(The photo shows my mother and myself in 1943)
When you turn 70, (as I do on Friday, Feb. 4) you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more. Let’s face it, you’re wicked old.
In 1985 my mother died at 74 of cardiomyopathy and my father died at 80 not long after, but he spent his last years lost in dementia, which may or may not have been connected to his Parkinson’s disease. I think we all keep our parents’ ages at death in the back of our minds like a bad omen. A male friend of mine was convinced that he’d die of heart disease at 62, like his father, and didn’t relax about this until he passed that milestone year.
I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and all sorts of accomplishments are still possible in your future. But now I think that, for women, crone-hood – life after sixty—is the best time of one’s life.
If that is, you are lucky enough to have good health. Two years ago I was collecting classmates’ bios for the book distributed at our 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota. I realized how many classmates had died (39 out of 331) and that many were struggling with serious illness. Also a number of my friends have had their mobility compromised by hip or knee problems and other ailments.
I’ve been very lucky this far, which is something that I think about every day.
When I sit down in the morning with coffee and the newspapers, I’m profoundly glad that I don’t have to show up an office at 8 a.m. with five newspapers in my hand, then read them and mimeograph a news summary for my company’s management before ten a.m. That was my first job in Manhattan, working for Lever Brothers. Now all executives get their daily business news instantaneously on their I-phones or Blackberries or laptops.
I admit, I’ve become addicted to the computer, which I think is the most important innovation in my lifetime.
When my mother died in 1985, she had never touched a computer (although my father actually sold huge, hulking Univac computers to companies before he retired.) When she was pregnant with me—in 1940-41-- my mother spent the time compiling a book-sized family history of our ancestors, typing it up laboriously with lots of carbon copies, and distributing it to her eight siblings and eventually to her children. Think how much easier that job would be today!
Another computer phenomenon is the social networks, especially Facebook, which many people consider invasive and dangerous. But it has created a worldwide community which can share news and ideas and opinion instantly.
Consider this—on the first day of February, two young women who are among my “Facebook friends” each gave birth to a daughter—one in Omaha and one in Connecticut-- and they both announced it to the world on Facebook before they were wheeled out of the delivery room. One even posted an album of photos of the baby, before and after the umbilical cord was cut.
Also, I’ve heard from friends with relatives who are soldiers in, say, Afghanistan, that an expectant dad in the military can watch his wife’s entire labor and delivery live on the computer (I guess through Skype.) This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. Of course if the dad didn’t have to go to war, that would be an even better thing.
Sometimes I imagine explaining things like this to my mother, who would have loved the internet.
The goal that motivates me to exercise on the stationary bike most days and go to Pilates lessons is the hope that I’ll stay alive and mobile long enough to be a grandmother. My friends become inarticulate when trying to explain how grandchildren can transform your life.
It seems to me that when women turn fifty, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday, but when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.
And when women enter crone-hood, they often channel the creative energy they used to spend on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering their talents to a philanthropy. They allow themselves to do what they always wanted, but never had time for. A friend of mine, a couple of years older than I am, went from wife, mother and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. A run-in with cancer slowed her down and she retired. Now she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School so that, aged 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!)
I, too, went the “discover-your-passion-at-60” route and turned away from journalism (although I still do it) to re-discovering art, which was my major in college until I realized I could never earn a living at it. So I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows and sold some paintings.
As long I can get around and handle my own luggage, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been and take lots of photographs (mostly of people) and then turn the photos into paintings. Last month I wrote about a night spent watching sea turtles hatching on a beach in Nicaragua and heading into the sea. I called it a “bucket list” experience.
Next week I’m off on another one. My husband is giving me the birthday gift of a
culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, traveling around the state of Michoacan to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies. Susana has a cooking school in Oaxaca (called Seasons of My Heart) and I’ve been on unforgettable tours with her, far, far off the beaten path to many parts of the country, but this is Susana’s first Butterfly tour and I know it’s going to be amazing
There are a lot more trips on my bucket list and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to make them, but, free of the drama, responsibility, worry and insecurity of youth, I’m entering my seventh decade with anticipation (and hope) that this will be the best one yet.