“Happy becoming. Hope you learned something tonight. Your supper is ready for the microwave.”

“Honey, your salad has been hand-inspected . . . keep up the good work at school . . . see you at 6 a.m.”

Each Monday night when I returned from classes at the University of Portland, dinner and a note from my husband, Bob, awaited me. It was his way of cheering me on to the college degree I had wanted for many years.

The date was Sept. 8, 1981, our 30th wedding anniversary. I sat in a classroom in U.P.’s Buckley Center as professor Marlene Wilson greeted her Introduction to Gerontology class. At 50, I was the oldest in the group, and perhaps the most grateful to be there. The cool slacks I wore suited the warm afternoon. They were a far cry from the dark blue uniforms of Catholic schools and “skirts only” at Marylhurst in 1949, when I was a freshman.

Teaching, nursing and social work were typical careers for graduates of St. Mary’s Academy. Two years later, my goal of becoming an elementary school teacher was happily set aside for a new life as wife, secretary and then mother.

Bob and I celebrated our 10th anniversary with five children and two Cuban teenagers whose families later joined them in Portland. Classes and homework had no place in that cooking and childcare schedule.

Eight children helped us mark the 20-year date. The older ones worked with us in our basement hand bindery. My proofreading skills were appreciated by the typesetter whose work I reviewed. Clearly, going to school would not be part of my plans in the near future. But I knew I would recognize the time when it came.

On our silver anniversary in 1976, Bob and I still had a houseful, including a baby grandson. Days were not long enough to fulfill my duties as wife, mother, grandma, businesswoman and daughter.

Still, the college dream simmered on the back burner.

“Just in case,” I told myself as I completed a financial aid application in early 1981. Dad had died, my mother was comfortable at Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home, and a return to college looked possible. Writing the application was easy; I was an old hand at helping my children do them.

Dad’s membership in the Knights of Columbus enabled me to secure a student loan. And a surprise 50th birthday party renewed my feeling that I deserved to follow my dream.

My friend Norma, a career counselor, suggested gerontology as my study focus. I had the interest, plus valuable experience in caring and advocating for my parents. Besides, as I told my university adviser, having reached the half century mark, I intended to be prepared for those golden years.

We agreed on an interdisciplinary program: education, theology and gerontology. It was an unexpected bonus that not one credit was lost from my years at Marylhurst and Portland State. A small grant covered the cost of books the first semester.

From the beginning, to graduation two years later, I treasured the gift of learning I had been offered. Each time I drove into the university entrance on North Willamette Boulevard, I felt a happy anticipation. On exam days, I relived the anxiety of earlier school days.

Philosophy, Spanish, phenomena of death, psychology and biology of sociology were just a few of the subjects I studied. That first December, Bob made Christmas candy while I worked on term papers.

On Mother’s Day 1983, it was a family celebration when Mom finally earned her bachelor of arts degree. In cap and gown, I posed with our youngest, John, a month before he wore cap and gown to graduate from high school.

Advocating for elderly men and women is for me a natural outcome of years of volunteer efforts, both organized and informal. Learning about aging, its problems and rewards, gave me a better understanding and increased confidence that I could make a positive difference for many seniors.

Thirty-six years later, I have learned it is easier to study gerontology than to live it.



Mitchell, about to turn 90, formerly served on the Ombudsman Committee of the Portland Multnomah Commission on Aging. She is a member of The Madeleine Parish.