Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Growing Old Gracefully
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Growing Old Gracefully
( Originally Published 1911 )
I REMEMBER very well indeed when I began to hate to look at myself in the glass. That is the turning-point, — I hated to look at myself. The women who look in the glass oftenest are not the vainest ones. Where a woman looks in the glass out of vanity once, she looks in the glass twenty times as a matter of criticism, — looks to see if her hat is on straight, looks to see if her belt is doing its duty, looks to see if her skirt hangs well.
There came a time in my life when, while I was no longer young, I had a wholesome middle-aged look. I was no better looking and no worse than my neighbors, and my children encouraged vanity in me, as one's dear children very often will, by saying the sweet and familiar words : "How dear you look today, mother ! I love to see mother in that dress "; or, admonishing me ; "Mother, you really must have a new hat.
Look at mother's hat ! "
The moment comes to every woman when, instead of flushing under the approval of some masculine creature, either sweetheart or husband, according to her state of life, she sees herself mirrored in the eyes of her grownup children. You may be sure that these little children of yours, that you see now growing up around you, will in time pay you more tribute and also give you more frank criticism than any one you have ever known, devoted husband or sweetheart as he may have been.
I wear certain laces and a certain brooch because my son Dudley cares for them, certain colors because of my daughter Margaret, and I am continually in a state of border warfare with them both for trying to make me buy new things which I do not need and that are clear beyond my pocketbook.
And my case is the same as that of many an elderly woman of my acquaintance ; we have to fairly fight with our children not to put every penny we possess upon our backs. No young lady just coming out could hear the words from loving relatives that she needs a new dress so often as I do.
I will come back to what I was saying, there was a time in my life when because of the flattery of those I loved — and there is no flattery more far-reaching than that — I surveyed my middle-aged reflection in the glass with peace of heart. One of my daughters would inform me that she thought I was the prettiest mother in the world the blessed part of it is, I think they really believed this was true. Then the day came when I realized that my face was old. I had been out of health, nothing very serious or alarming, but I had lost flesh and hadn't been out of doors much, and one day as I turned to meet my reflection it seemed to me that a thousand wrinkles started out at me, that there were lines about my eyes, that my whole face was shrunken.
People speak of the terrible moment it is in a woman's life when she finds her first wrinkle. I don't believe most normal women find the first wrinkle at all. Very few of us are professional beauties ; the happiness of very few of us consists in our staying in our first flush of looks forever. The average, normal, comfortable woman is too busy looking after her babies and her home about the time the first wrinkle puts in an appearance to even notice it, and, even if she does, to be disturbed, because all her contemporaries are no better off than she. The discovery of age is a different thing. I don't know if all women realize from one day to another as I do this creeping on of the hands of Time, but I think there must come a day of definite awakening. I have seen women stricken down with some illness and go to bed plump and middle-aged, and emerge, a few weeks afterwards, from the sick-room, frosted with age. I have seen sorrow rob women of the Indian summer of youth still more often. Generally it comes upon them stealthily like a thief in the night you don't know how long it has been coming on, but little by little you find yourself " Old Mrs. So-and-So " instead of " Mrs. So-and-So."
The first wrinkle when one has children and a loving husband means nothing at all, but this look of age — it is the first cold warning of the Valley of the Shadow, it is a sign that one is actually on the road downhill, that the best days of life are over, that the activities that have made life worth living, from now on must slip more and more from one's fingers. My heart may feel as young as ever, but what good is that if my knees are rusty and going up and down stairs begins to be a burden, and I find myself tired after a little walk, and I know that never again can I go back, that not one of these wrinkles can vanish with returning health, that activities once given up have gone from us then forever.
Small wonder then that I don't like to look at my face, though it is still sweet in the eyes of my children. I don't like, I frankly confess, to be reminded of all that the wrinkles and gray hair imply. There is no vanity in this : I never was enough of a beauty to be vain about my looks, but was always glad that I could be, as my unflattering aunts used to say when I was a little girl, " well enough," and that "I would pass in a crowd." I think, indeed, I am better looking as an older woman than as a younger one. My features are of the kind that endure, my hair has taken a not unpleasing shade of gray, and yet I turn from this reflection of a not ill-looking elderly woman, not because I mind being older, but because now and then it comes quickly to me to what age and to what goal I am so fast approaching. The spacious and sunny hours, occupations to my liking, and my dear children at hand to smooth the road for me, make life a pleasant place, so I turn my face away.
Not long ago there was visiting some neighbors of ours an elderly relative.
Her hair had not turned gray, but had kept a rather nondescript fluffy blond.
She had also retained what is called " the figure of a girl." I expect that in reality she was a fairly angular woman under her successful millinery; anyway she lacked the comfortable roundness that comes to most women who do not grow thin with advancing years, and for my part I had rather resemble a comfortable armchair than a little spidery bent-wood affair that looks as if it would blow away in a good strong wind. This woman, however, at a little distance, gave a sad little illusion of youth. As one saw her going down the street, for instance, one would have thought her quite a young person; across the room one would have given her forty-five, — forty-five dressed with a certain discreet youthfulness; and close at hand she looked very young for her age, very well preserved. This caused a good deal of comment.
" Well," said Margaret, " I'm glad you don't look like that, mother ! I think it is absurd for a woman of her age with middle-aged daughters to dress the way she does."
" Yes," returned one of our neighbors, " and do you notice her complexion? It seems to me," went on this young mentor of the aged, "that women don't know how to grow old gracefully the way they used to."
I said nothing, but my heart went out to this poor lady who was struggling so valiantly to shove back the hands of the clock; and I would like to make here a little plea to you younger people.
I know it is considered becoming to do what is called " grow old gracefully "that is, to face the world with all your wrinkles, to have the courage of your gray hairs, to lay aside your favorite gay colors and put on the dark colors in which people are supposed most suitably to mourn their dead youth; I know that younger people consider that we should be willing and eager even to betray every one of the years we have lived by our actions, by our looks, by our dress, and I do not pretend that this is not the bravest part to take, but here and there we find a coward in this world, and let us not be untender. Who knows what pressure has been brought to bear? It is silly, if you like, it is lacking in intelligence to try to hide one's age, but what a tragedy it confesses, what a futile and heart-rending struggle !
When I see women, as I have in the past, with foolish false fronts which didn't match their grizzling back hair, when I see youthful garments on old shoulders, I am sometimes filled with impatience and think, " Oh, you silly woman!" But I am still more filled with pity and say, " Poor woman ! Sad woman! Woman on whose shoulders so heavy a burden has been laid that you cannot face the inevitable ! "
I remember there lived in our town a maiden lady who kept her pretty looks so that she was like a sort of thistledown wraith of a girl. She lived alone and on so small a stipend that no one knew how she kept soul and body together. She was one of those poor souls who had lost her lover on the eve of her marriage and forevermore mourned him.
When she died, strangers swarmed over her house. At the time of the auction there had been no one of near enough kin to take the trouble to go over the house and put away the little trivial effects of the dead which no casual eye should ever see, and so there was uncovered before the gaping town row after row of empty bottles of complexion bleach slightly tinged with pink; people laughed and gossiped and thought it was very funny. There were others who frowned, asserting that at her time of life this woman should have known better than to spend her few pennies
on such folly; which was all, no doubt, very wise and true. This poor lady kept herself young only for herself. I suppose she didn't want the ghost of her dead lover to find a wrinkled old woman in place of the fresh - faced girl he had loved.
You may be sure that almost all older women who refuse to grow old gracefully reveal some tragedy in these mistaken efforts which should cause younger people to be sorry. After all, it is growing old gracefully in the spirit that counts, and it seems to me more important as we advance in years that our spirits should be sweetened, and that we should be kinder in our outlook upon life, and that we should fight against the egotism of age, than that we should dress in a way to proclaim our years.
Perhaps my turning away from my looking - glass, and all my self - consciousness and rebellion at the advancing traces of years, are a greater sin against the true standard of growing old gracefully than those who can trick themselves into a belief that they look young and try naively to trick others.
When a young woman criticizes an older for these foibles, I do not think she is preparing herself in her heart to grow old gracefully, and yet all of us are preparing every day for what sort of old age we are going to pass. The question of growing old as one should is a very deep one. It is n't a matter of clothes; it is as deep as life itself.
When I was young I can remember certain older people whose passing through a room seemed to me like a benediction. There was one elderly relative of mine — a woman who had never married with whom I used to pass afternoons. I don't think that I ever told her one of my troubles, great or small, but her very presence was so sweet, so gallant, so up-standing, and, withal, humorous, — so like a perpetual sermon to me, that I used to come from her feeling as though I had drunk of the spring of life; and yet her life had been difficult. Report said she had turned her face from the marriage she desired to take care of an exacting mother; she had brought up a brood of younger brothers and sisters, and always she had fought against poverty, and, unflinching, faced loneliness as the years advanced. She, if you like, had grown old gracefully, and yet, had she insisted on dressing in scarlet and painting her cheeks to match her gown, she would have grown old no less gracefully, it seems to me.
I remember another time, when I was hurrying home to the bedside of a sick child, that my companion in the car was an old man, and as we traveled together many hours, he told me the story of his life. To hear him speak of his wife, who had died some years before, was a thing that made one believe in mankind; to hear him speak in a simple, refreshing way of his faith would make one, doubting, believe in God. He himself was fighting for the life of a son who had been stricken with consumption, but was winning in the fight. His brave talk and his loving attitude of mind poured I know not what strength into my own faltering spirit, and enabled me to go to the nursing that was before me with an unflinching heart, though he knew nothing of my trouble.