Brainy Aging Goddesses with Sensible Shoes: The Problem Is the Bifocals

Aging is more fun than you would think. At 50, Bilbo Baggins had his first adventure (The Hobbit).  The writer Mary Wesley published her first novel when she was 73.  And Harriet Doerr, who graduated from Stanford at the age of  67, was 73 when she published her first novel,  Stones of Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. 

The prospect of wrinkles, gray hair, plucking chin hairs, and the necessity of sensible shoes horrifies us women, but that is partly the Hollywood influence:  we are staggered by the beauty of goddess-actresses, though we are not immortal, and must cope without Dior or Chanel.  The image in the mirror changes, but if we’re lucky we become brainier as we age. That’s what they don’t tell you in fashion magazines.  

There are many, many challenges for middle-aged or older women.  You must deal with menopause, hormone changes, and age discrimination.  You must polish your rhetorical skills and persuade the insurance company to pay for your prescription skin cream (they prefer to fund the cream for younger women, which is surely discrimination) as well as those essential medications, without which you will die; you can go gray or experiment with time-consuming hairdos; you can enjoy shopping for smart flat shoes on sale or opt to live in cute sneakers.

Looks aside, you are likely to become smarter. Less time in front of mirrors!  Bizarrely, information you learned years ago  pops out of your brain and becomes so crystal-clear that you wonder if you are a gypsy with a crystal ball.  Suddenly you know those pesky place names in Latin poetry (Tempe, Socrate, Cypria) and the musical instruments (tibia, barbitos, tympanum) without checking the notes. And you can rattle off the Tudor family tree, whether from reading multiple biographies of the six wives of Henry VIII  or Hilary Mantel, who knows? 

THE ONLY PROBLEM IS…BIFOCALS!

I love my bifocals.  If you are in your forties, fifties, or older, you know the glamor of correcting both your nearsightedness and farsightedness with seamless bifocals.  They used to look like coke bottles, but no more.

But, alas, I find I cannot read books with tiny print, even with bifocals. 

I was in the mood to read Guy de La Bedoyere’s Domina:  The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, which sounded fascinating even though the reviewer in The New York Review of Books bashed it.  I paid little attention to her, because she used the essay to showcase her own theories, and devoted only a few paragaraphs to DominaI am loving this book, but the  print is so small I can scarcely read it. Yale Univeristy Press, couldn’t you have made the print normal size?  

AND THAT’S NOT ALL.  THE TIME HAS COME…to find a Greek dictionary with bigger print.

I was reading a Greek epyllion, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, but  could barely make out the print in my Greek dictionary.  I have spent years poring over Liddell and Scott, the standard scholarly dictionary.  I once had to translate the Gettysburg Address into the Greek of Demosthenes (an assignment in grad school) with this dictionary.  It was more fun than it sounds–you perused the dictionary to learn which words Demosthenes would have used.  (But you had to be there, I guess.)

And  now I’ll have to read my Greek in strong sunshine with a bright lamp haloing my head.  I can think of no alternative.

What We Learned from Our Mothers & 10 Books about Aging

Gray Panthers

“Would you like to learn to knit?” I asked when my mother unwillingly moved into a nursing home.

“No.” She gave me a hostile look.

I felt maternal toward her. What was I thinking? Now that she had health problems, now that I had watched her shrink from a size 12 to size 2, now that I’d rolled her in the movie theater’s wheelchair out to a taxi after she got ill at Bridesmaids (the last film she saw in a theater), I thought I should counsel her. Just as she had encouraged me long ago to go to Paper Doll, a junior high dance at the Recreation Center, I felt she should try some new activities. Just as I’d been miserable at Paper Doll—my rebellious friends and I wore cute miniskirts and big hats but were not asked to dance—so my mother hated the idea of wielding knitting needles and yarn.

I wished she would leave her room more, but the activities were lame, I admit: doing jigsaw puzzles, making your own sundaes, and selling handmade crafts. “Who would want a bead bracelet?” Mother hooted. She explained that you never feel old, that you remain the same person, only eventually have health problems. And I remembered the Gray Panthers, founded by Abbie Kuhn in 1970, a group of activists who lobbied  for nursing-home reform, the creation of a government-subsidized, single-payer national health insurance program, and against mandatory retirement age.

I do not yet belong to the AARP. They’ve been sending info since my forties. A friend joined in her fifties and got discounts at hotels. But my husband shudders over the idea of the AARP.

Mother loved the AARP discounts. “But then nobody can believe how old I am.”

As old age approaches, it is good to be vain. “We look great,” Mother said. Of course!  Our Bodies, Ourselves!  One day, while grooming herself in a hand mirror, she pulled back her face with her fingers and said, “See how much better I’d look.” “No, you look perfect.”

Of course we are shocked to see friends age.  When my mother’s most popular friend visited, I was surprised by her drooping face and posture. One minute of conversation and i’d forgotten it. “Do I look beautiful? I just had my hair done.” And she invited me to have dinner in the hospital cafeteria.  Finally I was a popular girl!

It’s not that I like aging or look forward to old age, but we will remain exactly the same people.  Let’s hope the Gray Panthers have luck  in making our lives better.

And here are 10 great books aging, with links to Goodreads pages.

  1. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age.  A study of aging over 1,000 years.
  2.  Doris Lessing’s Love, Again.  A novel about a 65-year-old woman who falls in love during the production of a play.
  3. Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn.  A novel about four old people who work in an office and what happens when they retire.
  4. Florida Maxwell-Scott’s The Measure of My Days.  Am 86-year-old Jungian analyst on the experience of aging.
  5. Cicero’s On Old Age (De Senectute).  The Roman orator’s philosophical treatise on old age.
  6. Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing. A collection of humor pieces and essays.
  7.  Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Heilbrun is a scholar but you may know her as Amanda Cross, the pseudonym under which she wrote the Kate Fansler mysteries.
  8. Kingsley Amis’s Ending up.  An outrageous novel about a group of aged friends.
  9. Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue.  An elderly widow is about to commit suicide, but when she encounters a young man about to kill himself in the same spot, she saves him and changes her mind, too.
  10. Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises.  A brilliant novel about the fates of different characters as they face old age.

Do let me know other favorite books about aging!