Essays - Spring 2011

The View from 90

Even when those in my generation have reached a state of serenity, wisdom, and relative comfort, what we face can hardly be called the golden years

By Doris Grumbach | March 2, 2011
Tintern Abbey:
Tintern Abbey: "Ruins are my fellow structures, my companions over time." (Library of Congress photo)


I am a self-appointed historian of those of my generation who are still living. Who are we? We are not easily discernible among the more than 300 million persons who live in the United States. We were born between 1908 and 1918, which makes us the oldest of the old, perhaps, even, the long-lost generation.

There are more of us still alive than anyone expected. We constitute a small tribe of one and a half million persons. The Census Bureau predicts that this number is growing rapidly. In one Quaker community of 430 persons, 82 are over 90. But our views, habits, opinions, and characteristics are not often recorded, unless they are satirized or made the butt of cruel and, to some of us, humorless jokes.

There exists a vast literature about babies, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the baby boomers, and the recently retired, aimed at helping the world to understand and sympathize with them. Very little that is trustworthy has been written about us.

My disadvantage as a historian is that, for the most part, I lack objectivity. For my information I must be self-reliant. My sole qualifications are that I am the right age—past 90—and I believe (it may be erroneously) that I know something about myself and a little about my peers. My model for this assumption is the novelist E. M. Forster, who said that he constructed his characters out of what he knew about himself and what he guessed about others. What I know about myself comes from the limited memory of a New York City girl. What I presume to guess about others must come from what I have read about and been told.

If I were to speak in architectural terms, I would say that we are the country’s ruins. So, my description of us and our time will not make entirely cheerful reading. Despite long and careful research I have not been able to discover dependable evidence for what literature often calls the golden years. I have seldom heard the phrase used by my contemporaries. More often it is spoken by younger people who are approaching their retirement. The actual proof for this euphemism is lacking.

The years between the two wars, for my generation, were, to the pictures that remain in my mind, a rapid succession of dire events: the long, deep Depression showing men on soup-kitchen lines and the unemployed on street corners selling apples for five cents apiece. Hobos, as they were called, living in jungles of shacks and lean-tos under the bridges and in barren stretches of riverbanks.

We heard about world news on the radio and in newsreels, but it was all unreal and far away from us. But much closer to home and more immediate, the children and teenagers of those wretched years, especially those like me who lived in crowded cities, were subject to a widespread and deadly disease, infantile paralysis, called, in the worried conversations of their elders, polio.

My parents decided to send my sister and me to a Catskill Mountain camp to escape the risk of infection. They were not allowed to visit during the two months’ period for fear of bringing the disease into the camp from the city. But, curiously enough, it was already there. One of my bunkmates, a twin named Rita, was sent home with weakness and a high fever and, I learned later, died almost before she could be treated.

I was spared the disease, but not the sight. The winter after camp I developed rheumatic fever, another common affliction of the time. I was taken for the month of February to Atlantic City; it was believed that the strong sea breeze would cure my fevers, swollen glands, and general debility.

One cold, windy day my mother took me for a walk up the boardwalk. I remember how my mother’s face was almost covered by her veil and her hands and mine were kept warm by fur muffs. We came to a large, high clapboard house close to the ocean. My mother said it was the Children’s Home for the treatment of polio.

In the lee of one of the houses’ wings I saw a torpedo-shaped metal structure on wheels. Out of one end was a child’s head, wrapped in a woolen cap. I gripped my mother’s hand, I remember, and asked what that was. She told me it was where they put children with severe polio. ”It’s called an iron lung,” she said. “It breathes for them.”

For a long time, until I heard that Jonas Salk had devised a vaccine, I had nightmares about being wrapped in metal like the child in Atlantic City, unable to move or escape. I did not feel sick, but I was nonetheless a prisoner of graphic fear.

When we were children there was another dreaded affliction. We often saw classmates with huge bandages behind their ears and were told they had had an operation for “mastoid,” as they called it. Later there would be an ugly scar behind their ears. My friend Dolly, the daughter of the superintendent of our apartment house, and I used to put our hands behind our ears when we went to Central Park, for fear of catching the mastoids.

We never did.

The images that remain in my mind from my college years are these: in 1936 many students stood on the steps of Main Building at New York University in Washington Square and took the Oxford Pledge: we would not to go to war under any condition.

The Square was the college’s campus. In my senior year I remember sitting on a bench at the southern end, near tables of old men playing chess and checkers, and studying for finals. A madam (as I soon learned she was) from a house on a nearby street, sat down beside me and turned her handsome, highly made-up face to the sun. After a while she looked down at my book and asked me what I intended to do after I graduated. I said I was going to graduate school if I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship.

“And after that, what will you do?”

I said I had no idea. Then she told me about the advantages of pursuing her profession, the high compensation it provided, free housing, food, and drink, even medical care, in return for work “only at night” and in very comfortable surroundings in her MacDougall Street house—“my home,” she called it.

I listened, fascinated by the details of her offer. She asked if I would like to see the house. Regretfully, I said no, I had a final exam that afternoon and needed to study before I took it. Several years later, when I had been fired from two jobs and was unemployed, I wondered if I should have taken her up on her offer.

Two years after we had sworn that solemn oath, war broke out in Europe and the president promised aid, under a lend-lease arrangement, to England. A draft was established for men over 18 to join the Army. Suddenly the boys, now men, of my generation were called up, by number, and went off to camps to be trained for what was to become one of the bloodiest wars in history.

Back then I corresponded with a fountain pen, filled by putting the enclosed little bladder into a bottle of ink and pumping. For special occasions, I used thin airmail paper that folded in on itself and cost five cents more in stamps than regular mail. Everything was written on top of the desk blotter and then blotted with a handheld roller. Even with this precaution there were often little spots of ink on the letter.

For manuscripts I used a clipboard that held lined white pads. It was only later that I resorted to a manual typewriter, which somehow seemed weak, effete, and almost cowardly to me. I was accustomed to the sight of my definitive handwriting.

The long time—almost a century—during which my generation has lasted exists for us in faulty memories. The world has changed, progressed, as history would claim. We have been left behind or, perforce, we have changed a little. In the world in which we now find ourselves we are very noticeable for the differences between us and those multitudes behind us.

Of course there are those who claim there are some benefits: discounts at the movies, a front seat on the bus, special parking spaces, and widely available games of bingo, croquet, bocce, and shuffleboard, and the ultimate source of home entertainment, television.

But, diligently as I dig, I can find very few other advantages. I remember the story told of the novelist W. Somerset Maugham. In his late years he was asked to lecture on the virtues of being old. He came to the podium, stared at the audience for a few seconds, said: “I cannot think of one,” and left the platform.

When we were young, many of us went in for skinny-dipping. We would often pose undressed before a floor-length mirror. But now those pleasures are, of course, denied us. We find it necessary to cover up, the better to obscure evidence of decay and fallen flesh. The ideal garment for very old women is the total disguise of the Hawaiian muumuu, but any long dress with long sleeves and a high neck will serve. In bed we are partial to a long nightgown that provides coverage for our unacceptable anatomy. What once we unabashedly revealed, we now embarrassedly conceal.

Even punctuation changes in very old age. Some years ago a few of my youthful letters written to a suitor were returned to me by his widow. I was dismayed to see in my careless scrawls a profusion of exclamation marks, which appear at the end of paragraphs and sometimes twice in the sentences that compose them. Why? I wondered. I concluded that I must have felt it necessary to be emphatic about my preferences, opinions, expectations, and dislikes to the person, especially to the person I was very fond of.

In old age the fervor went out of all those matters. The ardor-laden exclamation point has largely disappeared from my elderly letters. Dashes, yes, and many periods, but no !

When I was young, many of us drank too much. We liked concoctions, colorful drinks, cocktails of every sort. They were characteristic of parties, they denoted liveliness and (it may be) the promise of a forbidden pleasure to come.

But now it is different. In my old age I have learned that straight alcohol, even in small amounts, may disorient me, cause me to lose fluency of speech and my footing. But I, and a small minority of my compatriots, still cling to the much-favored martinis of our younger days. I limit myself to one, and sip it very slowly. A fellow imbiber explained to me his faithful adherence to gin. He said the purity of that liquid still appealed to him, the subtle suggestion of, well, almost nothingness. He often quoted Cole Porter:

They have found that the secret of youth
Is a mixture of gin and vermouth.

He told me about Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, who preferred martinis because, his son, David, reported, he “likes drinking something transparent after the murky transactions of statecraft.”

If it is true that the need of young people is always for more, then some of the very old seem to relish having less. I am aware that what little I have I will not need much longer. Some of those I know still cling to their possessions, it is true, but a few (I am one of those) enjoy giving away what once they valued. I feel satisfaction in letting go, stripping down, giving to friends and relatives, libraries and charities what during a lifetime I have collected and accumulated: books, furniture, art, and other beloved objects. My acquaintances slowly dispose of their collections: miniature lighthouses, stuffed bears, glass giraffes, snow scenes in paperweights, whatever.

In this gradual dispersal we few may feel we are preparing for the final, dark, unfurnished dwelling, what Emily Dickinson called “a house that seemed / A swelling of the ground.” We will feel less regret because we have so little to leave.

I remember fondly how I enjoyed spending and wasting time in my life. But the modern world seems always to be racing to save time. I do not trust mail that is displayed instantly on a screen by pushing a button. I object to the cult of instant obsolescence, which makes everything I use unrepairable. The shoemaker, the dressmaker, the tailor have almost disappeared because their individual activities take too much time. It is now cheaper and faster to buy new things. There is no replacement for most things I have cherished. The lovely Blackwing 602 soft-lead pencil with a removable and reversible eraser is nowhere to be found.

I am no longer able to shop in the small, friendly, one-product store: butcher, greengrocer, baker, dress shop, Thom McAn, the hatter, the dry-goods store. And that marvelous emporium distinguished only by price, Woolworth’s, has long since gone out of business. Now I must be driven to an endless, tiresome mall (once the word meant a shaded walk but alas, no longer) where I am told much time will be saved because everything I could possibly want is under one roof.

I mourn the passing of the leisurely Queens Mary and Elizabeth, now replaced for most travelers by crowded, noisy, uncomfortable but very fast airplanes. The oven is used less often because the microwave is much faster.

“What does everyone do,” I once heard an old person inquire, “with all that time we are now said to save?”

I prefer black-and-white photographs to colored ones, which to my mind have a kind of violence, an excess, what I see as overemphasis. They strike me as bordering on, well, call it sentimentality.

Goethe called color “the suffering of light.”

The Puritans once termed themselves Separatists.

So are the very elderly, segregated from the general population, cut away from it by virtue of age, residence, state of health, outlook, and sometimes preference. To escape their separation they congregate at social events, as, of course, people of all ages do. In Mrs. Dalloway someone says that parties are held “to cover the silence.”

It is often remarked that the elderly live in the past. Of course we do. Even in its unreliable form it is almost all we have. But our past changed, oddly. Endlessly recounted stories have been emended, expanded, exaggerated. In time they are magnified into myth and finally assume the epic form of unreality.

I often resent the present, even neglect it, because, in most cases, it has become almost incomprehensible to me, its shape having become so different from what I once knew. And as for the future, I blot out, as quickly as I can, any thought of it.

But oh! The rapture of that invented past.

For the very old the most-often-traveled route to the past is invention. Memory is a slippery activity, the more untrustworthy the longer it is resorted to. It will omit, mistake, blunder, race ahead unreliably, and then fall behind and falter when everything factual deserts it.

Couples who have lived together for many years may widely differ about the same event in their past. The meretricious God of memory has worked his tricks on both minds. These different versions often end in fierce arguments about what really happened.

Perhaps the past is better left untold or unwritten. But if it is spoken about or recorded in writing, empty as it is of verifiable detail, it can do no harm. It can be best thought of as entertaining fiction.

How reliable is the recent finding that happy, optimistic people tend to live longer than those who see the world, in A. E. Housman’s phrase, “for ill and not for good”? The old are pessimists because they cannot conjure up the energy for optimism. A wise aphorist said: “Anyone who is not pessimistic in old age is not paying attention.”

When their families and old friends live at a distance from them, it is likely that the very old become attached to animals. Of course such affection is not limited to them. Edward Albee wrote a play about a middle-aged married man who falls romantically in love with a goat. There is a novel (written in 1976 by Marian Engel) called Bear, the story of a lonely young woman living in the Canadian wilderness who has a love affair with a huge brown bear.

Both stories suggest the unacknowledged varieties of human love. They stretch the limits of human affection to include other members of the animal kingdom.

My own preference is for cats. I chose them, it may be, for the feline’s preference for quiet that matches my own. As cats age they move more slowly, and become companionable and tactilely satisfying. In this way, Leonard Michaels has said, they “make the world unreal,” and Auden wrote that a cat “feels in us, and we in him perceive / A common passion for the lonely hour.”

Like the old person who is often alone, my cat seems to sense that, when we are alone together, our solitude is good company.

The artist Marcel Duchamp collected dust.

When his sculptor friend Joseph Cornell died, he left behind boxes marked the Duchamp Dossier. It turned out they contained a large collection of dust bunnies. Another artist friend, Man Ray, made a gelatin-silver print called Dust Breeding and may have given it to Duchamp. For them, dust might have seemed an emotional symbol.

After a lifetime of churchgoing, I now attend once a year: on Ash Wednesday. I am not able to explain this curious attendance custom to my more observant friends.

But privately I like to be reminded of the sentence in the liturgy for this day: “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” The thought of returning to dust comforts me. I prefer to end as a silent, dry, colorless presence—somewhere.

The usual picture of a very old person: crippled, almost bald, stooped, shaky, living in a crowded single room. Of course this dour picture is hardly universal. There are exceptions, mostly the fortunate few inhabitants living in expensive retirement communities. Good genes, moneyed upbringing and schooling, excellent health care, useful contacts with others of their class, seemingly secure marriages, longtime upscale housing, satisfactory children, permanent employment, and ample pensions, yes, and some amount of good luck, have helped them reach an untroubled old age. In their retirement they live in communities where their apartments or cottages are cleaned weekly, their meals and entertainment, books, and TV are provided, and their medical care scrupulously supplied down to the very end.

These communities are set in parks filled with great trees, gardens, meadows, and ponds, shielded from the outside world and from the noisy, critical young by long, winding roadways. Those of advanced old age often chose these pleasant places for their proximity to their children (sometimes to discover that these offspring do not visit as often as they had expected).

So, given all these similarities, the fortunate citizens of such choice communities tend to resemble each other. With a few, usually token, exceptions they are white, well-to-do, Christian, college-educated, professional, and heterosexual.

Most are also caring, amiable, polite, and cheerful. They participate in a multitude of activities. The bulletin board of one such place listed 90 active committees, including origami, Scottish dancing, a “laugh committee.” Of course there were more serious ones: nature and bird walks, bus trips to the symphony, bridge, and such.

There is nothing bad or wrong about these provisions. But this small minority has often lost diversity, the interest of differences, even some of the charm and variety of the real world.

Such homogeneity can be—and often is, to put it perhaps unjustly—well, dull.

It is not uncommon to see elderly couples, hand in hand or supporting each other, visiting famous ruins like Yucatan sites or ruined English churches or Tintern Abbey. Rose Macaulay in The Pleasure of Ruins explains why pleasure is to be found in such places. The parts are somehow more satisfying than the whole. Completeness leaves little room for fantasy or imagination.

Why is this so? Why are the old, like me, so fond of them? Ruins are not in themselves always beautiful. But like us they are the remains of what was once a more perfect whole. They have withstood imperfectly the destructive forces of time. There is a certain rightness, an inevitability, about their decline. They are my fellow structures, my companions over time.

Sadly, there are signs of restoration at some sites. Stones from somewhere else are brought in; the new cement that holds them in place is a jaundiced yellow. Hammers and machines disturb the silence of centuries. Midas Dekkers, in The Way of All Flesh, says: “The aim of restoring something to its former glory is as futile as it is human. A lot of glory is simply at its best if it’s decaying.”

The ancient places are a welcome relief from the contemporary sight of ugly “planned” communities, long malls, inhuman-scaled skyscrapers, faceless factories, “developments,” and snaked-in-upon-themselves highways.

Having become a ruin myself, I identify with them.

A very small minority of the very old think of themselves as solitary, but in a curious, contradictory way. Jay Parini, one of Robert Frost’s biographers, described the poet as a loner who loved company. Edith Wharton claimed that her friend Henry James was a solitary who could not live alone, and Tadié wrote of Marcel Proust  that he was “a recluse who was unable to live alone.”

For me, like most of the elderly, it becomes hard to make new friends. My time is short and my energies limited. Friendship is the result of long-term alliances. Even those alliances I do manage to form are delusionary. Proust said that friendship is no more than “a lie that seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone.”

I knew an elderly couple, George and Mary, who lived together for 70 years. They lived identical lives, were rarely apart even for meals, and always traveled together. Only their chores differed, he doing the outside work, the driving, going to the office, she occupied with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child care.

What kept them together for so long? A wondrous fact: during all these years they quarreled, endlessly. The unusual endurance of their lives and their marriage came from the strength of their disagreements. In their many homes and apartments, in the garden, in bed, in restaurants, during visits to friends, on their travels, they carried on their arguments and continued to disagree about every detail of their mutual lives. The very air around them seemed filled with the heavy clouds of disputation.

I attended the party to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary (they claimed they had met in the sandbox), surrounded by their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends. They were presented an elaborate cake topped with many candles. It took some time for me to get my piece of cake because the two old celebrants argued vociferously and at length about who should hold the knife to make the first cut.

A few months after the party, George died, leaving Mary to join other survivors of her sex. The elderly widows often met at card tables, luncheons, on porch rockers, to reminisce about the past. Their conversation was full of sentimentally reiterated proper nouns, the first names of their departed husbands. Howard and Larry and yes, George, had become mythic figures. When George’s widow spoke, the passage of time had whitened the stories she contributed to the general conversation. Often she was heard to say: “We were so happy. Never a cross word between us.”

Oscar Wilde knew the truth about such revisions: “There is no such thing as a romantic experience,” he wrote. “There are romantic memories and there is the desire for romance—that is all.”

In contrast to those few elderly who take pleasure in letting go of possessions, there are many more who are compulsive savers. There is a curious slant to this. They save useless things: silver foil, envelopes for their canceled stamps and places of origin, holiday wrapping paper and twine, bottle corks and tops. Their special fondness is for tiny wood, glass, and stuffed animals—teddy bears, pandas, giraffes, dogs and cats, and every other species.

Saving becomes for them an absorbing occupation that fills time, drawers, and shelves. After their death their survivors, in fits of annoyance, dispose of the beloved objects into the garbage, or to thrift shops where, it may be, a new generation of those growing old and delighted at the bargains such stores offer, add to their own collections of teddy bears, pandas, giraffes …

Recently I was privileged to listen to a perspicacious old lady who had just returned from her 60th college class reunion:

“My classmates’ conversation was almost entirely cheerful. There were many stories about their fortunate pasts, their children who were incredibly successful, and their grandchildren with unusual talents. I heard descriptions of trips made to spectacular, out-of-the-way places. I grew tired of it all.

“But I came upon a fellow I had known in college. We had once met at Sunday Mass at a Catholic church off campus. He wanted to know if I still believed in immortality. Had I outgrown the teachings of the Church on that subject? I said yes, I had. I now thought the promise of life after death was, in someone else’s words, ‘a sloppy consolation.’ I could not remember who had called it that.

“He laughed. Then he said: ‘Recently, I came upon an interesting book by André Comte-Sponville, called, if I remember correctly, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.’ Speaking of our old belief in immortality he said: ‘We are already in the kingdom. Eternity is now.’

“We sat together in chairs apart from the high-pitched, self-congratulatory talk and ceaseless laughter of our classmates. We said nothing more and both, I think, enjoyed our long silence. Then he said, to my delight: ‘I read somewhere that silence also is conversation.’”

A memorable remark on memory: My friend’s mother reproved her daughter who had said, “Oh, Mother, you don’t remember that.” She responded sharply: “I know what I’ve forgotten.”

On another occasion the same witty lady admitted that “I have lost my nouns,” but had fortunately retained all her other parts of speech.

“I am lonely only in company,” an elderly woman told me. She said that her seclusion allows for frequent journeys into her interior self, for listening to music without interruption, for times of critical thinking about political and religious matters without the necessity of expressing an opinion. She finds herself reexamining old ideas that do not need to be verbalized but remain contentedly in her aging mind.

To these happy few for whom being alone is a boon, an additional gift, a blessing, silence is a healing salve after submitting to years of mindless prattle, pointless stories, and the unremitting autobiographical talk of their garrulous contemporaries. A Syrian monk, speaking of God, writes: “Many are avidly seeking, but they alone find who remain in continual silence.” He goes on: “Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within.” And he adds: “[Silence] brings a fruit that tongue cannot describe.

In the middle of the last century many families were proud owners of a camera called a Brownie. It took what were called snapshots. The father of the family was most often the “taker.” (He knew best how to operate the square brown, or sometimes black, box.) He “snapped” family members and friends on vacation, posed in front of monuments and famous sites, at holiday celebrations, anniversaries, birthdays. He documented historic events like the new car, the new dog, the new house.

Always, before the advent of a flash attachment, the pictures were taken out-of-doors, and almost without exception, everyone in those pictures was smiling, not so much an indication of their state of mind, perhaps, as the obedient response to the order to say “cheese.”

Pictures had to be taken while the sun was out and situated over the photographer’s left shoulder. Then, when the 12 or 24 frames were all used (the numbers appeared in a little box at the top of the Brownie), the yellow roll of film was removed carefully in a dark place to avoid exposure, and taken to the drugstore to be developed.

Many of the exposures turned out well, but some were blurred because the smallest girl had turned her head or someone has raised an arm at the moment the button was clicked or the hapless father had moved the box. The satisfactory ones were pasted, with four small white corners, onto the black pages of an album and labeled in white ink: “John, aged four, in his new sailor suit, July 7, ’37.”

For members of my generation much of our memory is restricted to these snapshots, to those invariably happy faces on apparently happy family occasions and at beautiful places. They remember these pictured celebratory victorious teams, the blissful vacationing couples feeding the pigeons in a sun-filled Roman square, the joyful graduating classes, the triumphant, straw-hatted fishermen holding aloft their catch for the benefit of the Brownie.

Nothing negative is recorded in these albums, no sad occasions, nothing puzzling or questionable behind these everlasting grins, no bitterness, hurts, no perpetual misunderstandings. Why, it must have been thought, waste these valuable black pages on the truth, even if, by chance, it had been caught in the sunlight over the photographer’s left shoulder?

Afterthought: Joseph Conrad said that words “are the great foes of reality.” Can the same be said of snapshots?

The glossy covers of catalogues sent out by prosperous retirement communities to solicit new residents usually show current occupants working in their flourishing communal gardens or striding athletically through woods. Always there is one smiling brown face among them, and sometimes an Asian one to suggest (falsely, it may be) the diversity of its present members.

I once encountered a black, smiling old man, known for his quick wit, seated on a bench at the doorway of a retirement community. I stopped to question him.

“How are you?”

“All right.”

“Why are you smiling?”

The old man’s smile broadened. “I’m paid to sit here to look like a happy resident.”

“Only a joke,” he added.

At the moment my contemporaries and I are on “holding ground,” the maritime term for a place to anchor temporarily for the night. This haven will not serve for very long, the way childhood had seemed to and youth and maturity did. Old age is terminal, but still, I find the long habit of living hard to break.

The fortunate among us will die quickly. James F. Fries termed it “compressed vitality.” But there will be the exceptions who will disintegrate slowly. A hip, a knee, a vital organ, one part at a time, unlike the old conveyance in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s one-horse shay in “The Deacon’s Masterpiece.” That old carriage had served without a part failing or needing replacement for a century. Then, when it was 100 years old, it collapsed, fell down, and died, all at once.

However death arrives, in installments or in one instant stroke, I regard myself as fortunate. I will be able to echo the last words of Lady Mary Wortley Montague (who died in 1762):

“It has all been very interesting.”

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