Tuesday, March 30, 2010
When I am an Old Woman, I shall Wear Purple. The book was published in 1987 by Papier-Mache Press, and is an anthology of poems, essays and stories about getting/being old. The title piece was written by Jenny Joseph and includes some memorable lines on the subject: “I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired/And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells/And run my stick along the public railing/And make up for the sobriety of my youth.”
What will we do when we are old (like tomorrow) to make one last attempt at flair, particularly if we never dared to be ourselves in the public square before? Will we be 80 before we “learn to spit?”
I chatted with the owner of an auto repair shop this afternoon as the insurance assessor was analyzing the dent I’d stupidly put in our brand-new Ford Focus. We got around to the subject of age and nursing homes when I told him that my mother-in-law’s cousin had died two days ago . . . at age 105. “We haven’t gone to the nursing home since my mother died,” he said. “My wife’s afraid of death.”
“Aren’t we all,” I replied.
“Oh, but she’s different. She chooses denial as a way of dealing with it, and nursing homes make her very uncomfortable.”
We watched a few episodes on video of the British sitcom, Waiting for God, with friends on Sunday evening. It’s set in a retirement home and concerns an aging man and woman living next door to each other. She’s playing out a cynical last act to a cynical life, and he’s compensating for his frustrations by taking trips of fantasy into a world of adventure, romance and grandeur, a life as different as is imaginable from his forty years as a functionary in a large accounting firm. Together, they find new ways to be old. They are two people who in their final years begin to dare to “ . . . go out in slippers in the rain/And pick flowers in other people’s gardens . . ..”
I don’t want to romanticize old age, anymore than I want to perpetrate the myth of the noble savage or energetic youth. At the same time, I want to keep in mind that although aging bodies decay and gradually fail, they are often the vessels for “young” souls and minds betrayed by the perverse cynicism of mortality.
Driving to Edmonton a few weekends ago, it suddenly occurred to me that I would turn 70 on my next birthday. I told Agnes that I’d just done the math and it felt like I’d lost a year of my life somewhere between Lloydminster and Vermilion. She corrected me, of course, and I realized that I’d taken 2011 as the current year (I’d just worked on some budget figures for 2011 at the Station) and just beyond Vermilion going west, I got my year back.
“ . . . I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.