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
Land Of Old Age
( Originally Published 1911 )
I HAVE talked, I suppose, rather fancifully about what I have chosen to call the Land of Old Age. It is because old age has seemed to me often not only a state of mind, or a physical condition, but a sort of different dimension, an actual country where we who are older must live. Often I see people approaching its boundaries, withdrawing from them, ignoring them, and next I know, I come across a new citizen. It is an invisible country, this Land of Old Age, and however young you are, you have been near it. I should count you unfortunate, indeed, if in the heat of the day you had not turned into its shady by-paths and lingered a moment with its quiet dwellers. It is a very peaceful land; there is not much work to be done; duty is rarely seen; so seldom, in fact, that sometimes those of us who have gone there to live for good feel that we have passed our time of usefulness, and have moments of hot resentment that we are not out in the world doing its work for it.
I feel that way myself often, and at such times make excursions outside; always the gentle hands of my children lead me back to my own country. And I sometimes feel that the reason we resist taking up our places there is this sense that we are not allowed to come out when we wish; that we are kept prisoners, not through our own weaknesses, but because there are certain conventions as to what is suitable or unsuitable for us old people.
But lately I have come to believe that the people who live in the Land of Old Age have their own appointed part to play, and that they help make up the sum of life.
After all, one need not dust and sweep and make pies and cake, to be of service to those we love. We would not wish to see our little children fetch and carry, and yet they are the dearest things in the world to us. So we older people, I believe, do more than we know for those we love when we sit in our own quiet country, as I found out a little while ago when I started to make an excursion into the world that works.
The mistake our younger people make is in regarding age as a fixed quantity. They act on the firm conviction that you are older every day you live, whereas age is as relative and variable as youth. You have only to warm the blood with any emotion, joy or relief from suspense or patriotism or pity, and the Land of Old Age vanishes; especially when there is a great calamity, the old people troop forth as eager to lend a hand, as strong to do a day's work, as ever they were; and I think it is not their fault that they so often turn their disappointed faces back to their familiar country without having taken part in what is going on.
When I heard, for instance, that a little town which squats dirty and hard-working on the outskirts of our village had been flooded in the spring freshet, and that there were twenty homeless families and a hundred and fifty people out of work, I was eager to help. Our whole town at once bestirred itself to do something, and I was glad that the Committee of Ways and Means met at our house, even if their ways of doing things seemed cumbrous to me. In my day when we gave benefits, we had no committees nor chairmen nor any other kind of machinery. One of the ladies went around with a notebook from house to house and asked what might be expected from each one, and her paper at the end of the day read : " Mrs. Smith, four dozen biscuits; Mrs. Jones, two layer-cakes," etc. Mrs. Jeremiah Curtis and Mrs. henry Lessey always did the scalloped oysters. (How I should enjoy a plate of scalloped oysters like that for my supper to-night !) And in this easy fashion we brought the thing about.
But I was eager, just the same, to join the ladies assembled in my parlors. And now an odd thing happened.
I suppose as one gets along in years one gets acquainted less readily with the new people for here in my own village where I have lived over thirty years, and in my own house, I found myself an outsider, surrounded by people whom I barely knew by sight. They began the meeting in the stiff, formal way I believe is known as parliamentary, but after a little while they limbered up and began discussing the affair more naturally, and I became interested. It came over me that something ought to be done right away for these poor creatures. So I said: -
" Ladies, this party five days off isn't going to clothe those blessed children, or their fathers or mothers, for that matter, who were driven out of their homes in the night with only what they had on them."
" Why, what a good idea! " exclaimed one of the ladies.
Perhaps I am supersensitive, but it seemed to me she was surprised that I at my age was capable of any ideas at all. I was about to say that I would have a canopy-top called from the stable and make a house-to-house canvass and have a big lot of things ready to send out by the evening trolley, when some one said: " I move that we appoint an Immediate Relief Committee. Can't some one ring up Susan Millsborough ? She's just the one to push that through."
In spite of myself I felt a little disappointed, for it is a great satisfaction to do things for people one's self and to do them in one's own way. Before I spoke I had seen myself on the rounds in the canopy-top, but now I suddenly felt very much out of it again. Not only were there faces and methods of work new to me, but my own little idea was picked away from me and gobbled into their cumbrous modern machinery.
There was a great deal of telephoning back and forth, and it was on my tongue a half-dozen times to offer to go; but I realized that the canopy-top and I, from whatever point of view one chose to look at us, were not a committee.
So I held my tongue until I got interested again. It was to be, I gathered, a huge entertainment, with all sorts of elaborations. All the simple affairs, such as we would in former times have given for two years rolled into one, wouldn't have made such a great affair. I who knew the slender resources of our little town so well, for we are not a rich village, found myself saying, " Won't the cost of getting it up take away the greater part of the profits? "
" It will be such an advertisement of the whole disaster," one of them assured me. " The other towns in the neighborhood, after our example, will feel they have to do something handsome."
There was not the least suggestion of patronage in her tone, and it was not due to her that I felt that my little remark had flown so wide of the point, but only that we talked across the gap time had made between us, she on the one side understanding the new methods, and I understanding only those I was used to. But all the same, that afternoon I stood on my own little territory and listened to how people did things in the world, with an ever-growing sense of isolation. Many of the things in this world that are hard to bear are no one's fault at all; they are so because the world is as it is.
All the next day my daughter Margaret bounced in and out unceasingly.
I tried to catch her a dozen times, for I wanted so very much to do my something, however little, for the distressed people, I have always been so used to doing my share in the world. At last I buttonholed Margaret.
" Listen, Margaret," I began.
"Excuse me for a moment, darling , there 's the telephone."
After a hurried conference, Margaret pinned on her hat. I followed her up.
" Before you go," I hastened to say, "let me ask you one thing."
"I 'ye only four minutes to catch the four-thirty-two trolley," she answered, and kissed me affectionately and dashed away.
One of the children ran after her, calling, "Mamma, may I " " Ask your uncle," called my daughter ; and her tone and gesture, as though she couln't stand one more thing, made me see under what pressure she was working.
At that moment my son Dudley walked up the path. I was planted on the steps where Margaret had left me when she whirled by.
" Anything I can do ? " he asked.
He was hurried, too, but of all my children he is the one who always has time for me.
" All I want to know is, do they want me to make cake for them," I said, with some spirit, for I was tired of being put off like an importunate child.
I make an excellent Hartford election-cake, and it is much better on the second or third day. My cake, indeed, is famous among my children and grandchildren, and I thought that in this way I could give my mite to the poor distressed people.
" That would be awfully nice, mother." Dudley's tone was apologetic.
" But they've already arranged for the cake, the baker gives the material at wholesale prices and does the work.
We wanted to pay for his time, but he says it will be a good advertisement.
Not that yours wouldn't be lots better. "
"I wanted to do something for them,"
I said forlornly.
"Why, did n't you do enough ? You know you've given more to the Immediate Relief Committee than you can afford. Isn't that enough ?" He took my arm. " Here," he said, " let me bring your chair into the shade. It 's so pleasant here this afternoon. I only wish I had the time " and Dudley was off too.
The last thing I wanted was to sit quietly in the shade, for I am what the people around here call " a mighty spry old lady." Just how old I will not tell, for it was a convention of my generation that a woman ought not to be a minute older than she could help. I am not old enough yet, at any rate, to have taken to boasting about the remarkable number of years I have stayed in the world. But I am old enough for my middle - aged sons and daughters to boast for me about how active I am for my years, and they boast about it as if the fair health I enjoy was some virtue of their own. Perhaps the good care they take of me is the reason for my being so well, but down in the bottom of my heart is the conviction that, had I followed all their advice, and led the packed - in - cotton - wool existence they have marked out for me, and sent for the doctor as often as they have wanted me to, I should be a bedridden old hypochondriac at this moment instead of being so ready and willing to do my share of work.
I sat down obediently, however, and picked up a magazine that was lying near by , and under pretense of reading I reviewed the last two days, quite dispassionately and soberly. I had come forth from the quiet Land of Old Age.
For a moment, in the stress of interest for those poor homeless people, I had forgotten that Margaret and her Committee of Ways and Means and I were not contemporaries. I had had suggestions to give, and I had been ready and strong to lend a hand where a hand was needed. I had forgotten, I say, that I am what people call " old," and now as I sat idle in the shade I remembered, and all at once I felt rather tired and strangely aloof from the things that were going on around me.
Through no one's fault except my own I had been thwarted and my own ideas taken from me. My fault was the irreparable one of belonging to the generation of those whose business it is to sit comfortable in the shade and wait who can say for what ? Just then my little grandchild Edith came up to me, and, without asking, took my magazine from my hand to look at the pictures, and it occurred to me that those older children who had taken my work from me without asking, either had done it as serenely unconscious as Edith was that I might want the work for myself.
And wasn't I a still older child myself ? Need I sit and sulk because the other children wouldn't let me play at their game ? They could play it better without me, they didn't need me, thought I, with the best philosophy in the world, and all the time I wanted to be playing with them, for in my play I would forget for a little while that I wasn't, after all, their age. I think that our dear children who look after us so well and see that we don't tire ourselves, and scold us gently when we sit in drafts, we " spry old ladies," forget, in the care of our ailing bodies, that it is better sometimes for the body to be tired, if the spirit isn't.
It is good for us to take what part we may in the affairs of life. The Land of Old Age is n't, as our children think, just a place for people to coddle themselves in. When I got so far in my thought, two more of my grandchildren ran up to me. They had been sent home from the town hall. It seems they had been in the way.
" Well," thought I, " here we are, too old and too young. We can play together if neither of us can play with the big children."
It came over me that perhaps it was just as well that we weren't all of us hurrying and working, and that at the day's end there should be some one not too tired. Just then there turned in at the gate a friend of mine. Though she is still in her twenties, she and I are the best of friends. Her pleasant face was lined with care, and she looked worried and tired.
" Dear child, what is the matter ?"
" It's that the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Woman's Village Improvement Society each want to decorate the hall, and they're quarreling, and nothing 's getting done," she said, and burst into tears.
I patted her head and wiped her tears off, and we made some iced tea, and I sent her off at last quite cheered up.
" I had to come down and get out of it for a minute. It was so nice of you to be sitting there so cool and rested," she added enviously.
Then one by one my tired, overworked children came home to me.
Without knowing what they did, they turned to me for comfort and for rest, and I took care of them and smoothed out their difficulties, and laughed with them and sympathized with them. They seemed very young to me, my big children, and I realized that they turned to me as they always had, and that I still had things to give them and things to do for them. What if my body must be quiet ? It seemed to me that night that I gave them their supper and put them to bed as I had done so many times when they were small, for there are blessed moments in all mothers lives when their grown children seem again little children. They had come to me in the quiet land I live in to be rested, as every one in the world turns to that land of peace, as all busy, hurried workers and tired mothers turn into these still, quiet roads.
There we sit, we older men and women, waiting for our children to come to us. They find us there ready to tell them how little their little troubles mean, for in our country the perspectives are long, and we look down long vistas on the road of years. In their great troubles we can say, "I know, I understand," for we have worked and have seen all the things our children must see. And if now and then the world of work calls to us, and if for a moment we like to pretend that the details of the hour are important, let us go out at will, and play at work, for in our hearts we know that we live in the Land of Old Age.