Last summer at Martha’s Vineyard, I, Liz Carpenter, age 63, had the pleasure of being the guest of Lady Bird Johnson, age 71, and guess who was coming to dinner? Ruth Gordon, star of stage, screen, and living room and 87 years of age. Although I had phoned and urged her to let us send a car to drive her across the island, she protested indignantly and arrived, on her own, at exactly seven. With her was her delightful husband, Garson Kanin, playwright and raconteur, age 71.
Ruth Gordon swept into the room with all the assurance of someone who knows she is a star at any age on stage. We listened spellbound as she initiated every exchange and picked up on every morsel of conversation. Very little of the talk was about the past. It was about what was here, now, happening in politics or in Martha’s Vineyard. She and her husband talked about an article they had written that was about to appear in the New York Times . After a while another guest, Beverly Sills, interrupted with a smile. “Ruth, is there anything you aren’t enthusiastic about?” Ruth paused for a few beats—as we waited—and then burst forth decisively with her answer. “Yes, being invited to be on panels about the aging.”
When does it begin, old age? That slight ache in the joint, that moment when we feel used up and shelved? How do we free ourselves of the depression and immobility that aging brings and commit ourselves to a full life and purpose?
For many a woman like me, old age came early, in the fifties, with a telephone call that jarred me into the trauma of the death of my husband. Widow! The very word horrified me. I was in a whole new condition, stripped of life as I knew it. I was instantly plunged into shock, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, isolation; and then there was the inevitable restlessness. What could I do to make that awful emptiness go away? Where was the male in my life? Was I to live forever in a nunnery? It’s embarrassing how quickly those agonies plague all widows. Loss is one of the most important factors that contribute to aging. Yet, would grief have to enshroud me forever? I turned to my friends for solace.
“Walk away from it awhile until you’re stronger,” Lady Bird said, calling from Italy, where she was vacationing. She urged me to visit her to talk for a few days. “Never, Liz , will I be so well set up to help you. All your problems will be there when you get back, but you’ll feel stronger and better able to cope.” I demurred. How could I just fly off to Italy? But the next morning, Lady Bird’s daughter Lynda arrived at my home with a plane ticket. If someone hadn’t shoved me, I would have just sat there buried under notes and letters of sympathy, each one bringing fresh tears. So I left the endless paperwork that accompanies death and funerals, wills and thank you notes. And it helped. I recommend it and am comforted that I can repay the act of kindness by opening my home to friends grieving over a death or divorce.
Molly Parnis, the dress designer, told me, “The first year after my husband died, I would have married Sammy Davis, Jr., if he’d asked me. But a year later, there wasn’t anyone I’d marry and disrupt my new life.” Another friend took one look at my stricken face and spoke up. “You’ve got to think of it this way: God has given you the chance at a second life!” I have passed on those words a hundred times to friends who needed hope as they emerged to the adventure of a new life.
Renewal is the idea that my friend John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, returns to again and again. He states it so appealingly that I find myself asking each day, “What can I do to renew myself?” Renewal is of special interest to Americans at this moment in our history, when we are worrying about national productivity. And renewal is vital to our individual productivity. Most people fall into dull routines and are afflicted with staleness and boredom. Many organizations are too. When someone asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked in the Vatican, he said, “Half of them.” He liked to shake things up, so perhaps his comment was more a lesson than a statistic.
People who are conscious of the danger of going to seed can take countermeasures. “You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically,” Gardner says. Yet many people go through life only partially using—indeed, only partially aware of—the full range of their capacities. Self-knowledge, the beginning of wisdom, is ruled out for many by the increasingly effective self-deception they practice as they grow older. By middle age, they are accomplished fugitives from themselves.
There’s a myth that learning is for young people. But as the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Learn all your life! Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes. When you hit a spell of trouble, ask, “What is it trying to teach me?” The lessons aren’t always happy ones, but they keep coming. I’ve had to learn to keep my mouth shut and stop trying to run the whole show, particularly if it involves the women’s movement, which I know so well. But women who are just getting started must evolve in their own way, and they will not always have the impassioned spirit we had in the sixties. I sit in meetings frustrated, wanting to push, angry that we are reinventing the wheel. But I have learned to let the newcomers move at their own speed.
People learn from their jobs. They learn from their friends and families. They