Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Growing Old Gracefully
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( Originally Published 1911 )
I COULDN'T help Margaret that day in that one little thing any more than I have been able to help my children in the greater crises of life. I couldn't even imagine I was helping her; and this is one of the bitterest things we mothers have to bear when we get old.
We have learned then that we can't help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear from before their feet, be our old fingers ever so willing. With yearning hearts we see them making the mistakes we could teach them to avoid if only they would listen. We see them going through one experience after another, stumbling here; again hurting themselves against the same corner you hurt yourself against so long ago; repeating all the world-worn mistakes, while we elders watch anxiously and may not even cry out, — " Take care ! " Our sons repeat the follies of their fathers; our daughters make over again all the mistakes of their mothers. It is very hard to sit in silence when you see them doing all the things that you did and then so painfully learned better. We feel that we could so easily point to the fair open road if our children would let us, but we are as useless to them as guide-posts to the blind. We must watch our children lose themselves in the tangle whose miseries we know so well, and see them at last, after long years of wandering, find their way back home, heart-sore and worn; — and all the time we can't help thinking it all needn't have been. That, to us older mothers, is the heart-rending part of it. Instead of helping, you must sit quiet and fold your hands, knowing that if you did speak they wouldn't hear you. Your children, however dearly they love you, will think you say what you do only because you are old and have forgotten, and therefore you cannot possibly understand life as they see and live it.
If you run after your children crying, " Oh, my child, don't do this," they won't listen to you, or if they do they smile at you as if you were a child.
They are so sure, these young people, they know more about life than you do! Or it may very well be that instead of smiling, they have hard work not to show you how impatient they are that you have interfered in something you can't know about.
The right of free speech with our children is one of the pleasures of life which age often takes from us. When they are young they listen, — they have to then, even if they go away and forget; but as they get older, they don't often let us have the illusion that we are listened to. I have even known some mothers who were not allowed to talk at all about their children's interests.
I have never understood the watchful irritation with which our grown children meet our suggestions concerning their affairs, for these are the things that lie nearest our hearts. Are they afraid, I wonder, that we will forget they are grown up? I grant it sometimes is hard to act as if one realized it.
However this may be, there are very few grown people who can bear advice from their own mothers, even though they listen patiently to all the rest of the world. I remember I had the same curious intolerance for my mother's advice, and now I am at a loss to account for my impatience. Did I fancy, I wonder, that my problems were so different from those she had solved during her long life?
There are, after all, few mothers who have grown old in the service of their children who have not some little wisdom ready to give. Some of us have learned a short road to peace; all of us have learned something that would make life easier for the children we love, but out of the fullness of our knowledge and experience we can give away not so much as a crumb. That evening I almost envied Margaret her trying afternoon; she believed, for the moment anyway, that she was doing her Betty good.
There is something very touching in the unreasonable expectation each generation has for its children. Obedience, cheerfulness, self-control, punctuality, are only a few of the virtues every young mother starts out by expecting of her babies. It only shows the serene selfconfidence the young have in making the next generation better than the last.
For, mind you, every mother expects to do this herself, and it's a happy time when you still have the illusion of power and still believe you can play Providence for your children, that you can bring them up very much as you choose when you still feel that everything depends on you, and that with your love for them you will be able to defend them, not only from the world but from themselves. And so for a very little while you can. Young mothers in their tender ignorance imagine that this will always be so.
But very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don't understand and others you understand only too well, for like weeds your own faults come up and refuse to be rooted out, and you lie awake nights trying " to know what is right," still thinking that your child's welfare is in your own hand, trying with your own little strength to combat faults that are as old as your race, that are part of you and your mother and her mother before you, and will be part of your children's children. I see my daughters going valiantly to work at this hopeless task, high in courage, full of confidence that their children shall be saved anyway. As they bring their children up, they often talk to me about their own childhood, — and very tenderly point out the mistakes I made with them. I smile one of those inward smiles age knows so well, as I gather from their accent, more than from anything they say, that they hope to avoid all my errors ; and indeed that they think they have avoided a good many already.
I let them talk. The last time Henry was on a visit we talked of old times and old methods, and especially of the desultory education I gave Margaret.
Henry is doing better in this respect, and my older granddaughters are on the road to becoming very learned young ladies. I only hope Henry is taking as much pains to make his girls stand up straight as I did with her. While we compared new educational methods with the faulty old ones, I couldn't help saying to my daughter :
" All I hope, dear, is that when you're my age you will have as devoted a set of children."
For when your children have disproved all your theories ; when none of your sons have taken up the professions you tried so hard to have them ; when they have consulted their own wills in everything in life, their affection is the great recompense. If our children really love us and show us that they do, I think we may count that we have won in the game of life, and I would be glad to have my children realize this, and have it help them over the discouragement of those years after their children have apparently slipped from them altogether.
When I was a young mother I believed, too, that I could be a Providence for my children. I believed they had been given me to mould as I would, and the only limit of the influence I would have was the limit of my own strength and love. Then there came a time when I realized that every child on the street my child stopped to talk with had its share in bringing up my sons and daughters. One week in school was enough to upset all the training of years.
They learned faster from their friends, and more willingly, than ever they did from me, and it seemed to me then that they learned the things they oughtn't to quickest of all. My well-brought-up little boys came from play talking loudly, making faces, playing the fool. Margaret would come home from a visit with a trunkful of affectations and an assortment of silly ideas, — how silly I knew very well, for I had had those same ideas and thrown them aside myself ; why I did n't get comfort out of the fact that I had outgrown these very things, and that they, too, would in time inevitably outgrow them, I don't know. It's a bad moment when one realizes that the most shallow boy and girl can have an influence over your children greater than your own, and that some thoughtless ridicule from any one your sons admire is able to undo all your patient work. It was when I saw these things that I began to see that my place in my children's lives must be very much less than I had first supposed, but I only redoubled my efforts. By that time I was past the place when commands and punishments were very much used. I used all my tact and affection and diplomacy to make my children what I wanted them.
As they grew older still, I found my ideals of what I wanted them modified and changed by what they were. How much I am responsible for what they are today I am at a loss to decide, but I do know that the boy next door has always had a more direct and apparently a stronger influence than I ever had.
However philosophical I might be, however glibly I talked to myself about " heredity and environment," I felt deep down in my heart that I was responsible, and I alone, for what my children were. How many hours I have spent — yes, and days and months in wondering just how I had failed. I felt that I was responsible for every one of their faults, that with more wisdom and more courage and more patience everything might have been different.
I have always envied those women who can say, " Anna gets her obstinacy from her father's family," or, " George has the Crawford temper"; but perhaps they too feel, down deep in their hearts, that they are somehow to blame for whatever is wrong. I was already an old woman before I was able to free myself of my part of the burden of responsibility, for in the end I realized that, after all, I couldn't hold myself accountable for the things that happened when they were away from me altogether. But always the torturing question remains with us mothers, "If I had done differently, could I have saved my daughter this unhappiness?
If I had been firmer, couldn't I have helped my son more? "
It makes no difference what good children you have or how well they have " turned out "; mothers still ask themselves these questions, so heavily do the sins of their children weigh on them, even when they are not sins at all. I have always wondered why nothing has ever been said about the sins of the children being visited on the parents, for if our sins are visited on our children theirs are doubly hard for us to bear. After they have forgotten them we still remember, for we wonder always if we might not have prevented them by greater wisdom.
As one advances farther into the Land of Old Age, one sees more and more how isolated each generation is from the other. We begin, like Margaret, playing Providence to our children.
We end, like myself, a spectator at the drama of our children's lives. You will not be able to turn the tragedy into a comedy. You can only watch it, breathless, no more able to stop the march of
events than the little boy in the gallery who hisses the villain. If we mothers have helped at all, it is what we are, and not what we have taught, that has counted. Yet, though we older people know there is a gulf of time between our children and us that may not be bridged, we can't help trying to bridge it.
If you are in the thick of the play of life, look around you and you will see the gray-headed spectators who have themselves stepped off the stage. They are the mothers and fathers of the players, and each one of them is murmuring advice or encouragement to some dear child who never stops to listen. Some cry as they look on, and some laugh, and some sit proud and complacent, and in her heart each one of them knows that the words she repeats so often are not heard. But they keep on, for deeper than the knowledge of their own uselessness is the feeling of responsibility. You must bear the sins of your children until you die, just as you have your silent part in their successes. You put them in the world and you feel that you must answer to yourself for what they are.
Though each generation must work out its own salvation, we mothers can't reconcile ourselves to this knowledge.
To our last days many of us go on persisting in the belief that we could help our grown up children if they would only stop long enough to listen.
In spite of myself, I believe this. I can't help it, and I like to think that they listen more than either of us knows, and that because they love me so dearly, they hear, after all, the things I don't speak out loud. So at the end of life I can only say to myself what I wanted to say to Margaret: Each one of us can help her children, she her small ones and I my big ones, only by loving them dearly and trying humbly to understand; for I believe that only in this way can one generation come near to the other.