The Silver Lining

Growing old gracefully.

March 1985By Comments

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 learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands them, by getting older, by suffering, by taking risks, by loving and by bearing life’s indignities with dignity.

The lessons learned in maturity aren’t simple; they go beyond the acquisition of information and skills. You learn to avoid self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You learn to manage tension, if you have any, and you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You learn to bear the things you can’t change. You learn that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter what you do, some people aren’t going to love you—a lesson that is at first troubling and then quite relaxing.

Those things are hard to learn early in life. As a rule, you have to have some miles behind you and some dents in your fenders before you understand. Socialist Norman Douglas told Gardner, “There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.”

You can keep your zest until the day you die. If I may offer a simple maxim, “Be interested.” Everyone wants to be interesting, but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. My young friends and their causes keep me from being surrounded by my peers. Age must not trap you in a one dimensional world.

Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.

The meaning in your life isn’t just handed to you, as a wayward motorist might be provided with a set of directions. You give life meaning through the commitments you make beyond yourself—whether they are commitments to religion, to loved ones, to your life’s work, to your fellow humans, to some conception of an ethical order.

I recently ruptured two disks in my back while carrying suitcases off a plane—something I had done hundreds of times before with no problem. Five weeks in bed were essential. Surrounded by magazines full of beautiful houses, I began to grow impatient with my home. Paths were worn into the carpet; the upholstery was fading; the whole place seemed to be falling apart, just as I was. I knew I had many more years in me, and I wanted my house to serve me well. I wanted it to be my “forever place.” I also wanted to plan (the best therapy against depression) for my old age, to study what other people had done to grow old with grace and humor. I began by collecting bits of wisdom about aging. In my reading, I came upon gems like this: “Age is a matter of mind. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” I also started listening, with my good ear, to conversations, for the purpose of analyzing older friends. I gained real insight. One evening I joined James Michener (who was living in Austin writing a book about Texas), Lady Bird Johnson and Walter Cronkite for dinner at Walter’s favorite Austin restaurant, Green Pastures. Momentarily, I thought I was the youngest at the table. Michener was 77, Lady Bird was 71, Walter was 67. But only momentarily! They were off to the races talking about their projects.

Michener had been to almost every one of the 254 counties in Texas to research his book. He was about one third through and relishing each day. He said that he rises before dawn and walks two miles before settling at the typewriter. “My characters come out better when I walk. I like them better.”

Walter had just sailed the intracoastal canal with an artist friend and written a book about his first love, sailing. He was planning to do another. Meanwhile, “Jim,” he said, “I want to do a little lobbying with you. I want to go on the first space shuttle of citizens, and you are on the NASA committee. Don’t you think the requirements should be someone who has attended every launch and was once an editor of the Daily Texan?”

And Lady Bird! I have known her since the day in 1942 when I went to Washington and called on my congressman, the young man who was making news in those yeasty days of the New Deal. I have learned so much from her, and still have so much to learn: how to be a widow, how to grow out of grief and into action. What had Lady Bird been doing? Michener and Cronkite were full of questions about her National Wildflower Research Center. On her seventieth birthday, she decided to toss her hat over the windmill, as she put it. She donated some land and some money, rallied some old allies from the beautification days in the White House, and found a way to spread wildflowers along our highways and in public places. Why? Because it saves millions in mowing costs. Why? Because it is irresistible to her.

They weren’t talking about age at all. They were writing for the future, planning for the future, and walking hand in hand with the present. They were exemplifying another bit of wisdom that I had filed away, from the example of Cato the Elder in the first century B.C. At 84, Cato was writing treatises and studying a new language, and every evening he repeated the events of the day so that he might keep his memory in order, because, according to psychiatrist Frances J. Braceland, “anyone living in the midst of such studies must keep his mind in full stretch like a bow and never allow it to go into old age by becoming slack.”

I decided to analyze my anxieties about age, asking myself, “What are my fears of aging?” I don’t want fears to clutter up the time I have left. I sorted out five basic ones: not feeling needed, losing a sense of purpose, losing control over my own destiny, not feeling loved, and not being touched. Listing them made me look for cures and comforts.

The first, not feeling needed. Every mother eventually knows the loneliness of the empty nest. I have two children, a son and a daughter, one living in Seattle (and holding my grandchildren hostage), the other in New York—each a long and expensive plane ride away. There is no one with a skinned knee to comfort, no car pool to run, no dinner to cook for anyone but myself. An awful sadness sweeps over me when I think that the people I have lived for do not require anything of me anymore. It’s a cycle, of course. I remember with remorse how my mother told us children, “Just when you all got interesting, you all left home.”

One of the happiest days of my life was when I took matters in hand and called my frantic daughter, who was moving into a new career and into a New York apartment, and said, “I am giving you a gift: me! And two weeks of my time to answer your door for deliveries and run your errands.” She let me, and I loved it.

Last summer she rewarded me by calling and asking, “Mom, do you believe in free speech? Good, you’re making one for the women in cable in Las Vegas.” I did. And again, we were friends needing each other, an ideal relationship.

The second agony, losing a sense of purpose. It leads to questions like, Why am I here? What do I mean in the infinite scheme of things? I could die tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter to anyone, I say to myself in a depressed moment.

Call it ego if you like, but you want to keep counting in humanity. And so you must be willing to rejoin it as part of something. I am ever in the debt of the battle for the equal rights amendment because it came along just when I needed it. And I know that the women’s movement needed me. It needed my political savvy, my humor, and a certain respectability that I brought to it because I was not a marcher or a zealot, though I have become both. Being part of a movement, whether it is labor, business, the environment, civil rights, zoning rights, or saving the whales, is life-giving. Anger and indignation are good for you. They keep the circulation going.

Third, losing control over your own destiny. Avoiding this takes more philosophy and coping than I have, but it is what I fear most. It makes people too frugal. They aren’t good enough to themselves; they keep saving instead of buying that dress or taking that trip, and if they are parents, they worry too much about not being a problem to their children. I like the pillow that Mrs. Drew Pearson needlepointed: “May I live long enough to be a problem to my children.” I also like a bumper sticker seen recently on a camper in the West. “Yes, we’re spending our children’s inheritance,” it read.

I admire my older brother’s attitude toward the small infirmities of age, such as having to ask a clerk to read prices to him because he can’t see small print, or making soup all the time because he has so few teeth, or missing calls because he doesn’t hear the phone ring. He told me about it in one of our 6 a.m. talks. (Yes, 6 a.m. We are both early risers, and we have conversations about anything and everything each morning across the twenty miles that separate our homes. Early risers do need phone conversations with early risers! Find one. It adds thought and spice to your day.) My brother says he has started to enjoy his infirmities. “I do like to talk to young clerks. At the discount stores they are very nice about it. I have come to like to make soup. There are lots of kinds, and it is challenging to see how much flavor you can get out of a bone. And as for the phone, well, it’s embarrassing when someone tells you the phone is ringing, but it’s no big thing, and I make lots of phone calls to my children who might have called.”

Losing control is not that easy to bear for those who are truly sick, but I think there must be ways to solicit their opinions and give them a say in the control of their lives. We do it for the very young. “What would you like for breakfast, Johnny? The cold pizza or the Mr. Rogers’ alphabet cereal?”

I have a rancher friend in West Texas, Watt Matthews, now 86, who has built his own old-age cabin, complete with a bed for the nurse and handles on the bathtub. He hasn’t moved into it yet, but he enjoyed showing it to me and explaining how the low windows will allow him, from his bed, to keep an eye on the barn where the cowhands saddle up to do the chores. Meanwhile, it serves as a guest cottage, and I suspect it always will.

My darling friend Terrell Maverick Webb could never remember my phone number but could remember how to get to my house. Instead of searching for glasses and a phone book when she needed me, she would drive over, endangering the local citizenry en route. She would waltz in and try to remember what she wanted to tell me. “Which way is north?” she would ask, pressing her fingers to her forehead as though to squeeze out the memory. “You can remember if you face north.” And she would. Then, like the World War I coquette that she had been, she would sit at the piano and suddenly be “packing up our troubles in a kit bag.”

The last two fears: not feeling loved and not being touched. The sensations of love and touch are separate yet together. And oh, how you miss them when they’re gone. If you have ever cared for an elderly person, particularly one who is deaf or blind, you know how much the simple act of holding a hand means, how eagerly the person welcomes it, how reluctantly he watches you leave. How can you walk out on someone who needs you so much? So you put off walking in, visiting the friend in the hospital or nursing home. It’s such a small thing—expressing love, touching—yet people can barely stand to be without it. We understand how important cuddling is for children; why have we ignored this need for the elderly? Unless you live close to grandchildren or are fortunate to have two or three affectionate suitors, the hunger never subsides. So you budget money, if you can, for many plane trips to visit those who feed your hunger, and you should.

You entertain. You can grow old waiting to be entertained. You have a vacation house party during the empty holidays. You offer love. And you find that “who brings his neighbor’s barque to land will find his own has reached the shore.”

Having sorted out my fears, I turned my attention to my home and to how its rejuvenation could be my own. I reshaped it for what I laughingly call the happy hour of my life, otherwise known as senility. The empty rooms that once housed husband and children are not sacrosanct. Use them to expand your life.

I took a look and decided that for the rest of my years I will need that house to (1) eat, (2) get dressed, (3) write, and (4) enjoy conversation. So I started knocking down walls with abandon. Because I like to cook for company, I arranged the kitchen so that people can sit on comfortable chairs and talk to me while I cook. That project went so well that I knocked down some more walls, and now I have a closet where I can see everything I wear. It has three hanging spaces, all just below the arthritic level of my arm. I set up a daybed—I can’t wrestle with those foldout couches—in the dining room, which has a fireplace, so I can sleep while the embers glow on a cold night. I kept on knocking down walls and opened up an extra bedroom to use as my study, with a table in front of a picture window that looks down the river. I indulged in soft carpets, and I can, if necessary, crawl to the typewriter and have another go at some immortal words. I expect and hope to write my way to the grave. In fact, I have to.

Redecorating for my own taste was therapeutic. I like light, flowery colors and fabrics; my house is so full of them that my son tells me he feels like bringing clipping shears when he comes to visit me. It makes me happy to see yellows and pinks and lime-greens and lots of blooming things. I live on a hill overlooking the city, and my friends can take in my view. All the curtains are gone; we just look out over the world and watch the deer come up to feed. I’ve begun talking to the deer. I started with two and now there are nine. They even come and snort in front of my picture window if I haven’t put their food out. The deer love me, and one day they may even let me touch them.

Some say mine is a very “physical” house. I hope so. I use the hot tub for communal conversation; it seats eight friends or six enemies. My guest house has room for a massage table, and friends like to come for the evening to enjoy a soak and a rubdown by a masseuse who makes house calls.

Then there is that vital ingredient to aging, humor. My mother’s humor was always such a part of her world that to me it always represented something for me to strive for. Humor was a quality born out of love for humanity and a high heart. She often admonished her five children to “try to see the humor” in a situation whenever we took ourselves too seriously.

I took her advice to heart. Nowadays, instead of being annoyed by my nearly deaf ear, I find myself arranging the seating at dinner parties according to people’s ears—whom do they really want to listen to? Instead of worrying about not being able to get into my hot tub one day, I may follow state treasurer Ann Richards’ advice and put in a sliding board from my bed to the tub, which sits outside the window overlooking the Austin skyline. Rather than be buried or cremated, I think I would like to be bronzed sitting in my Jacuzzi, spouting hot water all over the city. I hope the law allows it!

A lot of my heroes are people who have shown me how to grow old with grace and humor. Since I fancy myself a writer, I like to read poetry and gather people—writers, poets, and politicians—together. I am especially indebted to a poet I never met, an Englishwoman named Jenny Joseph. She has outlined the rest of my life as I would like to live it:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit. . . .
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised.
When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.

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