The “But” of the Joke

Let’s go back about 40 years. Here’s how it would happen, again and again.

My husband and I would return to West Texas, where both sets of our parents lived, for a holiday or weekend. A day or two into our stay, he and I would sit down with his mother and grandmother so they could catch us up with the local news.

“You remember Alma Rogers,” my mother-in-law would begin. “She — ”

“Who?” my husband would say.

“Alma Rogers. She — ”

“I’ve never heard of her — ”

“Alma Rogers! Of course, you know her — ” my mother-in-law would continue.

“No, I don’t,” he’d insist.

“ALMA ROGERS! You know her quite well!”

“Never heard of her.”

“ALMA ROGERS! Of course you know her!” my mother-in-law would begin to scream. “She lived down the street — ”

“You’ve known Alma Rogers your entire life!” his grandmother would say.

“I have no idea who you’re talking about — ”




“No, I never knew her — ”


This would go on for some time, always ending in garbled screams and assorted accusations and denials and much huffing and puffing. Eventually, it would all die down, and my husband — in a sudden excess of good will — would say, “So what about Alma Rogers?”

His mother and grandmother, both hoarse and exhausted from all their yelling, would have already settled into their noontime libation. They would look up wearily. “Oh. Alma Rogers died,” his mother would say.

Sometimes it was Alma Rogers and sometimes it was Harvey Schmidt, and sometimes it was somebody else. But after all the yelling had subsided, it would be revealed that the person in question, who my husband still denied knowing, was dead. Dead! That had been the whole point of the story!

My husband and I would later tell the story to all our friends — all of whom, like us, were young and invulnerable and deeply amused. We would collapse in laughter, then shake our heads and shrug. Old people were so funny, in kind of a pathetic way.

Well, you know how it goes from there. The old die, the young get old, the jokes stay the same, but the butt of the jokes is now staring you in the face every time you look in the mirror.

“All you talked about was people getting cancer and dying,” our daughter observed several years ago after my husband and I had run into some old friends from Virginia.

“That’s just because a lot of people we know have had cancer,” I said.

“Yeah, but that’s all you talked about,” she said.

That’s all we talked about! Ill health, the Big C, death. I think of this observation from time to time. Think about it in my yoga class when the guy behind me comes back after several weeks’ absence. “Detached retina,” he says. “It was awful.”

I think about it as some friends slide, as others die, as the light takes on a different slant — that late afternoon lengthening of shadows. It’s happening all around us, it’s happening within us (the aches, the pains, the physical failures and changes that still surprise, but not as much as they used to).

What do we do with our altered circumstances as we age? I think about it a lot, since — obviously — I’m aging myself, along with my husband and all our friends of the same age, and since I’ve been working on a book about women and aging,

I want to understand it all better. I want to do it well, I want to age well — but what the hell does “well” mean?

I come to this conundrum with a slight advantage. I was, quite possibly, the worst person at being young in the history of the world — neurotic, cringing, fearful, shy; I miss my youth a lot less than your average prom queen, I feel sure. In fact, I’m a lot better at being an older person than I was at being young, which probably explains why my worst nightmares center on going back to high school and not to the crematorium. It’s easy to excel when the bar is set at pure misery.

But, anyway, aging well. How do you do it? I don’t want to deny my age (the next blithe moron who announces 60 is the new 40 will be served up a sandwich de knuckle on the house). I don’t want to dwell on it, either, and develop a reputation as a boring, whining old bat.

I want to be my age, without apology, maybe with even some appreciation that my body and mind are still chugging along. I want to recall how many of my friends didn’t live long enough to grow old — and that aging is a privilege.

Yeah, aging is a privilege, I tell that altered face in the mirror. A privilege to be the butt of the joke I used to howl at when I was young, when I didn’t understand half of what I do now.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about changes in attitude


21 comments… add one
  • Oh you have no idea how much I can relate to this post. I just enrolled in graduate school, never thought a thing about it except excitement and where my career would go when I graduate…and then I did the math – I’ll be 55 when I graduate. And then I thought…am I too old? (Of course I’m not but it didn’t stop me from thinking it.)

    Then there’s the whole question of clothing. I want to be hip and not fall victim to the styles my grandmother and mother adopted because they wanted to be “comfortable”. But I don’t want to look like “that woman”. You know the one – the one that’s in her 50’s but dressing like she’s in her 30’s? Problem is, when I see myself in my head, I AM in my thirties.


    I want to age well also, not ashamed of my age, not shouting it from the rooftops…just “well”.

    When you figure out how to do this, please post the answer. I’m dying to know what it is (pun intended).


  • Enjoyed and related – too much! – to your post. I try to avoid talking about my friends’ health issues and problems with my kids, even though they have known the individuals for decades. Only talk about the good stuff – like new grandkids and travel. But then they find other stuff to criticize about – I am way, way , way behind any ‘with it’ curve.

  • Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how difficult aging is. Thinking of it as a privilege is definitely a helpful perspective.

  • YOu’ve hit it on the proverbial head, Ruth. Every time I get together with (old) friends, we get the inevitable health reports out of the way (“and how is that knee?” “Is your neck okay now?” “What did the doctor say?”) and then focus on having fun.

  • cousin per Link

    Great sweet text, Ruth!
    I sent the link to my mother Mary.
    Big hug.

  • Chris Link

    What a wonderful post. I feel I could have written it, meaning I have so many similar thoughts but not the writing skill you have to express them. Thanks for reminding me of a better way to look into the mirror. I hope you get your book out soon so we can read it.

  • Stephie Smith Link

    Hey! Detached retina has nothing to do with age!! Very little to do with age! OK, maybe a little to do with age. But in my family we get them in our 40’s and 50’s and that’s not old!

  • Cindy D. Link

    I feel your angst. I struggle with this aging process, too. I often wish I had been more patient with my mother-in-law and my mother when they would try to tell me things. I could use some of those insights now.

  • Rachel Link

    I love the line about the shadows lengthening toward the late afternoon. I think that’s incredibly profound – because as we age, we do tend to see more of the shadows and less of the light. That might be one of the most useful insights about aging that I’ve heard. Thank you!

  • Craig Smith Link

    Aging is a privilege? How would you like a sandwich de knuckle?
    My old granny said you are only as old as you smell. You still smell young.

  • Tessa Link

    Spot on, as always, Ruth. Like Benjamin Button, I was born old and grow younger in my views as I age. Unfortunately, my face and body went the normal way … so HUGE shock every morning when I first see the mirror. Looking forward to the book. When is it due?

  • merr Link

    Great post, Ruth. My friend was just telling me how she was joking with friends about how the first order of business at every gathering is does this still hurt? And that? Universal, yet it seems so darn personal!

  • Laurie Link

    Wonderful, Ruth! And thank you. Well put and provocative. Did I expect anything less? You might want to speak with my SMU Bronze instructor who looks forward to being 80… she is now only 62. She wants to embrace it all. And I might add, she has dealt with the worst of the worst, yet her spirits are high and positive. A key? You tell me.

  • I appreciated that part about the differing angles of light, too. but saw it in a different way — as we age, it’s possible that we see and take time for hearing and telling the long story more than before, something that’s needed especially in this age of immediacy.

    when I reconnect with an Irish friend of mine, our first question to each other is one we first heard in Ireland. it’s how is your heart — meaning, heart in terms of spirit and soul and outlook.

  • I wasn’t so great at being young either. Aging is a strange phenomenon. You don’t realize how quickly it’s happening until you see friends you haven’t seen for awhile, and then you realize that you look as different to them as they look to you. Sigh.

    This part made me laugh: “Sometimes it was Alma Rogers and sometimes it was Harvey Schmidt, and sometimes it was somebody else. But after all the yelling had subsided, it would be revealed that the person in question, who my husband still denied knowing, was dead. Dead! That had been the whole point of the story!”

    Even though, um, it’s not funny…

  • Ruth:

    I related so much to the parents insisting their son knew this or that person when he said he didn’t. For years, when I went back to my hometown, my mother would talk to me about various people and I’d say I didn’t remember them. She would reply, “Of course you know so-and-so,” and she’d get very insulted when I said I didn’t.

    The thing was, I left my hometown at 18 to go to college and never lived there again. There were a lot of people who were basically my mother’s friends, and though I may have met them once or twice, there was no reason for me to remember them. I learned in these encounters that my mother talked mainly about people–the people who formed the world she lived in. I had left that world and liked to talk about other things–like current events, what was on at the movies, etc. As a result, she and I didn’t seem able to have a conversation after I became an adult.

    I think my mother’s insistence that I remember people was her way of trying to keep me in her world, and my insistence that I didn’t remember them was my way of saying that I didn’t belong there anymore. It’s too bad we couldn’t have found some middle ground.

  • A lovely 60-something friend always tells me to fight aging with everything you’ve got. She might be onto something, because she looks fabulous and doesn’t act her age. Whatever acting your age means anymore.

  • Terry Link

    You are always able to articulate what I am thinking!!! Just wish I could say it like you do…but glad I can access your “articulations”…did I say that right?

  • What a lovely post, Ruth. I’m sharing it with two of my friends who I know will enjoy it as much as I did.

  • Oh my goodness. My folks have gotten to the Alma Rogers stage. And yet they’re hip enough to text. So we have text conversations like this with my dad (who is nothing if not succinct):

    Him: Fred Waters RIP.
    Us: What happened??
    Him: Old.

  • Very powerful post, Ruth. I often think of aging as having some advantages. But not often enough.

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