Sep/Oct
2016

Proud to be Alive: Choices that Define Us

Written by Jorrie Johnson
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You won’t forget meeting 90-year-old Mabel Tidings Bigelow in “Pride’s Crossing,” running September 9 through November 13 at Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro. Mabel wants to have a party and becomes adamant about decisions she wants to make for the party, while others attempt to tell her what she can and cannot do. Inspired by real-life swimmer Gertrude Ederle, Mabel's character swims the English Channel in her youth, and as we see through the course of the play, this accomplishment ultimately defines her.

“Pride’s Crossing,” written by Tina Howe, premiered in San Diego, California in 1997. The play addresses aging and the traps of gender and social identity. Howe says her work tends to express her feminist perspective, but in this production she allows her character (Mabel) to admire and be affectionate towards men.

ADRIENNE SWEENEY AS MABEL

Adrienne Sweeney, in her 16th season with Commonweal Theatre Company, will be playing the part of Mabel Tidings Bigelow in “Pride’s Crossing.” Adrienne has performed in more than 30 productions at Commonweal. She also serves as assistant artistic director and as the director of external communications for the theatre company. You may recognize her voice from radio and television commercials as well. 

 Adrienne researched the role of Mabel by talking with friends, family and theatre patrons at various stages of their lives. RochesterWomen magazine and Adrienne hosted a Wisdom Workshop at Congregational United Church of Christ in Rochester this spring. At the workshop, Adrienne had a conversation with an 85-year-old woman whose grown children, living out of state, want her to give up driving. They do not recognize that in a city like Rochester, with limited public transportation, she would forfeit a great deal of her independence. 

Independence and the ability to make her own decisions are a major components of Mabel’s character. Adrienne explains, “I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to get to know this character and to learn from her how critical these issues are.”

Adrienne met with someone who swam the English Channel to hear about the amazing feat her character achieved. She also swam in the Root River in Lanesboro to gain understand the feeling of swimming against the current in cold water. 

NIFTY 90S

To better understand the attitude of women in their 90s, Adrienne requested a meeting with some of the Sisters of St. Francis at Assisi Heights in Rochester. One day in August, I met Adrienne, four women in their 90s and two hosts for lunch at Assisi Heights. I sat back and listened while Adrienne conversed with some of Rochester’s strongest, independent women.

Adrienne began by explaining her role as Mabel in “Pride’s Crossing.” She explained that the play shows scenes of Mabel throughout her life from age 90 back to age 10, 15, 20, 35 and 60. Adrienne explained her understanding that the events in life—from remarkable moments like swimming the English Channel to ordinary, everyday moments—can define us. She asked the women to share their experiences with aging and how they see the decisions they have made in their lives.

The four women shared their ages, ranging from 92 to 98 years. When asked what she thought about her age, Sister Margaret Clare Style responded with a chuckle, “No one believes I’m 98 years old.” 

As for women’s liberation and rights, the sisters’ feelings were mixed. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were a few career options for women: nurse, teacher or housewife. However, as a sister, you could have a career, become educated and serve in various capacities around the world. Our lunch host, Sister Marlys Jax, chimed in saying, “After Vatican II, Sisters could choose their own ministry, which was liberating.”

Sister Margaret Clare Style, 98, learned to stand on her own two feet when she was young. She says, “I was quiet when I was young. The older I got, I became a little more aggressive. No, assertive, in a good way.” Sister Margaret Clare Style’s family encouraged her to do our own thing to “keep her place.” She told us that when an older boy pestered her on the way home from school, her father said, “We aren’t going to have any whining in this house. Next time say politely, ‘Just stop it,’ and if he continues, punch him.” (Laughs around the table.) 

Adrienne asked the sisters to share their advice on living a long life. One sister explained, “You need to bounce, bounce back from disappointments and stay positive.” Another told us about her mission work in treacherous barrios (slums) of Bogotá and the importance of listening to people, asking them if they are working and eating. The women shared that faith in God, living in community and being positive were important throughout life.

NORMA FORTH OF MADONNA TOWERS

Norma Forth lives at Madonna Towers in Rochester. She was born on January 6, 1926 and grew up on a farm outside of Mankato. When she was 10 years old, she remembers long summers and exciting days at school. After school, she remembers, she did chores—filling lamps with kerosene, bringing in firewood and helping her mother wash eggs to be sold. She comments, “We were probably very poor but didn’t realize it because everyone was poor. We always had plenty to eat, and we were warm. We had that security of a family and a warm home.”

Norma’s family hoped she would go to college because they never had that luxury. She went to Mankato State Teachers College. She was 21-years-old when she got married and did not continue teaching. She notes, “At that time if you showed you were pregnant, you had to resign.” She did not go back to teaching until her oldest child went to college. She is very proud that all three of her children went to college. “For me, education was very important,” she explains.

Norma’s husband died when they were both in their 60s. She says, “Aging is a privilege. My husband didn’t have that.” She says it was stressful losing him and made the choice to move to a townhouse in Rochester. She lived there for 25 years, until caring for the home became too much work. She didn’t want to wait for a crisis, so she chose to move to Madonna Towers. She says, “I got tired of eating alone. I just needed more activities.”  She also explains that one of the sad things about aging is that you lose your friends, but you go on, you meet new people and you meet new friends. 

Two sisters of Norma’s are still living but are dealing with health issues. She says, “I’m so fortunate I’m in good health. I think I’m healthy because I’m very active, not only my body, but my mind. I keep learning all the time. I enjoy reading and doing puzzles. I play bridge once or twice a week. I walk and exercise 30 minutes a day.” 

Her advice to younger people is to, “Just embrace life.” She says there are so many things to do and that we are so fortunate that you have so many more options. The most important thing is to be happy and positive no matter what you choose to do in life. 

WOMEN’S WISDOM WORKSHOPS

RochesterWomen magazine and Adrienne Sweeney met with women of Congregational United Church of Christ in Rochester this spring to discuss the possibility of hosting a workshop with women of the church and inviting the public. Coincidentally, there was a group who had been studying aging and became the core group to attend and facilitate a workshop held in May.

Adrienne Sweeney was introduced as the vivacious party-planner, Mabel, and gave a five-minute monologue from the “Pride’s Crossing.” Then, attendees were evenly divided into groups and assigned a facilitator to discuss relationships, choices, aging and memory. The discussions lasted about 30 minutes, which, according to attendees, wasn’t long enough.

Adrienne says, “These are scary things to talk about because they deal with the unknown, which makes us feel out of control. In my experience, having frank discussions about these issues help minimize fears when we realize that we're not alone. Everyone is basically going through the same things in one way or another. When I share something with someone and they are right there with me, afterwards it's almost like I can actually breathe easier. You feel less alone. And who knows, maybe someone has the answer you’ve been looking for
all along.”

UPCOMING WISDOM WORKSHOPS 

Adrienne Sweeney and I will be hosting two Women’s Wisdom Workshops open to the public this fall. The first one will be on Tuesday, September, 20 at Assisi Heights from 6:30-8 p.m. The workshop is free. Pre-register online at rochesterfranciscan.org. The second workshop will be held at Madonna Towers, 4001 19th Avenue NW in Rochester, on Thursday, September 22 at 1:30 p.m. To register, contact Annie Skogen at 507-206-2177. 

If you or a group you know would like to host a Women’s Wisdom Workshop, please contact Jorrie Johnson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 507-259-6362. We look forward to seeing at a workshop and at “Pride’s Crossing” this fall.

Jorrie Johnson is the publisher and editor of RochesterWomen magazine and more importantly the mother of three children who she hopes to enjoy late into life as well.