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Process of Growing Old Has Its Curious Rewards

April 28, 1986|MARTHA MARK | Mark lives in Brea

No matter one's age, society undermines the egos of people who grow one year older every year. That's all of us. Impersonally and relentlessly, the marketplace actually has enlisted our cooperation in robbing us of the pleasure we should have in not only our ripe years, but our process of ripening.

I was never so aware of this than a few years ago when, in my mid-60s, I returned from the Canadian sub-Arctic healthy, glowing and full of wilderness tales. The mid-60s is not an advanced age for camping out, not even in the Canadian bush. Old people in relatively good health are often more enduring than the young, because they have learned the skill of pacing their lesser energies, a skill that balances against the greater strengths of the young.

But when I returned to civilization, I found that many of my friends considered the adventure an unusual experience for one so "old," which is curious because I have a lot more energy now than I did as a middle-aged mother rearing four children. Listening to the people who told me of all the things that could have happened to me, I realized that they had been badly brainwashed. Though we sat face to face, talking, they had projected upon me the holograph of some rheumatic stranger.

It is not unusual for a person who has been doing something well all of his life--like jogging, or making wall-hangings out of old leaves, or creating beautiful quilts--to suddenly become the subject of patronizing news stories on the theme of "senior citizen does these amazing things!" The implication is that if you still are active and doing a little something in your late 60s, 70s, or 80s, you are news. The unfortunate thing about these news stories is that they steer the mind of the public away from the real wealth of the elderly, which is their intimate memory of events that shaped the present.

Though aging for a woman always has been something to be dreaded, there was, when I was in my 20s, no medium visually hawking an impossible standard of beauty. There were movies, but they were not so ubiquitous and constant as TV. Cinema was beginning to set standards of youthful appearance, but only tentatively. A woman still sought uniqueness of personality, good character, a feminine freshness of appearance and good grooming.

The demand upon women, in these times of "enlightenment," is that she be attractive physically, and that she conform to the standards of the times. Only a few voices are calling for her to be herself, to show her unique personality apart from any role she may play in life.

In my mid-20s when I was teaching in a junior college near Boston, I had a student named Muriel whom I shall never forget. At 18, she wanted to look 30. In her eyes 30 was glamour, mystery, allure, black lace and sultry makeup. Muriel was the first person I had ever known to admire an age so far beyond her own, an age even beyond mine, which I had been taught to dread. It occurred to me that she had invented an excellent thing. A woman could and should anticipate the ages to come, study each in advance, pick out the best that any particular age had to offer, and hopefully progress to maturity in a lovely way rather than to be a person always pathetically trying to look or act young.

Quality of Life

Inspired by Muriel, I began studying people two or three decades beyond mine, separating the attractive from the unattractive. Looking back, I can see that, although not too far from the cultural pattern of my peers, I was extremely immature. I considered my conscious decision to respect old age as a form of old-age security, which would pay dividends of self-respect in future years. Though this was valid, it never occurred to me that what I really sought was a quality of life. Like my peers, I found old age inherently unattractive, but it was a mountain to be climbed that might hide alpine meadows of beauty in its heights, so I was going to find beauty even if I died of old age in the attempt.

When I began my serious search in my late 20s, I was looking at women who were 50 and older. At first it was a discouraging project. It appeared that the most I could hope for in old age was to be neat and piously well-groomed. But then came along an old woman whom I shall never forget. I saw her on a playground where I was watching my children play. The old lady was with a much younger woman, perhaps her granddaughter, and she was obviously freshly arrived from Europe. Going from swing to swing with enjoyment, she regarded everything about her with a child-like astonishment.

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