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
Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women
Conventions Of Age
( Originally Published 1911 )
I CAN remember when I was a young woman how many of my mother's foibles fretted me, for I was like the rest.
I hadn't reasoned it out any more than most people do, but I held some immutable opinions about the conduct of age.
If I had my life to live over again, I should know better. I should cherish each of my mother's restless days, because I would know that her very restlessness and occasional discontent were the signs that life was keen within her, and that I myself had made her restless, because as a too zealous daughter I had in a measure, together with Time, taken from her some of the occupations that still by right belonged to her. I would let her have her way on all the minor points of dress and occupation.
I would not criticize the old workmen she chose and, above all, I would not try to impose on her any of my ideas of how an older woman should act.
For young people have hard-and-fast notions concerning older women's actions. When we depart from them, they make a personal grievance of it.
I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that there is no class of society so bound down by convention, and for no good reason, as are the oldest of all. A young and pretty woman must, of course, walk carefully along life's paths; she must take care to avoid even the appearance of evil. As she grows older, a suitable amount of convention in the mother of a family is a wholesome balance. But when a woman grows old, when she has climbed the ladder of years beyond the point where scandal could touch her, one would think that she might lay aside minor conventions of life; that at last she might do what she pleased, only limited by her own failing strength.
There are so few things, after all, left for us to do, so few that we have the heart left for, or the wish for now, that it would seem only right that we should follow our caprice in the small matters that still belong to us.
I recently heard a young woman my daughter's age complain somewhat after this fashion :—
" There are no more real grandmothers left in the world ! I don't know what the nowadays children are going to do. How much my dear old grandmother meant to me ! As far back as I can remember, her sweet white head, crowned with its snow-white cap, was always at her favorite window in summer, and in winter she sat beside the open fire with her feet upon a little hassock, like Whistler's mother. We children always knew where to find grandma. She was always so glad when we came. I can see yet the welcome in her eyes when we would run in on her. She would invent little games for us and tell us little stories as long as we would stay.
The lovely part of it was that she was always there. No matter if mother was out, or any one else, we could be sure of finding grandma ready to hear all about our little joys and troubles."
During this little recital, which, of course, was not a long peroration, but was given to us in the broken phrases of a conversation, I had a very vivid picture of this old lady, probably only a few years older than myself, who was " always there." What infirmity, I wondered, made her be there all the time?
When an older woman is " always there," depend upon it, there is some deeper reason and a sadder one than that she was waiting for her little grandchildren. No one knows this better than
I myself, for I, too, am " there," for one reason or another, more than I wish to be. Oh, I knew very well how eagerly she waited for those little grandchildren of hers, and how the lonely, gray, spacious hours brightened up in the flicker of their laughter. I knew, too, as they got over being little babies, how brief their sweet, tumultuous visits must have been. It is only very little children who spend much time in their grandmother's skirts. For a long time past I have been conscious that Betty only stays with me when she is kept in or has nothing better to do. Once a child has grown into liberty, you may be sure it will not spend overlong spaces of time with its grandparents, unless they, too, are active enough to be in the field, like an old English friend of mine who, at seventy-three, with undimmed enthusiasm, is teaching his grandchildren to ride and shoot and whip a trout stream. You may depend upon it that they idolize him, not because he is "there" all the time, but becausehe can do all these things better than they can, and is, besides, a living spring of fishing-tackle, rods, and other sporting goods.
But this was not all my friend had to say. After her picture of her own poor grandmother, she took up the first part of her argument.
" Nowadays," said she, " I look around in vain for sweet old ladies like my grandmother. There do not seem to be any old ladies any more; they seem to have gone out of fashion along with the dear, pretty caps they used to wear, and that they looked so sweet in. Now a days older women dress just like their daughters. Instead of ever being where their grandchildren can find them, they are off, if you please, at clubs or playing cards or even taking a jaunt in a motor-car ! "
She said this, mind you, under my very nose, and I didn't know whether I was vaguely pleased with the subtle flattery that she ignored the fact that I was a very case in point of her recalcitrant new - fangled grandmother, or whether to feel a little vexed with her for being so obtuse. For a moment I entertained the idea of allowing myself the luxury of playing at being her age, and then I felt I had better come out flat-footed, and say, " Well, Eleanor, I suppose you think I had better wear a cap and give up the whist club " ; but I knew she would answer, with a look of naïve wonder in her soft brown eyes,
" Why, auntie, you 're not old ! " So all I said was, " I suppose, my dear, the conditions of life are easier and the doctors are better, so nowadays many older people manage to keep their infirmities at bay a little longer."
I think that back of Eleanor's ideal of a grandmother there lay a good deal of unconscious selfishness. An elderly mother who sits contentedly by the fire all day is a far smaller responsibility than a mother that one can never put a hand on, and who, at a moment's notice, goes off on perilous expeditions.
Everything Eleanor had said about her grandmother had ruffled me more than it should, so after I got over my impatience, I asked myself why I had been so annoyed, after all. I found the answer soon enough. In lamenting that there were no grandmothers left like hers, Eleanor had clearly defined the position that the average person takes toward older women.
Each generation permits a different type of young girl, but the older woman must not change; her outline is fixed and immovable. She must be like Eleanor's grandmother, " always there," waiting, waiting, with a smiling face through the long, quiet, empty hours, for her grandchildren to come home.
I read a clever poem the other day, the refrain of which was, " I'm looking forward to old age."
" Then," said the young writer, " at last I can be perfectly comfortable. I can lay aside the minor conventions along with my tight shoes and tight corsets. I can at last do as I please.
I'm looking forward to old age."
When this young woman arrives at the Land of Old Age, though, indeed, she may, it is true, lay aside shoes that are too small and clothes that are too tight, she will, on the other hand, find a whole new set of rules and regulations to live by, and regulations that are not self-imposed, but imposed by custom and enforced by the younger generation. There she will find waiting for her an ideal of what she should be herself, — the ideal which was attained by Eleanor's poor grandmother; a graceful, shadowy person, sitting, her feet on a hassock, like Whistler's mother; some one who has none of the impulses of youth, which, in a grandmother, the younger generation finds so disconcerting. Even the costume of this ideal is decided upon by our exacting young people. She shall wear, our ideal grandmother, soft black or gray draperies, a piece of beautiful old lace at her neck, or a white fichu of rare old-fashioned workmanship crossed on her bosom.
Caps are no longer the fashion, — but our custom-ridden children regret them.
For myself, should I live to be ninety, I hope I shall fall short of this ideal in all respects. I do not wish to become a mere ornamental nonentity about whom people shall say, " What a sweet old lady ! " I hope that I shall keep my family alert over my misdeeds until my end, for then I shall be sure that I shall not have slipped altogether among the shadows before I go.
Think what the ideal of old age that seems so beautiful implies; it means that the body has so lost its resiliency that the wholesome desire for action has passed, that one's own life and actions have ceased to have an interest for one, and that instead of having to snatch time to play with one's grandchildren, one has nothing to do but wait, — nothing in the world to do but " be there." It is too great a price to pay for conforming to an ideal whose greatest value, after all, lies in a certain picturesqueness. I do not think, either, that any middle-aged woman would consciously choose to have her own mother one of these ideal grandmothers, although there are ways in which each one of our daughters would be glad to have us conform to an ideal of elderly conduct a little more closely.
There are daughters who, like my own, limit the field of their mothers' activities, believing firmly that they are doing so in the interest of their mothers' health. There are a great many other middle-aged women whom I see about me who constantly curtail their mothers' personal liberties, because these old ladies wish to do things which, if you please, shock the fastidious daughters in what they think is fitting for the aged. These young women know so definitely what an older woman may and may not say and do and wear !
" Mediaeval " is a word I hear often nowadays on the lips of the young people. So-and-So has " mediaeval" ideas on the subject of divorce or what-not.
All older people are supposed to hold " mediaeval " ideas, and when it turns out that one of us happens to have read and digested a new economic theory or some new book of vital interest, it is always an irritating moment to me when a younger woman remarks, in a patronizing way, " Why, how Mrs. So-and-So keeps up with the times ! " But there is no reactionary older woman I know who holds as " mediaeval " opinions as those which the ordinary younger women have about the older generation. The broadest-minded women I know are as tradition - bound as possible when it comes to what we older women may do.
Many an older woman, for instance, finds a style which especially suits her, a style which does not conform to the costume in which the poetical imagination pictures the dwellers in the Land of Old Age. I had an old friend who happened to fancy, as accessories to a costume in which to pass her declining years, a bustle and a certain false front. Bustles went their way, and a few people still clung to them; then even the faithful gave them up, but my friend still wore hers valiantly.
It suited her so to do, — and why not?
Hadn't she followed the fashions long enough?
Hadn't she earned her right to wear what she chose? That was the way she looked at it. She was a valiant, high - spirited old lady, full of good-tempered anecdotes about every one you ever heard of, fond of all the bright things of life, — young people, dance music, company, and bright colors; the last she wore unflinchingly.
So gayly indeed and gladly did she walk up the road of time that she died, advanced in years, without old age having seemingly laid a finger on her blithe spirit. If the young people had a quiet smile at the expense of her bustle, it was a tender one. The false front which she wore with great artlessness was an ornament to her personality. None who loved her, and they were many, would have had her altered in any respect.
There was but one exception to this her widowed daughter, who with her little girls made her home with her mother. The bustle and false front caused her the keenest pain. I do not believe my friend ever got herself ready for a "party " without the daughter trying to decrease the size of that bustle.
She never gave up trying. I remember waiting for my friend and hearing in the hall above me the sounds of argument, and at last from the stairs my friend's voice : " For the hundredth time, Emily, I will not go out looking like a pancake ! I tell you I shouldn't feel decent ! "
She came into the room, her flowing silk rustling and creaking, her bonnet brave with colors, and I couldn't, as I looked at her, understand how any daughter, however hide-bound, could have wished to alter a hem's breadth of her high-hearted, courageous costume.
My friend loved every one to be happy and contented around her, and I often think how many small annoyances she might have been spared had her daughter not had such firm convictions concerning the conventional dress of age.
I am glad to relate, however, that my old friend wore her bustle, her daughter notwithstanding, almost to her dying day. I hope they buried it with her, she made a brave fight for it. She is to me an inspiring memory. When my children try—oh, very gently to take from me some little habit or some peculiarity of dress, I think of her and smilingly hold on to my own, for I will not encourage them in their stupid and " mediaeval " idea of the fitness of things. I will not, at my time of life, have my individuality pruned and clipped. In the matter of dress there are endless limitations for us older people. All the lighter colors are supposed to be unsuitable for us; and so for some of us they are from an aesthetic point of view, though I have known many a middle-aged woman and many a pink-cheeked, snowy-haired grandmother to whom pale pink would have been every bit as becoming as the pale lavender which custom permits.
I know one sweet old lady who has always loved pink as a favorite color.
She confessed to me that it was a cross to her when she grew too old to wear it.
"Well, why don't you anyway?" I asked her, knowing very well why. I would not have the courage to blossom out in so much as one daring pink rib bon, but, " Why don't you ?" said I.
" I do," she replied mysteriously, " I do."
I looked at her simple black gown.
"Oh, not on the outside ! But," said she, lowering her voice, " I always run in plenty of pink ribbon in my things, and I have pink ribbon garters ! " she concluded triumphantly.
And only an older woman who has been cut off by an arbitrary custom from many of the pretty gay things of life will understand what a comfort those pink ribbon garters were to her.
One of my friends has already reached the age of eighty without her interest in life being in any degree abated, and, what is far rarer, without her desire to be up and doing being in any degree diminished by age's infirmities. She has, perhaps, a more transparent look than she had some fifteen years ago, but she is still as erect as a girl. Except for looks, for her beautiful white hair and her old-lady dresses, — she happens to be one who takes kindly to the wearing of lace fichus, — she is everything that conventionally an older woman should not be. You do not find her " there," not she; and not only is she not there, but she doesn't tell her daughters where she is going. They are between Margaret's age and mine, and discuss " Mother's " wild, headstrong ways in my presence. She gives them a great deal of trouble and anxiety, and it isn't all by any means simple worry for fear she may do herself some harm or over-tax her strength. She keeps a life of her own. Since her daughters have in the natural order of things assumed the helm, she has interested herself in various intellectual pursuits; she attends lectures not only here, but in the surrounding towns. She is valiant in the field of missionary labor. As her daughter sighs : " It seems to me we never send out cards for anything that mother doesn't take that time for getting up barrels for the Indians ! " You see, her activities interfere with the family, and they will neither let her go her way unmolested nor will they accept her activity without protest. She is, and partly because of these arbitrary conventionalities, a great care to her daughters.
One of them came in the other day sighing :
" I've got to go with mother to Elenwood to hear that man lecture on 'Labor Conditions' today. I don't see where I'm to find time."
" Your mother couldn't go alone, I suppose ? " I asked tentatively.
" She could," replied this poor daughter, "for she 's to meet friends at the other end, but it looks so bad for a woman of mother's age to go around the country alone. As if her children cared nothing for her ! "
It would be a great relief to them all if this active old lady would stay at home more. I am glad she doesn't. My high-spirited friend is one of those who are helping to kill out the conventions which are troublesome weeds in the Land of Old Age.