Memoir: Aging Gratefully

Why is it that so many of us are decidedly happier now than we were decades ago? A progress report from the near side of 60

by Anna Quindlen
anna quindlen image
Anna Quindlen at home in New York City, 2011. Her country housecame through a catastrophic storm with flying colors—and so did she
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

The best thing you can say about this nonsense is that at a certain age we learn to see right through it, and that age is now. I’m not buying the idea that we need to be more, given how much we already are. By the standards that matter—of friendship and diligence and support and loyalty—we are scoring in the top stanine. Cellulite is not a character defect. The Greek chorus is just hurdy-gurdy music.

Armed with that knowledge, many, if not most, women embrace their later years, although they don’t know how to name them. Age is just a number, one mantra goes, and like most mantras, it has a pleasing sound and means exactly nothing. But what is old? Is it the first time a clerk calls you ma’am instead of miss? Yeah, you remember that moment, stock-still in your Capri pants, with your big sunglasses pushed up into your salon sun-streaked hair. Or, conversely, the moment when your dentist tells you that you have the gums of a 30-year-old, and it’s the high point of your day.

Or maybe it’s when you’re driving along the thruway with an old, old friend, someone with whom you’ve shared job struggles and romantic travails and too much tequila and maybe a joint or two, and you find yourself discussing the fact that neither of you is as comfortable driving at night as you once were. “This is old-people talk,” you say, and he replies, “As Bob Dylan once said, he who is not busy being born is busy dying.” I wonder which one Dylan thought he was, once he’d moved past the formerly statutory retirement age of 65?

My hairdresser has this theory about what she calls resting hair rate.It’s similar to your resting heart rate, except that it means no matter what you do to your hair, it will resolve itself into some general style that is its natural fallback position. I personally believe in a resting weight rate—that is, if you’re exercising pretty regularly and eating like a normal person, there is some weight that your body will naturally adopt.

So maybe there’s a resting age rate—that is, the age you naturally feel. Among Pew study respondents 50 and up, nearly half said they felt at least 10 years younger than their actual age. A third of those ages 65 to 74 said they felt one to two decades younger. On his 70th birthday, Ringo Starr, still drumming, told an interviewer, “As far as I’m concerned, in my head I’m 24.” If you woke me from a sound sleep and shouted, “How old are you?” I suspect I’d mutter, “Forty-one.”

Now, my life was fine at 41. I had published a novel, was writing a newspaper column, finally had all three children in all-day school. I had just started to work out for the first time in my life, which turned out to be good, and I occasionally found myself squinting at my needlepoint or my book, which turned out to be not so good. I had most of the friends I have today and the same husband. Things were a bit crazy, it’s true: I remember the day our son Christopher came downstairs and said, “Some man just called on your office phone, but I told him you couldn’t talk because you were making dinner.” That man was Jesse Jackson. Isn’t working at home great?

Nearly two decades later, I still work at home, but the children no longer live here. I’ve published a number of novels, had another column but gave it up, added a few friends despite my insistence that I don’t have room in my life for more friends. If you woke me up from a sound sleep and shouted, “How’s 60 looking?” I would murmur, “Good. Really good.” Better, in many ways, than 41.

First published in the May 2012 issue

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Comments

Patricia Wilson08.05.2012

I read Ms. Quindlen's article with interest. It had been forwarded to me by my dear granddaughter who is now grown up with teenagers of her own. She wondered how I viewed the article. Here's my take: At 50 I thought 65 was getting close to elderly. At 65 I decided it must be 70, because I didn't "feel elderly" yet. Around that time, I decided not to be concerned about when I would get old. I was, and am, in good health, active and enjoying a busy lifestyle. Several years ago I decided to take each day as it came, and not to spend time analyzing what point I have reached in the aging process. At 81 my mindset is still the same. I don't worry about how others perceive me. I just do what I do, and welcome each day I'm given. There are ups and downs, but there always have been, and always will be. Today is sufficient for me. I love the life I've been given, and thank God for the gift of every new day and whatever it holds for me. Relax, Ms.Quinlan, and enjoy the ride. :-)


Thank you. Quindlen articulates what I've been thinking about for some time now. I am 61 and life is good. And, I like it that way. I don't think I'm old. I don't feel old. So, thank you. I'm definitely sharing this with others, like me, who know what's happening, but weren't able to really describe it. It's been done very well here.

Maricia Johns05.17.2012

Loved it! I have always admired women who aged gracefully--not trying to be someone or something else. Please take a look at "thisisyourbestyear". It is a blog for women of a certain age, and our journey.

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