Today is the first day of winter, with a pale sun barely seeping through the damp air. I’m sitting stubbornly on the back deck wrapped in my heaviest sweater, trying to write about what it is like to be … I don’t know how to say this. A woman growing old? A woman aging? Or forget the woman part, what is it like just to be getting old now. We’re all so relatively healthy, we have so many more resources and solutions than our parents and grandparents did, and so many more expectations for ourselves.
When my generation came of age in the 1960’s, we never actually expected to get old. A lot of us, myself included, were pretty sure the so called great powers would kill most of us on the bombs they were stockpiling. We expected we’d all go down together (bravely, tragically but decisively) in a nuclear war before we were 30.
So all that is true, about the resources and our not expecting to live past 30, but that’s not what I’m wondering about. I want to fathom what is happening now on the inside and it’s going to take some time. Here is as much as I know at the moment: Living into my sixties is different from any time I have lived through so far. It’s another country, a different game.
“Old’s our game,” the poet Marie Ponsot has one of her speakers say. “Mere failure to be young is not interesting.” 1 But if you pay attention and take notes, I say to myself, the pattern of the new game might reveal itself. The new territory might spread out and show itself if I can find a vantage point. And even if I can’t climb high enough to see the lay of the land, I might be able to sketch where the rivers run clear to the ocean and where the swamps begin.
Telling myself this, I take heart. This is what I want to do: explore and take notes for the ones like me who are becoming elders in a very new time, and for those who will come after us.
* * *
A sense of loss and endings began to seep into my awareness some time in my 50’s. Well, not exactly my awareness, more like my intuition, like the way you don’t really don’t notice a few fruit flies buzzing around the bananas until suddenly you do. Then they’re all over the place and you’re frantic.
By the time my brother Howard turned 60 he was, if not frantic, fiercely intent on not getting old without a fight. He hits his health club at 6 every morning and pumps his bike through wild, rainy Boston afternoons, head down, iPod in, as if the Tour de France is happening right there along the Charles River. A book called Younger Next Year is his bible. It’s a guy book. But as soon as the special women’s version with a hot pink cover came out, Howard bought copies for his wife, Carol, and his daughter, Catherine, and me. He doesn’t want to stay young all by himself, he informed us.
The sense of endings can also have the opposite effect. My mother told me that when her mother Rose turned 50, she announced to the family that she was retiring. From what? my grandpa Abe wanted to know. From all the hard work I’ve put into fixing myself up all these years, she told him, from watching my figure, doing up my hair, making all those trips to the seamstress to get my dresses made. And what she didn’t mention but clearly was right at the top of her list was this: she was done with strapping herself into the full body corset that women of her class and generation climbed into every morning of their lives.
By the time I knew my grandmom Rose, she’d given up on all that. Decidedly fat with a head of gray hair that sprouted out frizzily in all directions, her double chin trembled when she laughed, which she did a lot. With no corset to hold her in, she had taken to wearing what they called “housedresses,” boundlessly forgiving cotton wraparounds that simply covered over whatever shape you happened to be in. Without her corset, she was soft when she hugged us, which she also did a lot. I thought she was absolutely perfect.
But giving up when you reach a certain time in life isn’t just about appearances. It can mean giving up on life. My father’s parents, Lena and Max, did that. They lived a few blocks from my high school. I was supposed to visit them when I could, just drop in and say hi, my father said. I found every excuse not to.
When finally I did show up, the TV was on and my grandparents were sitting next to each other on the sofa, watching Liberace or Groucho Marx in the middle of the afternoon. Though the apartment was stuffed with furniture, it was filled with emptiness. The emptiness smelled like old dust, dry and left behind in cracks you couldn’t see. It made me want to run out of there as fast as I could and never look back.
But my grandparents would be so glad to see me. My grandmother would hurry to the kitchen to bring me a glass of milk and the hard little hamantashen she kept in a box on top of the refrigerator in case one of the grandchildren would drop in. My grandfather would kiss me and rub his bristly mustache over my cheek, making me giggle. I should come here more often, I’d think guiltily. It makes them so happy. But in the depths of my teenaged self, I would rage: Getting old is boring, hideously boring! And I stayed away from the little apartment with the blaring television for months at a time.
I’m now as old as my grandparents were then. While I don’t want to slam into reverse on the aging thing, like my brother, and I’m too vain to give up on looking good, like my grandmother Rose, I am beginning to wonder about what made Lena and Max give up.
This is a lie. I have been assiduously avoiding thinking about my lonely, boring grandparents for weeks now. And what I thought instead was this: I’m bored. I’m tired of writing about getting old. Whatever made me think that this was a grand adventure, a new country to be discovered? There is so much else to do in my life right now. Old age is boring.
In the meantime, shadowy figures have been lining up on my front porch. They aren’t hysterics, these visitors. They are patient, not ringing the doorbell or knocking loudly on the door. They’re standing quietly with a kind of restrained intensity, like mourners who manage to hold their grief until the appropriate time in the funeral service.
I sigh and go to the door. I guess you’re here about the losses, I say. Come on in.
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