I’m too poor to work out at the snooty athletic clubs near my house, and too old and pudgy to work out at Bally’s or Gold’s, so I go to the YMCA with all the other middle-aged mommies trying to sneak in 30 minutes on the stairmaster while their kids take swimming lessons. The particular YMCA I go to is also home of the legendary 9:00 am MWF Aquacise Class.
The median age of the women in this class is, I’d guess, around 75. All of the women are pretty spry, still fit enough to get themselves to the pool and into the water for 45 minutes of foam-floating-device-assisted water aerobics. I often end up showering and changing at the same time as they finish class–in fact, lately I’ve been working out longer than I usually would to make sure I’m in the locker room when they are. I love watching and listening to them.
As far as I can tell, they have few things in common, besides their commitment to exercise and each other. I’ve heard a few pointed political comments (though never outright arguments–New England ladies of a certain age do not argue) that suggest divergent views; there’s talk of the different churches and synagogues they attend; some have been to college, some not; some are widowed, some still married, one or two divorced. Their bodies are every size and shape imaginable–tall, short, round, lumpy, thin, saggy, wiry, scarred, varicose, stretchmarked, well-muscled, well-used, all with that softly loosening skin of the aged. All of them seem beautiful to me.
The core members of this group have been taking the same class for nearly a decade. On Wednesdays after class they have brunch together, either at someone’s home or at a local diner. They have seen each other through the loss of spouses, cancer diagnoses and treatments, sending grandsons to Iraq, births of grandchildren (and a few “greats”), moves to assisted living facilities. They keep track of class members who have moved away or gone to Florida for the winter, posting notes and cards on a bulletin board in the locker room. When one woman didn’t reappear in class after what the ladies considered a suitable period of mourning after her husband’s death, they organized a posse to visit her, get her to eat, and coax her back into the routine of exercise classes.
What is most interesting to me about this community is that, as far as I can observe, what binds them is not some lofty shared ideal, but simply a series of decisions to care for each other. Over time, those small choices–to have a conversation after class, to share a meal, to divulge a secret, to ask for or offer a ride to the doctor’s office–have built sturdy and lasting friendships on a foundation as flimsy as, well, a swimming pool.
I’ve often chafed at the apparent artifice of Relief Society, been annoyed by the assigned and enforced friendships of visiting teaching, longed for some more “authentic” community. I’ve wished for the seemingly spontaneous spiritual outpourings that seem so common in accounts of the early Relief Society, and fumed (and worse) about the correlated curriculum that seems to suck the life out of current meetings of sisters at church. I don’t imagine I’m finished with those frustrations, and I still cherish a vision of celestialized Relief Society meetings where we speak heart to heart and bless one another and sing and prophesy in free and full communion. But for now, I’m learning from the little old ladies in the locker room to love and appreciate a female relief society on a more human scale, to recognize and savor the gifts that come from simply choosing to tend each other, body and soul.