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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Isolated Generation

Lengthening Shadows

Growing Old Gracefully

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Lengthening Shadows

( Originally Published 1911 )

I HAVE spoken of us older people as spectators at the play of life, speaking words of encouragement which were not heard; and if we speak words that are not heard, so are our ears almost always on the alert to catch the inner meaning of our children's lives, to enter in and understand all the details that are kept from us.

I have a son whom I have seen but few times in many years; he lives in a distant country and can seldom come home. I have pictures of the house in which he lives. Often his face shines out to me familiarly from a strange group of people, none of whose faces I know. Often it will be a little snapshot, and from the looks and gestures arrested in the photograph, I will see that they are friends of his. Once in a while word comes that " this is So-and-So, you know," or that " the lady beside me is Miss This or Miss That," nothing more. I am familiar with all the outer surfaces of his life, as though I had lived out there with him. Every morning and evening when I pray for my children I go, it seems to me, almost bodily out toward him in that inner communion that we must feel when we pray intensely for those whom we love. In all the years of our separation no woman has had a more faithful child. Week after week his letters come — full letters, too; I follow him in his small journeys, in his comings and goings. I hear the old man and wife talk, that have done for him for so long, and to whose quaint picturesqueness he never becomes accustomed beyond the point of appreciation. I know his tastes and his pleasures and his recreations. I know that materially he is doing well, but of his inner life, of his defeats, of his triumphs, of his travail in the stuff of his own character, I know nothing except what any one might know, — that he is a good fellow, sweet-tempered, as he always was, and that he has a certain touch of arrogance, of kind-hearted authority in his air that is not unlike Dudley's.

Any one might know this who saw his picture or who heard him spoken of.

But he might be going through the crisis of his life even, with his spirit in deep distress, and I am sure he would sit down, from force of habit, and write me one of his chatty and entertaining letters that make up a part of my life. If he is ill, you may be sure I hear nothing of it until he is better.

Since he cannot be with me in body it should be enough for me, I suppose, that he is in spirit with me enough so that he turns to me and gives me so much of his time. Yet it is not enough; it leaves me hungry. I never read one of his kind and charming letters without wondering: " Is all well with you, my son ? Is life kind to you ? Are your days lonely ? Does the lack of wife and children press heavily upon you, or is the crust of selfishness settling over you so that you would not sell your small freedom of personal habits for the great gift of love which wife and children would give you? Is the blight of middle age creeping upon you, swallowing up the generosities of your youth that I knew so well ? Or is your heart hungry for those children that you have never had, and is there some face dear to you beyond all others, so for want of it you must lead your life lonely as you do now ? " These questions have never been answered for me, nor will they be ever.

Yet sometimes it seems to me that I know as much of him as I do about those two children who have strayed familiarly through these desultory pages. They, too, are as careful to turn to me the smiling side of their lives as my son so far away from me.

It is perhaps for this that I feel nearer to my son Henry than to any of my children. He writes me seldom and then only brief communications. My knowledge of his life and comings and goings is through my daughter-in-law, but in the nature of his business he makes me brief and flying visits; he descends upon us at odd moments, which disturbs Margaret and Dudley. They try and try to make him telegraph me or write when he is coming. They think his unexpected visits disturb me; I suppose they get this from my trembling eagerness at the times when I am surprised into saying: " I think Henry is coming tonight."

And very often he comes when I think he is, and then again I am wrong, though I am superstitious enough to believe that he has thought of coming and then changed his mind when this strong feeling of his nearness sweeps over me. And when he comes I see him as he is. If he has made a good business deal or if business worries him, he says so, while Dudley and Margaret hover around like two anxious parents, trying to play Providence. If they know he is coming, they meet him first with warnings and head-shakings, coaching him what to tell me and what not to tell me; and for a time he tries to be good, but before he goes, he flings out to me what is worrying or troubling him. To him I speak my mind more than to any one, and preach to him the self-control that he needs. He comes to me as he has always come, for a certain sort of strength. I give him balance and smooth him out. I am to him what I am not to any of my other children, the mother of younger years; the mother to whom to turn for advice and strength, and I leap out to meet it.

My other children — those who see me from day to day — tell me that his visits upset me, and so they do. I have been ill and depressed sometimes for two or three days when I have not been able to get him, or when his worry has been a difficult one, as I always was; as I was when they were ill , as I was through the difficult phases in the boys developments.

Tranquillity and peace perhaps prolong life, and yet — who knows.

There seems to be before us the question as to whether we shall wear out or rust out, and most of us are praying to fate that we may be allowed to wear out. Yet who can judge ? I know that my children's silence, at which I often chafe, is not best for me, but perhaps it is best for them, since I cannot help them, since my anxiety only heightens theirs. When I see them cloaking their troubles with smiles ; when I feel the atmosphere surcharged with anxiety, and see the cloud lift again, I often think it is perhaps self - preservation that makes them do what they call spare me " ; that to watch me troubled and broken with anxiety about their worries would be for them a double strain.

I know when Betty was ill that my trouble — though I was tranquil and though I spoke heartening words —was an added burden to Margaret. I I have said that we should decide whether we should rust out or wear out, but perhaps that was decided for us in our youth and in our middle age, for we are continually deciding all our life long what kind of old people we are to be. Every moment of our lives we are preparing for age ; carving out the faces that we are to wear ; moulding and modeling and castingour characters for good or for bad ; deciding if those last years — those dependent years, so full of heartbreak, so full of the giving-up of those things which make life life shall be bearable to those closest to us.

Some years ago I began observing the various types of age about me, and it appeared to me in many unlovely guises. Often the women whom life had treated the most gently turned toward life unlovely faces, — masks of discontent. I ask myself, Is life so sad that on the faces of age one should so often see such deep prints of ineradicable grief, or is it the habit of discontent, year by year, planting a wrinkle here and drawing down the mouth there ?

I, who am as yet only what people call elderly, look sometimes with a certain fright at the faces which I see that are old. I see upon the street old men whose faces are carven as though in granite ; the hardness of their own hard hearts is there in every line. Others I see yet more terrible, — loose- mouthed and vacant-eyed, speaking of a life of indulgence of the body. They have no thoughts to carry with them to the grave ; no light from the hills makes them lift up their eyes ; they have forgotten the hills if ever they knew them.

And the faces of the old women, — how vacant are so many of them ; how discontented What furrowed brows, penned with sorrow as though their thoughts had become steeped with sadness until it had become moulded on every line of the face without. What bitterness again ! And all these things bespeak a feebleness of the spirit.

Day by day, as they walk on the road that leads to age, they forge out of life their own masters and the doom of those about them as well. There is something in character that seems to survive even the mind. I often call to mind the story of Emerson, who, when his mind failed and he couldn't think of words and what he wanted to say, waited with a sublime patience, — sometimes waited for the word that wouldn't come. His own serenity outlived the worn-out tool that had used it for such high purposes.

I remember from the days of my early middle life an old woman who had become completely childish and rambled around the town in which she lived, a harmless and fantastic figure.

Deafness was added to her other infirmities. And yet, as she went along the streets talking to herself, one caught snatches of a mind imperishably enwrapped in the kind things of life.

"What a beautiful child ! " one would hear her remark. " Oh, the lovely child! . . . What a lovely day ! "

This poor distraught and maimed spirit saw beauty everywhere. She would stop a stranger on the street to know if she knew the Mrs. Grant with whom she lived. " Such a beautiful woman ! So good, so good!"

Of all the lessons that come to me out of my past, the lesson of this creature, never a stalwart spirit, but, like her friend, " so good," returns to me the oftenest. She had had a heart that had been a fountain of love to all that came near her; though she had never been a woman of much brains or wisdom, yet her indestructible sweetness survived her, and this, it seems to me, is the lesson that age should bring to youth continually.

" Choose," says Age, " this face so beneficent, so sweet, so kind, or this other, written over and over with the small, mean vices of uncharitableness and littleness."

This much is to a certain degree inour hands, but what is not in our hands is the final end, the terrible and inevitable breaking-up of the powers of the body; the end that no one can tell if it shall come swiftly and mercifully or with torment for those one loves and for one's self. One can only hope here; one cannot know. And I suppose it is because of this menace that glides before us more and more closely, if we stop to think, that so many older men and women have such impatience at having clipped from them one or any of the little things that still make life the place it was. Every outer sign of age reminds us of this; every new feebleness of the body brings before us vividly the goal to which we are tending, — not the goal of death, but perhaps the goal of the last years of an enfeebled and broken and useless life.

I think it is this shadow that chills the hearts of those of us who have brave spirits more than the thought of death.

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