Sunday, October 17, 2010

Portraits of Three Older Women

Dot Fisher-Smith

"Well behaved women seldom make history."--Laura Thatcher Ulrich, a history professor at Harvard who wrote a book with that title

That quote is one that people often apply to Dot Fisher-Smith, who has been a force of nature in my community for decades. As these two images show, Dot presents an iconic image of the older woman. The top image is from a beautiful card series called Wonder of the Mother. The image below shows Dot in 1996 chained by the neck to a logging truck near Croman Mills in Ashland, Oregon as she and others protested one of a hundred timber sales Congress had exempted from environmental constraints. Dot has a long history of nonviolent protesting. And that ongoing commitment to justice and nature is only one aspect of her life and work. She is an artist, a counselor, workshop leader and for years was a Zen practitioner. She has influenced and supported many people in many ways over the years. She is now 82.

One of her friends and admirers, Willow Denker, has been filming Dot for about 13 years. That long commitment to telling Dot's story has resulted in a wonderful documentary titled Dot: An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary Person. I attended its premier last night and predictably the place was packed with an audience eager to honor Dot and her life. The movie is marvelous and it's even more marvelous when you consider that both of the women who created it are novices at filmmaking. The film did such a great job of depicting Dot's life history and the various facets of her personality and worldview.

"I'm very pragmatic and minimalist," Dot says. "At the heart of it, what inspires people is that I'm my own authority. I've never been conventional. I don't look to any outside authority. That's what everyone wants to be." I think that sums it up. The quote is from an article by John Darling which talks about Dot's life and the movie.

This is a film that deserves wide viewing. The producer and director are trying to get it accepted into the Ashland Independent Film Festival. I hope that happens, and I hope it is shown in many other communities, too. I will put a link up about the documentary here as soon as one becomes available.

Cloud 9

A couple of days ago I picked up Cloud 9, a German movie released in 2008. Steve at Video Explorer thought it was a comedy. But it turned out to be a very refreshing film about romance and love in the later years. The protagonist Inge, a woman in her late 60s, has been in a long, loving but also rather dull relationship for 30 years when she falls in love with a free spirit in his 70s. Inge is no botoxed/liposuctioned screen siren. Instead, she appears as a rather typical older woman, a seamstress, wife, mother and grandmother. I loved the real-life quality of the film--visits with the daughter and grandkids, life with the long-time husband, then the effervescent splash of adventures with a new lover. The New York Times review provides a good summary of what makes Cloud 9 so compelling. The reviewer said, "Filmed without gloss or glamour, using insistent close-ups and precisely calibrated framing, “Cloud 9” augments its modest narrative with unguarded performances and visual lucidity...Facing the cinematic taboo of twilight-years nudity head-on and upfront, Mr. Dresen and his actors create an atmosphere of reckless vulnerability that’s immediately compelling and artistically intriguing."

Vulnerability, passion, the complexity of dealing with the results of one's actions--nothing Hollywood-romantic here, just real portraits of real older people. In terms of portraying an older woman, there's not a stereotype in sight, although the film does include one funny joke about how 80 year olds make love. Excellent acting and complexity. Great flick. Recommend it.

Shopping Cart Annie and Gloria Wasserman

I read a rather eye-opening article in the New York Times about another iconic older woman. The article was titled Death of a Fulton Fish Market Fixture and it tells the story of an 85-year old woman known as Shopping Cart Annie, the profane mother of the Fulton Fish Market for decades--a woman who sold cigarettes, flashed her breasts and told dirty jokes. I found her life story astounding. There was her life as Annie, and there was her other life, the one she had been born into as Gloria Wasserman. She was a mother and grandmother who had been beautiful, spunky and sexually free. As her daughter noted, “I don’t know how you could put it nicely. But she had a flamboyant life.”

Annie/Gloria began her long association with the Fulton Fish Market in the 70s. "She cleaned the market’s offices and locker rooms and bathrooms. She collected the men’s “fish clothes” on Friday and had them washed and ready for Monday. She ran errands for Mr. DeLuca, known as Stevie Coffee Truck, hustling to Chinatown to pick up, say, some ginseng tea. She accepted the early morning delivery of bagels. She tried to anticipate the men’s needs — towels, bandannas, candy — and had these items available for sale." She made good money and she was regularly robbed.

Away from the market, she lived in a city-owned apartment as Gloria Wasserman. And she gave everything she earned to her family, often sending $4,000 a month to relatives on both coasts. She went to weddings and other family events and at the Fish Market was a good friend and helper to many street women, encouraging them and supporting them. When I finished this article, I just sat there confounded. What a unique, surprising life.

Aren't human beings amazing? Ah, the ways they choose to live their lives, the astonishing dimensions, facets and secrets each human being contains. It never works to assume you know the story or sum total of anyone. Although to come back to where I began with this post, I think that the documentary about Dot Fisher-Smith's life does a great job of capturing her layers, dimensions and complexity. It's a beautiful honoring of a full, vital life.


  1. Three fascinating stories. I will try to see Cloud 9 as it sounds like a film I'd enjoy. I recently saw Letters to Juliet which is kind of a standard little romance other than Vanessa Redgrave as that iconic old woman for the natural beauty she has which looks very little altered by face lifts or tucks. It's a shame so many elder women actresses have succumbed to the beauty at any price. Jane Fonda is a good example with her last face lift and yes, she looks good in a way but she also looks like Mary Tyler Moore and that's just a shame as she would have been a fantastic really old lady for the bones she has but she couldn't resist the urge to try and look younger. They don't. They just look plastic or lose their identity. I think Europe is more open to natural aging maybe.

  2. I wrote Cloud9 down -- now to just find it -- perhaps netflix? Also, I thought your words in your last paragraph were so true -- "Aren't human beings amazing? Ah, the ways they choose to live their lives, the astonishing dimensions, facets and secrets each human being contains. It never works to assume you know the story or sum total" Your approach to aging is enlightening. -- barbara

  3. Gaea -- I watched Cloud 9 last night -- excellent recommendation by you. I found it listed on Netflix. -- barbara

  4. This was a delicious post. I really enjoyed reading about these unique women. I'm especially fond of the card titled Earth Mother. Wow. Thanks for sharing these great stories.

  5. Thanks for your comments...I appreciate them. Barbara, I wish there was an obvious way to subscribe to your blog. I love reading it.