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Please Don’t Call Her Cute: A Life of Mastery, Purpose, Belonging, and Autonomy

"Bearing witness to the stories of everyday life played out in nursing--and in her forties, she discovered a new outlet for accessing human drama: theater." This week, poet Jennifer Hill—author of "You Look Young Enough to be Relevant"—introduces us to the "Jenn-esis" of her talent: her 76-year-old, prop-making, whimsey-loving, wonderment realizing mother, Fran Hill.

Please Don’t Call Her Cute: A Life of Mastery, Purpose, Belonging, and Autonomy

At the doctor’s office, a nurse slips into sing-song and calls my mother “cute.” I’ve never heard her referred to in this way, and I don’t like it. I come to find out that neither does she. But my mother’s motto for life is “be kind.” When we discuss this misnomer of cuteness, she says, “People don’t mean to be mean. It’s all they know. I think they just don’t know what it feels like. You’re the person that you were, but a little bit broken in spots. You’re still the same person that has led a whole life. I still feel about 21.”

Fran Hill, 2016 My mother is a better person than I am. Please don’t call my mother cute, and use your normal vocal register when addressing her. Her name is Fran. She’s 76. She is not a poster of a kitten sitting in a basket of daisies. She is a human being who has a lot of intelligence, wit, and experience.

My mother is aging, like all of us are. “I find myself in the thick of it now,” she says. “The best part about it is that you know more. You have more experience.” Her sense of whimsy and wonderment is her hallmark. After admitting she doesn’t like multitasking, she made herself a calling card recently that says:


Dedicated Unitasker

Fran keeps a mannequin at the front door to her home. Minka is her name, and she’s the housemaid who never really gets any work done. Last week she was returned to the house after being away in a production of “Hello Dolly,” and before we put her hands back on we put one in the plant and then one on her shoulder. Minka was not amused. She never looks amused, but perhaps she was worn out from her theatre experience. Minka’s presence is just another example of my mother’s sense of whimsy and her delight in the unexpected.

I laughed, but Minka was not happy with her hand placement.

My mother is a woman who is a master at making the imagined real. She’s a healer. She loves a good pun, and grew up with a father who worked for a newspaper, setting type by hand, composed visual poems on the typewriter, and sang nonsense songs as he drove her and a friend to the theatre. He was her inspiration. Her mother was one of the first women to be bold enough to wear pants instead of dresses. Fran was surrounded by a coterie of aunts and cousins. A strong and caring woman, her mother’s motto was also to “be kind.”

A Sense of Mastery

In 1957, the year Fran graduated high school, she was given three options for her continued education: to become a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. “It’s just how it was. It was what girls did. Some girls did other things. But most of the girls either got married, or did one of those three careers. It was normal. I think about it now, and the lack of choices really kind of stunk.”

She chose nursing because she loves people and knew she’d be seeing them not at their best, and she’d be good at making them feel better. She received a scholarship for her studies. Her Aunt Lou, a Lutheran deaconess, was also a nurse, and watched over her while she was in school.

“I had to be on my best behavior," she says. "Or sneaky. There was no being sneaky with the grades. Aunt Lou always knew what I got. She did mention one time that I should have more A’s and less B’s. I felt that I should do things other than read textbooks and take care of people. Like, be out on the roof of the Academy of Music to make snow angels with my friend, Lyn.”

Fran in her nursing school graduation photo.

She knows how to make people well, and to feel better about themselves. “I liked getting to know the people, just knowing them as people, not as their disease. There’s nothing like holding someone’s hand, or talking with them about their grandchildren. It wasn’t the technical parts of nursing, it was the human parts that I liked.”

Fran spent her working years as a registered nurse, and volunteering in the role model positions of Girl Scout troop leader, library board member, and as the local theatre’s Prop Mistress (she has cards she made for that, too.)

She’s brilliant at transforming an empty stage into a believable living room from the late 1800s, complete with framed photos, old newspapers, and period furniture she sussed out and borrowed from local businesses.

A Sense of Belonging and Purpose

Bearing witness to the stories of everyday life played out in nursing, for the first part of Fran’s career. And in her forties she discovered a new outlet for accessing human drama: theater. Living on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town in the early 1980s, she became friends with the pastor of a local church, Bill, who wanted to start up a chorus. The chorus was a success and everyone involved wanted to try a musical.

The first musical The Nuremberg Community Players (NCP) produced was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Everyone was in it. The school bus driver. The town beautician. My father. My sister and I played two of the brothers. My mother helped with costuming, and sewed robes out of the fabric from the textile company where my dad worked. She recalls doing all sorts of things that were dangerous, in particular climbing really tall ladders to hang lights at the American Legion Hall where the plays were always held. It truly was a community theatre.

“We used a book from Samuel French that taught us how to make flats, and spent a whole day making them. I didn’t start out doing props.” In her years with NCP, she even did some directing and acting.

Fran takes us on a tour of the prop room.

After moving to Lancaster County in the late 1980s, Fran found a new home at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. She went to the theatre and offered to handle props. The first show was Kiss of the Spiderwoman. To this day, it is probably one of her favorites, along with Sunday In the Park with George.

A shelf full of phones from various eras in the prop room wait for your call.

“It’s a challenge to do props and when you make a good one, it’s rewarding,” she says. “Asking people for things isn’t the easiest thing for me, but I learned to do it. It was a good thing to learn how to do. Most people were thrilled to have something of theirs on stage.”

She enjoyed working with the directors and set designers, even when they changed their minds last minute on the color scheme for a show and she had to go out and buy all new kitchenware for the set. Ok, she admits, that was frustrating.

The organizational and people skills she learned from her nursing career worked really well in the theatre roles she took on, too.

And then there was the time she had to make a dead wolf.

“We were doing a play that required a life sized wolf that was to be dragged across the stage by one of the actors," she says. "It was a comedy, so we could have made a goofier wolf, but we made it realistic. My oldest daughter, Kristen, is good at making patterns, she lived in Tokyo then, and she found some photos online from forestry people when they were still killing wolves. She used a photo as the basis for the pattern, and then sent it to me on 8 x 11 paper, and I had to patch it together. I thought I couldn’t put it all together, but I made lunch for a friend who is a seamstress as pay to make it. That wolf is still in the prop room. We won’t get rid of it.”

Fran poses with the wolf she made. It takes a village to make a good dead wolf. A Sense of Autonomy

“Some of the less good parts of aging are not being able to do what you used to do.”

I love that my positive thinking mother can’t even say the word “bad.” It’s the “less good parts” of aging. What I’ve noticed about aging is that it is similar to the complex emotional tightrope act you do in middle school. You tell yourself, “I’ve got this. I’m independent.”

In January of 2010, Fran woke up to a “dropped foot.” As a nurse, she knew the foot could be the sign of a stroke, but acting on her experience, she called an ambulance, and was transported to the ER. When friends brought her home, she started thinking as her own nurse.

“I was being a nurse for me, and I knew it," she says. "I knew to ask for what I needed from friends. I was preparing, making sure I had clothes, a toothbrush, the essentials. Sleeping on the couch wore off fast, but it was too dangerous for me to climb the stairs.”

After a lot of testing, she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, which is a rare neuro-immune disorder. When the central nervous system is affected, there are multiple kinds of damage that can occur. If the demyelination occurs in the wires sending motor signals to a person’s legs, as in my mother’s case, then there is weakness and difficulty walking.

“I expected that it wouldn’t come back, I don’t know if it is, but I knew I’d lose something, maybe my gait would be off. And it is. It has changed a lot. There are things I can no longer do.”

Heading up into the theatre from the prop room.

My mom is not her disease, but it has slowed her. I ask her about all the videos we see everyday on Facebook that depict women over 80 doing complex yoga poses, or group dances. She says, “Not everyone can do that, can they? Gee, if you just try hard enough, you can do a backbend! It’s also not everyone’s wish to do a backbend. I don’t think I’ll do one today. I’ll stand up, and I’ll bake a pie.”

Our hands.

I worry about whether offering my helping hand as she gets out of the car or stands up from her seat at the theatre is too much. Am I making her feel like a child? In my desire to be helpful, am I turning into one of those who assume she can’t do things for herself? Our roles have shifted a little in this strange production. We flub our lines a lot. We’re both trying our best.

”We look like we’re in a play!” Mom says of this photo of us on a set being built at the theatre.

We are all aging from the moment we are born. What most of us don’t realize is that it happens rather invisibly, and swiftly.

I sat down with mom the other day after rehearsing an act for an upcoming show. I wanted her to hear the song I chose, a favorite of hers by Jacques Brel, “Carousel.” We sat at her kitchen table. The song gains speed as it goes, and we both tripped over the words as we sang along. By the end, the song leaves you practically breathless:

Carnivals and cotton candy Carousels and calliopes Fortune-tellers in glass cases We will always remember these Merry-go-rounds quickly turning Quickly turning for you and me And the whole world madly turning Turning, turning 'till you can't see We're on a carousel A crazy carousel And now we go around Again we go around And now we spin around We're high above the ground And down again around And up again around So high above the ground We feel we've got to yell We're on a carousel A crazy carousel …

“Oh, it’s a metaphor, isn’t it?” she asked. She gets it. She grew up reading and loving wordplay, remember?

Our elders are not “adorable.” They’ve got a lot of experience with the whole world madly turning. They have stories to share about it. Listen.

Jennifer and Fran Hill.

All photos, with the exception of Fran’s nursing school photo, are by Patty O’Brien of

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