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Menopause Journal: My Mother, My Menopausal Mentor

I've been monitoring my progress. Not much has happened. Still no period. I got lost on the way to a conference at China Lake, but a mistake in the directions meant everyone got lost. My feet hurt when I get up in the morning. Is that a sign? The weather waivers between hot and cool, and I can't tell whether it's the weather or me. It was definitely hot at my niece's wedding in Louisiana.

That became an opportunity for research. My mother is in her 80s, my cousin her 60s. Each is widowed, but vital and with no obvious ill effects from menopause. They represent both genetic sides of my family. My cousin has a full dose of the "Allen gene"; my mother only married an Allen. They are good mentors, I think. They live in their own homes, teach and travel abroad. My mom drives a sporty Saab and is the trimmest, most fashionable dresser in the family. After the wedding, I asked the two of them, "Were either of you ever diagnosed with menopause?"

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They laughed.

I persevered. "Okay, just tell me about menopause."

Both had hysterectomies, but kept their ovaries.

My cousin said, "Well, I may have had a real miserable menopause, but I don't remember it. I don't actually know if I've had it or not."

My mother chimed in, "I must have had it because I'm 85, but I didn't know I was in menopause until it was all over."

My cousin adds, "Unless we've never gone through it. Then I guess we could be in a carnival."

They agreed about the minor annoyances of hot flashes, but nothing traumatic.

"Did your feet hurt when you first got out of bed?" I asked.

"No," said my mom. "Don't believe all the horrible stories you hear about people going through menopause. Don't even listen to them."

Some women are miserable. Somebody should listen to them.

"And if you have symptoms, doctors can give you something to make them better."

"Do you mean hormones? " I asked. Do either of you take them?"

"When I was about 70, Dr. Wilcox said he thought it was a good idea. He gave me an estrogen patch."

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My cousin said she takes something too. Her friends took them so she asked the doctor if he thought she should. Apparently he did.

For me the hormone question is worrisome.

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My mother continued, "As far as menopause interfering with sex, that's nonsense. You don't mess with birth control. It can be the best of your sex life."

She told a joke about a girl asking her mother when women got tired of sex. The mother said she didn't know, she should ask her grandmother. Her grandmother said she didn't know, she should ask her great-grandmother. Her great-grandmother said she didn't know.

My mom felt the need to explain, "In other words women don't get tired of sex."

"Some women get tired of sex." I argued. "I've heard people say, 'enough is enough.'"

My cousin added, "I've heard 'enough is too much.'"

My mother scowled. "I wonder if they have nice husbands."

"Some women don't even have husbands," said my cousin.

That didn't phase my mother. "And keep yourself in good health."

Well, yeah.

And that's the problem with her advice. She oversimplifies and figures if she can do it, anyone can. If it's not her experience, it's probably "nonsense."

By her own assessment, she's a fortunate woman. She had loving parents, an education, a good marriage and four children who are alive and well today. It wasn't perfect: my sister had open-heart surgery at age 6 and my dad is dead now. Last year, my mom survived surgery for a broken neck . Perhaps an act of will.

She believes in free will and doesn't give much credence to genetic predisposition or misfortune. She has little sympathy for the Allen gene or other weaknesses. She's self-disciplined. She doesn't eat ice cream for breakfast. She watches her cholesterol, walks every day and puts things in order. She's sensible and cautious. If her car were falling apart, she certainly wouldn't buy a boat.

She added, "And keep busy doing interesting things." Good, something we can agree on. My mom followed opportunities that opened up for her in her 50s. That's when she studied with Dr. Suzuki and started her own violin studio. Likewise, my friends and I are busy doing interesting, sometimes difficult things. Even sailing and painting qualify.

I admire my mother's example and her success is hard to ignore. I even like my mother, but I have trouble following her advice. She oversimplifies complex situations, and she's too blatantly sensible. But I sure hope I inherit a little of her genetic material.

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