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 tornado struck our house in Pennsylvania on a muggy afternoon in July. As I made a sandwich in the kitchen, the dogs pressed against the backs of my legs, perhaps sensing something coming before I did. Then the wind roared through with a freight-train sound, and the trees bowed down outside the window. In an instant the trees had disappeared, obscured by thick gray air flecked with black, like ominous confetti.

In the time it took to assemble lunch, the tornado was, then was not. All that was left was the afterwards. Most of the big trees closest to the house were gone, their root-balls upended into the air, as though the hand of God had wiped the landscape and ordered us to try again. The pond was filled with downed cedars and enormous willow branches. There was no power and no water, but the house was untouched except for a single cracked chimney cap.

I sent all three of the children messages. Chris was at a German heavy metal festival and didn’t get his for days. Quin was in his New York apartment and wrote back immediately, concerned about whether he should come posthaste. But Maria left her summer school class early and called, sobbing.

“I’m just afraid of history repeating itself,” said my daughter, who knows that my own mother died when I was still in college.

And without thinking, I responded, “Oh, honey, I’m too old to die young now.”

Sometimes there are things that pop out of your mouth and amount to an epiphany, even if they sound like bad country-western songs. This was one of them. I am no longer young, and certainly not elderly. I am past the midpoint of my life. I am at a good point in my life. I am almost 60.

Am I old? Define your terms. One afternoon I went a little ballistic when I read a newspaper story that described an “elderly couple” fending off a burglar. The woman involved was 68. “How is that elderly?” I ranted. “That’s not elderly! Sixty-eight is not elderly!”

After the rant, silence, and then one of my children said, “Mom, that’s elderly.”

“It is,” said another.

“Definitely,” said the third.

Nonsense, I thought, and to prove it, I went to various journalism sites and writing stylebooks to nail down the cutoff point for elderly, the precise definition of an old person, or an almost-old one. It seems that oldis a moving target. Some gerontologists divide us into the young-old, ages 55 to 74, and the old-old, 75 and over. In a survey done by the Pew Research Center, most people said old age began at 68. But most over the age of 65 thought it began at 74.

When I searched my own clippings over the course of a long career in journalism for the word elderly, I discovered to my horror that I had used the adjective with casual regularity. There were the elderly women in the beauty parlors of Flatbush, Brooklyn, the elderly men on the boardwalk in Coney Island. And then—here’s the important thing—the number of uses of the word elderly in my copy began to dwindle, then disappear. As I myself aged, elderlyseemed more and more like a pejorative, and my definition of what constituted elderly shifted upward.

In other words, old is wherever you haven’t gotten to yet.

The truth is, I don’t feel old. I certainly feel a good deal younger than the older people of my past. The year I was born, the average life expectancy was 68; today it’s about 80. Our grandmothers at 60, and my friends and I at that same age: We might as well be talking about different species, in the way we dress, talk, work, exercise, plan—in the way we live. When people lived to be 65, 60 wasold. When they live to be 85, 60 is something else. We’re just not sure what yet. A friend told me she thought it was summed up in the message inside a birthday card she got from her mother: “After the middle ages comes the renaissance.”

So we face an entirely new stage of human existence without nomenclature, which is an interesting challenge, because what we call things matters. That’s why I recoiled from elderly. The words we use, and how we perceive those words, reflect how we value, or devalue, people, places and things. After all, a signal semantic goal of the early women’s movement was to make certain that grown women were no longer referred to as girls.

One of the reasons we’re so desperate for new ways of talking about aging is that we have a new way of feeling about it. Oh, sure, when you raise the question of getting older at a restaurant table or a cocktail party, the moans begin, the sighs, the eye rolling. The back hurts, the feet ache. And let’s not even talk about age spots or bifocals or buying a bathing suit.

But what I’ve found is that if you push most women a little harder, they eventually get past the hip replacement and the crepey neck and wind up admitting that they’re more contented now than they were when they were young. They feel as if they’ve settled into their own skins, even if those skins have sun damage.

A Gallup poll of 340,000 men and women ages 18 and up made this manifest. The youngest respondents felt pretty good about themselves and their lives, while those who were in their thirties and forties were much more dissatisfied. But after age 50, there was a change in the weather, and from then on happiness was on an upward trajectory into the eighties.
The older the respondents, the more likely they were to report that stress, anger and worry had declined. Perhaps if we think of life as a job, most of us finally feel that after 50, we’ve gotten good at it.

All this reminds me of a system I once learned to help make any important decision. Take paper, draw a line down the middle, list pros and cons. The old house has a leaky roof, rattling windows, a damp basement, bad gutters: all cons. I love the place: one pro that obliterates everything else.

We can graph good sense all we want, but most of the time we feel what we feel. Getting older means being seen as yesterday’s news. Perhaps because I grew up in the newspaper business, I always realized that someday I’d be yesterday’s news. Perhaps because I’m the oldest of five, I’ve always felt older. There’s a lot less to my future than there is to my past, and there are undoubted minefields along the way. But what can I tell you? I look at the list of pros and cons, and I always come to the same conclusion. I like the house.

It wasn’t always so. I started out pretending, trying to adjust my throttle to some generally accepted notion of femininity. In her commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep said the characterization of the pleasing girl she created in high school was a role she worked on harder than any ever after. Speaking for so many of us, she recalled, “I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness,
even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys.” Gloria Steinem coined the term female impersonatorsto describe the uncomfortable way in which we women learned early on to play the role of pleaser, with a practiced smile that often did not extend to our eyes.

The act took its toll, as subterfuge and self-denial tend to do, and we paid with an internal dialogue of criticism. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional. An entire Greek chorus chimed in, a Greek chorus made up of magazines, movies, advice books, alleged friends and family members who insisted they were telling us only for our own good, only wanted to be certain we would be happy and have no regrets. The problem was, the chorus couldn’t make up its mind; its messages ranged from self-sacrifice to self-promotion, from abstinence to sexual freedom. The only constant was that somehow we all needed to be more than we already were. But more was never enough.

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.

Most of us don’t have tornadoes in our lives. Our disasters are manageable and predictable, the losses systematic and expected. The car conks out, a young man is promoted in our stead, our incomes shrink, the heart goes haywire. Our grandparents die, then our mothers and fathers, then some of our friends. People manage to rebound from great devastation; we read about them every day—the parents who survive the death of a child (though we know we couldn’t), the workers who lose lifelong jobs (a turn of affairs we’re certain we wouldn’t survive), the patients whose bodies are wracked by terrible disease (which we wouldn’t want to live with). And then sometimes we become one of those people and are amazed, not by our own strength but by that indomitable ability to slog through the storm that looks like strength from the outside and just feels like every day when it’s happening to you.

The older we get, the better we get at this. The older we get, the better we get at being ourselves. We’re not busy being born but busy being born again. My knee makes this noise like Rice Krispies when I do squats and lunges, and my dermatologist likes to joke that she has to clear her schedule when she checks my skin for age spots. But as my friend Robin Morgan, the writer and activist, said as she was approaching 70, “Parts of me I never even knew I had sometimes ache—but parts of me I never knew I had in my brain sing.”

 So much of our knee-jerk negative response to aging is a societal construct. It’s yet another version of the conflict that shapes and sometimes deforms our lives, the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we ought to desire. We are supposed to think young is better. But we know deep inside, in the ways that count, that better is now. On the day my friend Lesley’s first grandchild was born, she sent out a message that ended, “You’re never too old to have the best day of your life.”

I opened the screen door tentatively after the tornado was over, took the dogs and went outside to relearn my immediate world. There were trees and branches everywhere and a wicker rocker from the front porch flung into the back field, and beneath it two squirrels, unmarked as though they’d died as we all say we want to die, lapsed into a good night’s sleep that never ends. And I thought, How in the world will we ever come back from this? How in the world will this place ever look the same? A year went by, and then two, and it didn’t look the same, any more than I do. In two places on the banks of the pond I found large pointed rocks slammed several inches into the dirt, rocks the wind turned into missiles, or weapons. For a moment I considered that if the dogs and I had been walking around the pond, as we often do, one of those rocks could have hurtled toward me and done the kind of damage my daughter so feared.

But for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Life is various, millions of moving parts, dogs, stones, high winds, sandwiches, squirrels, tornadoes. There was a time when I behaved as though I were the center of that universe. It was a good time, when I was young and eager and terribly insecure and not beholden to anyone else, without responsibility for houses or children or the cleanup after a disaster. I just like this time better. I used to wonder what I was going to be when I grew up. Now I know.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpt adapted from her new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, published by Random House.

Anna Quindlen is a best-selling novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. She turns 60 in July and has never colored her hair.

 

Click here for a behind the scenes video of the author at her New York townhouse as she discusses her book.

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First Published Tue, 2012-04-03 14:18

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