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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age

My Mother's House

Conventions Of Age

Other People's Medicine

Compensations Of Age

Spending Of Time

Land Of Old Age

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

Young People And Old

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

Shadow Of Age

( Originally Published 1911 )

As I look back over my life, it divides itself into four parts. First come all the years before I married, and as I look back on my childhood and my short girlhood, it seems to me as though I were remembering the life of some other woman, for during these many years I know that I have changed several times from one person to another, and the world about me has had time to change also. All that early part swims in a fog, with here and there events popping out of the mist, more distinct than those a week past, often meaningless and trivial events these; I cannot tell by what caprice memory has elected to keep them so clear. Lately I find myself returning to certain opinions and prejudices of my girlhood, that I had long forgotten. Time, after all, has not obliterated them, nor have I walked away from them. It is rather as though I had gone in a circle, and as I come to the completion of it I find my old thoughts and opinions, changed and grown older, waiting for me.

With my marriage begins the part of my life that seems real to me, — it is as if I had dreamed all that went before. I loved the time when my children were little, and I have often wished that I could put them and myself back in the nursery again. I pity the women whose children come too late for them all to be in some sense children together. But however young a mother is, there is a great gap between her and her babies. My little children were of a different generation from me. And for all our striving to understand, they were babies and my husband and I " grown people," though as I look back we seem mere boy and girl.

We worried over our babies, there were four of them, all in the nursery at the same time, — we sat up nights gravely discussing their " tendencies," and their education only to find that the very tendencies over which we worried most they outgrew, and that when the time for education began in earnest, all the conditions had changed and new methods had been evolved.

It will always be this way, mothers and fathers will always sit up late nights, as we did, discussing the " futures" of their little two-year-old sons.

We tried so hard to do right ; we thought back through the years and said:

"I felt this and this when I was little.

I thought this way and this —such and such things frightened me. My father seemed unjust when he punished me for this offense; my mother made such and such mistakes. I will not make these mistakes with my children."

And so, thinking to avoid all the mistakes of our own parents, we made, all unknowing, fresh mistakes of our own.

When I was little, for instance, I was very much afraid of the dark; so much so that the fears of my childhood haunted my whole life, an unlighted staircase has terrors for me even to this day. And I made up my mind that no child of mine should suffer from fear of darkness as I did. So my first child had a light in his room. He was always naughty about going to bed, and he grew to be a big boy before I found out that this was because the gray twilight of the room was horrible to him, and that he was very much afraid of the uncertain shapes of the furniture he saw in the dim light of the lamp, though not at all afraid of the dark. It is with such well-intentioned blunders that one brings up one's children.

Grandmothers know that this is so, and for that reason all the various "systems" seem like foolish words to them. They have learned that there will be mistakes made where there are parents and children, — yes, and that there will be cruelties and injustices, and that the only way to deal with very little children is to love them very much and let them feel this love.

The time my children took in growing up seems to me phenomenally short; one day they were babies and the next they were young people to be reckoned with, having wills and personalities of their own. Other mothers tell me that their children grew up as quickly, but this I have hard work to believe.

When my oldest son was nearly a man and the others crowding on his heels, my dear husband died, and my son grew up overnight, and in the next few years that were very full ones, for all their sadness — my other children stole a march on me and grew up too; almost, I might say, behind my back. While I was taking on myself the new responsibilities of my so altered life, and while the world seemed yet very empty of companionship, I found that my children were becoming my comrades, and so I entered on the third quarter of my life.

My boys and girls all at once belonged to my generation; we had common interests, common tastes and amusements — for all practical purposes we were the same age. It was at this time that the warning voice sounded in my ear, but I seemed to myself almost as young as my children, so no wonder I didn't recognize it as the voice of age calling to me. It is a very pleasant time when one is still on the great stage of life, playing one's small part shoulder to shoulder with one's children ; shoulder to shoulder, too, with people a score of years one's senior. This is the golden moment when time holds its breath for a while and one imagines that, however old one may get, one will forever stay in spirit at the same smiling " middle way." Age, considered at that time, seems rather the result of some accident or some weakness of will than the result of living a great number of years in the world. So for many years my children and I did our work side by side, I helping and advising them, they aiding and advising me in the common partnership of our lives.

The fourth part of my life, my present life about which I am going to write, began when again I became of a different generation from my children with the difference that they now are the strong, I the weak ; that they treasure me and care for me, worry over me and weep over me, a spry old lady, and, I am afraid, sometimes a defiant old lady, impatient of the rules which they lay down for me, as once they were of the rules that I made for them how did this come about ? When did it happen ?

There was a time when I was more of a comrade than a mother to my daughters ; when I was the adviser of my sons. Now I am not. I do not know when the change came, nor do they, if indeed they realize it at all. There was a time when I was of their generation, now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a moment when my boys were more thoughtful of me, when they did n't come to me any more with their perplexities, not because I had what is called " failed," but because they felt that the time had come when I ought to be " spared " every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household. " We

mustn't worry mother," is the watch-word of my dear children, and the result of their great care is that I am on the outside of their lives.

Shadows come and go among them; they talk about them ; I feel the chill of their trouble, but I'm never told what it's about. Before me they keep cheerful ; when I come, the shadow passes from their faces and they talk with me about all the things that they think will interest me. I move in a little artificial, smiling world away from all the big interests of life. If one of them is sick away from home, I am not told until it is all over ; if there is any crisis among them, they do all they can to keep me from hearing of it. But in the end I always do know, for no one can live in the shadow of any anxiety and not be aware of it.

So the great silence enfolds me more and more. I live more alone and solitary among those I love, groping in the silence, watching the faces of my children to find what is passing in their lives. I often think how sweet it would have been if my husband had lived, and we could have grown old together, understanding and giving companionship to each other.

I can remember the very day when I realized that age had claimed me at last. There is a great difference between being a thing and realizing it. A woman may say a hundred times that she is ugly ; she may be ugly ; but unless she realizes that she is ugly, it will make very little difference. It is the consciousness of our defects which undoes us, and so with age.

This great readjustment began with the most trivial of events. I happened to see a little dust on the table and around on the bric-a-brac — it seems to me that dusting is a lost art — and I as just wiping it off. I was enjoying myself, for I belong to a generation which was taught to work with its hands and to delight in doing its work nicely, when I heard Margaret's step on the stairs she is my youngest daughter, home on a visit. My first impulse was to sit down and pretend to be reading, but I resolved to brazen it out, — after all, there is no reason why I should n't dust my own bric-a-brac in my own home if I choose.

She came into the parlor.

"What are you doing, darling ? " she said.

" I am dusting the vases on the mantel," I answered, and I tried to keep any note of guilt from my voice.

" Why could n't you have called Annie? " she asked me, with tender reproach.

" I like to stir around myself sometimes," I said, and for the life of me I couldn't help being a little defiant.

" Well, then, why couldn't you let me do it ? You might have called me," she went on in the same tone.

" I told you I like to do it."

" It isn't good for you to stand on your feet so much. Give me that duster, mother. You'll tire yourself all out."

" I get tired sitting," I broke out.

"I always have said that you ought to take more exercise in the open air."

By this time she had taken away my duster. "Why don't you go out and take a little walk? Come — I'll go with you."

Presently she had finished dusting, but I saw ever so many little places that I should have to wipe up later on, furtively. I should have enjoyed finishing that dusting myself.

" I'll run up and get your things," said Margaret.

Now, I cannot abide having any one trifle with my bureau drawers, and it isn't because I 'm old enough to have middle-aged sons and daughters, either.

Ever since I can remember, I have put my things away myself. I keep my bonnets in the little drawers and my gloves and veils— my everyday ones, that is — beside them; and I know that I shall never be able to find anything again once Margaret has been among them. Besides that, I do not like going to walk. Walking aimlessly for exercise has always seemed most futile to me; a feeble stroll that has no objective point, not even the post office, annoys me more than any other way of spending my time. I have never walked except when I had something to walk for, and I don't intend to begin at my time of life.

" I don't think I'll go to walk, dear.

I'm going out this afternoon "

Now, though I said this indifferently enough, in a tone which didn't invite discussion, yet I braced myself inwardly; I knew what was coming.

" Oh, mother darling," my daughter cried. " You 're not going to that lecture, with your cold, in that drafty hall ! And you always catch more cold in a crowd! You won't go, will you? "

" Well, well — " I temporized.

" You won't go — promise."

Then the door-bell rang, and I made my escape to my own room and locked my door after me. I knew well enough what would happen, — how Margaret would tell the others at dinner that I was going out, and how they would protest. And I made up my mind, as I often have before, that since I am old enough to know what is best for me, I would go to that lecture, let them talk as they might; so I got ready for the battle, resolving for the hundredth time that I would not be run by my children.

As I sat in my room plotting yes, plotting — how I should outwit my daughter, it came over me what a funny thing it was that I should be contriving to get my own way, for all the world like a naughty, elderly child, while my daughter was worrying about my headstrong ways as if she were my mother instead of my being hers.

How increasingly often I hear as the years go on, not only from my own children, but from other people whose mothers are already old: " Mother will not take care of herself ! " And then follow fearsome stories of mother's latest escapade,— just as one tells how naughty Johnnie is getting and how Susie kicks her bedclothes off, — stories of how mother made a raid on the attic and cleaned it almost single - handed when all the family were away; stories of clandestine descents into the perilous depths of the cellar; hair-raising tales of how mother was found on a step-ladder hanging a window curtain, how mother insisted on putting down the preserves and pickles, rows and rows and rows of shining glasses of them, — herself, and how tired she was afterwards, as if putting down the preserves tired only women who were past middle age. And a certain indignation rose within me as I remembered that I can visit my own attic and my own cellar only by stealth or with a devoted and tyrannical child of mine standing over me to see that I don't " overdo."

For the motto of all devoted sons and daughters is: " Nag mother to death, if necessary, but don't let her overdo."

Well, what if I should overdo ? Before one is old, one is allowed to shorten one's life unchecked; one may have orgies of work undisturbed. And I, for one, would far rather shorten my life by overdoing than have it lengthened out by a series of mournful, inactive years. Again I said I would not be run by my children. And as I got to this point in my meditation I heard my son Dudley coming up the stairs. I knew he would come to see me, so I unlocked my door.

I had said that I would not be run by my children. Now see to what depths constant nagging reduces a naturally straightforward woman. I know that Dudley watches me very closely, and I often wish he would sometimes ignore my moods as I do his; but this time I was ready for him, pulling a long face when he came in.

He said at once—I knew he would :

" You look blue, old girl."

" I never," I burst out, " can do the least thing without you children interfering. I can't read all the time, you know; but whenever I propose to do anything, I meet with such opposition that for the sake of peace I give up at once."

I spoke more warmly than I felt as far as this particular instance was concerned, for I was fighting for a principle.

" Who's been bothering you?" Dudley demanded.

"It isn't ' bothered' I've been," I remonstrated. " It's that you children are needlessly anxious about me. It's far better for me to go out now and then than to sit in the house from morning till night. And what 's more," I added determinedly, " I am going to the lecture this afternoon no matter what Margaret or any one else says I" Dudley laughed.

" There, there," he said, patting my hand. " You shall go; no one is going to oppose you. You 'll go if I have to take you there in a carriage myself."

So I knew I had won the day, for in our family Dudley is the important member. But I made up my mind, just the same, that I would go on my own two feet to that lecture, for there was no need at all of a carriage. And I did go, alone and walking, though I slipped out of the front door so quietly that it was hardly dignified, — " sneaked," was what Margaret called it.

As Dudley went down the hall, I thought how a similar warfare is being carried on all over this country today, wherever there are elderly mothers and middle-aged sons and daughters, the children trying to dominate their parents with the end in view of making them take abnormal care of their health, and the older people fighting ever more feebly and petulantly for their lost independence. Not only struggling to have their own way, not only chafing at the leading-strings in which their watchful, devoted children would keep them, but fighting, too, for the little glimmer of youth that is yet left them.

For all this care by one's children means but one thing, and that is age. While you slept, old age came upon you. You count the number of your years by the way your daughter watches your steps, and you see your infirmities in your son's anxious eyes; and the reason of all this struggle why our own attics and cellars are forbidden ground to us; why our daughters take our dusters from us and tenderly nag us — is that they are valiantly, if tactlessly, striving to delay by their care the hour which they know must come, while we try to ignore its approach.

We like to kill the days, which sometimes crawl past us so slowly, with an illusion of activity, and we do not like to be reminded day by day, hour by hour, that we are old, that there is no work we need do, no " ought " calling us any more; that our work in the world is being done by other people and our long vacation has already begun.

As I sat alone that evening and soberly went over the events of the day,

I clearly realized the meaning of Margaret's taking away my duster. I realized that there was no work in the world that I ought to do but take care of myself. I realized that I was old, and from that day, though I often forget it, the world has looked a little different to me, my point of view has, in some subtle way, shifted. It was on that day that I sat down to think how it was that I had come to be old and what the invisible milestones were that I had passed along the way.

The first time age touched me it was with so light a finger that I did not recognize the touch; I didn't know what had happened. Indeed, the touch of age at first irritated me; then I laughed at it, and finally I became a little bewildered, realizing confusedly that a new element had come into my life to stay. But I did not know that it was the shadow of age which was upon me, that it was always there, invisible, quiet, persistent, and, patient as death, waiting to claim me.

This first touch of age comes when our children begin to dictate to us.

The other day I saw the youth of a woman begin to wither under my very eyes. She did n't know what was happening, but I knew what shadow was over her. To me she seems young, for I have seen her grow up, and though she has big daughters, I never thought of her as approaching middle age until the last time she and the girls came to see me.

Edith is a big, handsome, buoyant woman, but there was a subdued air about her for which I couldn't account until her eldest daughter said sweetly, but with decision : —

" Mother isn't looking well; she ought to have some sea air."

And Edith replied with the note of helpless irritation that I have come to know so well :

" I have told the children so often that I dislike leaving my comfortable home in the summer."

Then I knew why Edith seemed changed : her children had begun to run her.

So the finger of age touches all of us in much the same fashion. The warning may not always come through some dear child, though with mothers it is oftenest in that way, but the voice of the valiant new generation speaks in one way or another to every man and woman, and from the moment you have heard that voice you have set your face old-agewards, though twenty years or more may pass before you are really old. The strong new generation, eager and clamorous, is at your heels ready to take your place, anxious to perform your tasks. Already your children are altering the world that you know ; already they are meditating the changes that they will make when the reins of power fall into their hands ; and one day you will wake up in a new world, an unhomelike place to which you must adjust yourself as a baby must adjust himself to his surroundings, but with the difference that everyday the baby makes progress, whereas every day you will find the new conditions harder to understand, — as I have, and as your mother has.

After my husband's death I was very anxious to have my own mother make her home with me, and at the time I couldn't understand why she wouldn't.

Now I know. She lived instead in a little house in the town where she had spent her life, and for all companionship she had a " girl " nearly as old as herself.

We used to worry about her a great deal, about her loneliness, her lack of care of herself, — all the things that my children worry about now ; but she met all our pleading to live with us with the baffling smile, and the " Well, well, we 'll see," that she had used with us when we were little children.

One time I accompanied her home after a visit she had made us, in spite of her protests that it was ridiculous for me to do so. It had stormed and the roads were bad, and I was afraid to let her travel alone. She strode ahead of me, straight as a pine tree, up the brick path which led to her house, and opened the front door. The gesture of welcome she gave her lonely little home, and the long breath she drew, as of relief, I didn't then understand, though I always remembered them. I understand now. She had come back to herself, to her own life, to her memories. Here she could think her own thoughts and lead her life as she wished. She could even sit in a draft without an affectionately officious child following her up with a shawl, and her little home, lonely as it was, was less lonely than the strange world we lived in. I have often taken the duster from my mother's hands as Margaret did from mine the other morning. And I suppose the same little drama will be enacted in every family until the end of time by mothers and daughters.

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