My 85-year-old aunt told me the other day that before 80 she barely thought about or noticed getting older. I pretended to believe her, though I knew she was lying – or, more likely, her memory is highly selective. I vividly recall sitting around her Florida condo with my uncle and my mother, the three of them carping about the terrible process of aging. My mother, who thought herself a brilliant wit, gave me some advice. “Don’t get old,” she said with a deep sigh.
They were around my age at the time – I’m now 64 – and, then in my 40’s, I told them I was beginning to understand what they were talking about. They scoffed at me. “You’re too young!” they protested. To hear them, you’d think that in their 40’s they’d been living it up, going out dancing and carousing. Those years, they said, had been the best of their lives.
But I remembered them at that age too, in suburbia, nearly beaten down by their jobs, the bills, the trials of raising children. Had they forgotten I’d been around during those years? Did they not know I’d been watching them, that studying the grownups was a survival skill of childhood? What I remember feeling about them in those earlier years is pity: my life was full of promise and excitement, while theirs was a dead end – typical adolescent arrogance. On the other hand, they were so settled; it certainly looked like their lives weren’t going anywhere. (Once we kids got out of the way, their lives changed dramatically.)
Though my aunt still doesn’t believe me, I understand her: I understand the mechanism that lets her believe she gave not a thought to age until very recently. I understand it because, like my relatives, I now look back on my 40s as the prime of my life. I perceive my 42-year-old self as energetic, wild, and adventurous. Unlike my aunt and mother, I was out dancing – in fact, I’d just begun life anew by moving cross-country. My rejuvenation, however, lasted but a few short years; by the end of the decade I was beginning to collapse again.
I’m not supposed to say things like that, to use words like “collapse.” My boomer peers are creating an ethos of aging that runs counter to our parents’ so-called negativity. They say we’re living longer, stronger, and healthier; everything’s better for us than for previous generations. As always, I am out of sync.
Here’s the thing: Because my aunt is unable to be completely honest, she cannot tell me how she’s evolved in her feelings about aging. Because my peers refuse to address the subject with complete honesty, they will not tell me what they’re feeling about this aging thing, nor will they listen to my story so we can compare and contrast. The upshot is, I’m going through this alone. It seems I can learn nothing from anyone else about a subject that’s become of vital import to me. Worse yet, I can learn nothing about where this process is ultimately headed, except by reading religious texts. Yes, I’m referring to the Grim Reaper. I suppose the Boomers will turn him into the Happy Guide or some equally moronic euphemism.
This is beginning to remind me of the terrible frustration I felt during my years raising children when I couldn’t talk honestly about my life as Mommy. Friends with whom I’d shared my deepest secrets before we had kids were strangely horrified if I expressed the least bit of negativity. My older female relatives had shared nothing with me about child-rearing, and my peers refused to talk about it, even after feminism opened us up to truth-telling. It wasn’t until I was well past the active phase of motherhood that the next generation, bless them, blew the lid off the secrets of maternal darkness. I’m grateful it’s finally safe for me to tell my stories, and even more grateful that they listen to me. I’m also grateful that I still care enough and find the subject fascinating – a lot of mothers, understandably, just want to forget those years once they’re over.
In terms of this particular topic, though, I can’t wait for the next crop of elders to get the ball rolling! By the time some future generation starts blowing open the dark secrets of aging and death, I’ll be an inert pile of ashes upon someone’s shelf. Maybe this time I just won’t wait for someone else. Maybe this time I’ll just say to hell with their ridicule and judgment, fuck their looks of pity and attitudes of superiority. I’ll just start talking. Hell, I got nothing more to live up to (Dylan). Maybe I never did.