At My Age

Now that I am 81, I am learning about many things for the first time. There were times when I could have spoken out about injustice in the past and did not. Why didn’t I?

I do not think my background is significantly different than a lot of Minnesota women my age. I was born in St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis in 1939 and spent many decades associated with that Catholic institution as a pediatric nurse.

Barbara Palmer

I grew up in the Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, went to a Catholic high school downtown, enjoyed the company of my Norwegian grandmother in our home, and spent my teen years walking dogs and babysitting. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but was told that is not what girls do, so I went to St. Catherine’s and got a nursing diploma.

At 22, I married. We had four boys and three daughters and moved from Northeast Minneapolis to a four-bedroom rambler in Blaine. When my youngest child was four, and my eldest was 16, I separated from my abusive husband. I raised my children alone after that. It was difficult, but we made it, we healed, and came out better for it. Someone suggested I go back to school, as part of my own healing. I eventually got a master’s degree in public health.

After my children were grown, I moved back to Minneapolis 25 years ago and bought a house. I got involved with the Sisters of St. Joseph, doing social justice activities, protesting for people’s rights, and doing political advocacy at the state legislature. I especially talked to legislators about why we need to pay more attention to healthcare, maternal and child health, violence against women, and child abuse and neglect.

I worry about my family being exposed to COVID-19. Four of them are essential workers in healthcare and long-term care facilities. A few months ago, my daughter was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She is a strong woman and we are hopeful. It is bringing our family even closer.


What I Am Learning at 81

At first I felt such anger and sorrow about the murder of George Floyd, and disbelief about the violence after that.

Now I am learning what I have missed in my life, oblivious to racism, inequality, and injustice.

At my church, I have been part of a group that works as observers in immigration court, to be welcoming to newcomers. My faith perspective is that we love everyone, the whole of creation.

I was raised to believe that you treat people well, fairly, and justly. Now that I am 81, I am learning about many things for the first time. There were times when I could have spoken out about injustice in the past and did not. Why didn’t I?

After I was in public health I started to see more of people from all walks of life, wealthy and poor. I was trained how to do home visits with people of many cultures. Yet, I still did not realize how much I had missed. How much we impact others without realizing it. I used to say, “I don’t notice color,” and now I realize how that sounds to others, and I do not say it anymore. There is a lot we need to be more thoughtful about.

On Zoom last year, I took a wonderful college-level course from the University of St. Thomas and the Basilica of St. Mary called “Becoming Human.” It is about racism in the U.S., from pre-Civil War to the present. I learned for the first time about how our systems of government and rule have been designed to limit the opportunities and rights of people of color. It was so valuable.

One of the women in a class breakout group with me talked about how she had to live her life passing as a white woman — which she was able to do — in order to have the kind of work she wanted. She knew they would not accept her if they realized she was Black. How hard that must have been for her. I was stunned to learn about that kind of pain, the reality of what it is like to be a person of color, what people have to go through because of their skin color or ethnicity or gender. Having to hide who you are.

At my age, I am finally learning about all the things we do because of ‘isms. I do believe there are so many good people in this world. My hope is that as we have more opportunities to come together, to read, to write, to pray — these ways of coming together will help us find our way.


Barbara Palmer (she/her) is a mother, grandmother, advocate, nurse healer, and animal lover. She enjoys cooking, nature walks, gardening, poetry, concerts, galleries, museums, and online senior exercise classes.