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 — ”
“OF COURSE YOU DO! ALMA ROGERS!”
“HER SON WAS ONE OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS!”
“YOU USED TO PLAY TOGETHER ALL THE TIME!!”
“No, I never knew her — ”
“YOU DID, TOO! YOU’VE KNOWN ALMA ROGERS SINCE YOU WERE BORN!!!”
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