don't hold water in the real world. And they never did. For instance, I held on to a belief, long after I should have known better, linked to a phrase that I said in my mind, and never questioned, and I'm sure all the older people who grew up here can remember. "I'm free, white and 21," we said in a carefree, clueless voice. "I can do whatever I want to."

To me, back in my coming-of-age days, that was simply a declaration of independence. A given truth, with no connection to what that might imply about anyone else, people of color, for instance. It wouldn't have occurred to me, because they were folks who didn't live in my town, folks about whom I knew absolutely nothing, having grown up in what was called a sundown town. It remained true for me even after i'd met and become close friends with Jesse Moore, who remains one of the kindest people it has ever been my blessing to know - He was a black man I know in San Francisco, who thought my accent was cute and who knew, because he'd grown up in Georgia, that I was a green hillbilly living in a city that routinely had green hillbillies for breakfast. So he took me under his wing and helped me lived through it. I repaid him by treating him, when he least expected it, with the most thoughtless, casual, oblivious racism you could imagine. I'd moved to another city and way farther along with my life before I realized any of that. Too late to make apologies to Jesse. The best I could do was to acknowledge to myself that he was the one who had paid for my education in these matters, and i'd better remember it. Too often, it seems to me, my best and hardest life lessons have been paid for by others. 

It took John Kennedy's death to rid me of my bigotry toward Catholics, and helped me start to see the ignorance behind our Ozarks Zenophobia, our lumping all Gods people into just two categories, Us, and Others. You're not from here, we say, often with a sneer. And we explain someone's otherness by saying "He's from off." Off, of course, is also what you say when you want to imply that someone's crazy. "He's a little off," we say.

So now I'm at the 70s mark, certifiably old, unquestionably cranky, even ascerbic, and well on my way down the road to the doddering eighties. Wiser, I hope, although I must reserve the right to do some other stupid thing. It could happen at any moment. Will I arrive at the 70s in style, or come stumbling down the road still in search of adulthood. It's too soon to tell.

So what is one to do except have a party. Mine will be at the Yellow House community arts center in West Plains on Sunday, June 16. Of course you're all invited. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by, bring a dish to share and a lawn chair so you can sit and listen to the music. Or if you're already here and you're just winding down from the Old Time Music Ozark Heritage Festival, another landmark event that occurs down here on June 14 and 15, stay over for a day and come help celebrate my official passage from fogey into coot. And please, no presents except for your presence. If it's too far to drive and you still want to send me a hello, send a card or a note to the station and they'll pass it on to me. I'd love to hear from you. 

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, saying thanks for putting up with my radio ramblings all these past years. And remember, no presents. Being with you, dear listeners, is the best gift I could ever want.