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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

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

Young People And Old

( Originally Published 1911 )

THE mothers of the little children do well to let them stay with their grandparents while they will, for soon enough they grow up.

There are always the ghosts of little children near older people, which teach them to understand the hearts of those other little children whom they meet in the real world. The grown-up children are so much harder to understand.

They fill me with such a sense of ignorance, for they know so many things which I once knew and have forgotten.

Indeed, almost the whole tissue of their lives is made up of these things.

I do not know why I remember my girlhood so little, but I find that I am not alone in this. When I pin down my contemporaries, they have the same lapses of memory that I have myself.

Perhaps it is because the serious things of life overshadow this time; marriage and children follow so closely on the heels of girlhood ; one discovers so soon that so many of the things one has learned and almost all one has thought and dreamed have no place in the real world. So little, indeed, do I remember of this part of my life that I sometimes feel as if I had been married ever since I was a child in short dresses.

I find as I turn over the pages of the past — and so many of them are obliterated or contain only stray sentences of unrelated stories — that I can remember more about the way I felt when I was a very little girl than when I was a big one. Of the things that happened when I was at the young-lady age I remember so little: a dress, a party, a few faces, a confession of some fault that I was afraid to make to my mother.

And when I finally came to her, after losing sleep, she took what I had to tell her — and I don't remember what it was — in a very disappointing, common-place way.

" Well, well," said she, " I suppose every girl is bound to make a fool of herself first or last, and I oughtn't to expect you'll escape, my dear. Let's not discuss it further! "

I think my mother prolonged her life by refusing to discuss unpleasant things further.

Lately I have often run through these especial pages of my life, because it is only recently that I have realized what a gulf separates us older people from the younger ones. Perhaps all older women do not feel as I do, or perhaps they do not think about it at all, and imagine contentedly, as I did before Gertrude came on a visit, that because they love young people they know all about them.

Gertrude is my great-niece; she is spending her Easter vacation with us, and she is a sophomore in college. She is pretty, as are her charming clothes; she looks one straight in the eyes when she talks, — hers are clear gray and have as much _expression as those of a robin; and though it is plain to be seen that none of the things which make a woman of one have touched her, she has a calm assurance of bearing that comes from perfect health. Health, indeed, shines out of her; her vitality seems a force, and an almost overpowering one. In her presence I feel myself small and shrunken of body. She is the kind of capable modern girl who knows how to make a parent mind, and so compelling a quality is the serene assurance of youth that I felt, as I sat there beside Eliza Storrs, that, had Gertrude been my daughter, I would never have dared to face her with that last year's plumage on my hat.

My own children and I have grown up — I had almost said grown old together, and Margaret, while she may scold me about my hat, will understand ; but to Gertrude it will seem mere wanton dowdiness, a sign of age something akin to the losing of one's faculties. This is because we have no means of communication, as I found out, to my surprise, when Gertrude first arrived.

" How is your dear mother ? " I asked.

Gertrude told me, and then said that I saw a little shadow of amusement cross her face and though she answered me with polite exactness, I realized with chagrin that I had made a mistake. I felt intellectually all elbows and feet, they do not call them studies " any more young women of Gertrude's age speak about their" work " instead.

I find, as we grow old, we often repeat the experiences of our youth. As the world runs from me and I become less sure of my ground, I now and then have moments of extreme embarrassment in the presence of younger people —when my memory slips a cog, for instance, or when I find I have repeated the same thing twice — that is like nothing I have felt since when, as a little girl, I did things that made me long for the kindly earth to open and swallow me. The only difference is that now I can laugh off my mortification, and then I used to wash it away with tears.

After I had asked Gertrude about her studies and she had answered, we seemed to have finished definitely and for all time everything we had to say to each other. We looked at each other kindly, even with a certain affection, but, nevertheless, conversation languished and died.

" Gertrude is a lovely girl, isn't she ? " Margaret said to me later.

" And so responsive I " — I had heard the two chattering away like a couple of magpies.

" Gertrude and I don't speak the same language," I answered, " though we 're both tolerably proficient in the English tongue when we're not together."

" Not many young girls come to the house; perhaps that 's the reason," suggested Margaret.

"I'm sure," I replied, " I see a great deal of young people." For, you see, I thought it was all Gertrude's fault.

" A great deal of young people about thirty," said Margaret.

As I thought of my young friends, I found that Margaret was right; that while I had been asleep one night all my little girls that I was so proud of keeping in touch with had grown to be women " about thirty."

Since Gertrude came there have been plenty of real young people around the house. Margaret made a tea for her right away, and I had a chance to see the young people of my town, many of whom I am ready to take my oath were babies no later than day before yesterday, and I confess I still thought of them as babies. It is a long time since I have recognized all the girls who bow to me on the street, for I am absent-minded, anyway. Now I am beginning to place a few of them. The pretty girl with curls is Laura Dickinson. I remember her at ten as an active pair of dividers careering over the earth's surface ; I never saw a child with such thin, lively legs. The young man who pays Gertrude especial court is John Baker. I remember very well going to see him four days after he was born. He was Sarah Baker's first grandchild, and she was inordinately proud of him. After that, the last definite recollection I have of him is the time, when, at the age of five, he broke my china jar and yelled loudly with despair over what he had done. As they were named to me there was not one I did not recall as a baby, and very few that I hadn't taken for their older brothers and sisters.

How had they accomplished the process of growing up so fast, and where had they been when they were about it? That was the first thing that struck me. The next was how venerable I seemed to them. I am, as I have had occasion to mention before, what the people around here term a " mighty spry old lady," and noways infirm; but these children cannot remember a day when I was not old; they do not go back to the time when my hair was not already gray, and they give me the respect due to age. No one need tell me that among well-born young people the respect for the old is dead. These dear children fairly bristle with respect for me. If I come into the room where they are, they are full of charming little attentions in the way of easy - chairs, cushions, and footstools. Personally, I dislike soft-padded chairs. I was taught to sit upright as a girl, and I still sit so, my backbone being as strong as ever. I am never more uncomfortable than when I have several cushions tucked about me, but often of late years I have had to sit arranged in this modern way or seem ungracious. If women of Margaret's age frequently force sofa pillows on me, those of Gertrude's can hardly wait to say " good-afternoon " before they pop one behind me; old ladies and sofa cushions are in their minds inseparable.

The other day my old friend Eliza Storrs and I were coming home together in the electrics from Standish.

We had been on quite a jaunt together; in fact, we had been to help each other buy our new bonnets. We had had a good time doing it, and came home with that feeling of guilty triumph that sweetened the disapproval which we knew was before us.

" I suppose," Eliza admitted to me, " that I shall never hear the last of it.

But," she added, with brisk decision that was a sort of dress rehearsal of the tone in which she would later say the same thing to her daughter, — " but there 's no use talking about it now.

I've been to Standish and seen about my hat, and I'm going again ! "

Her tone had a triumphant trumpeting quality to it. The truth of the matter was, Eliza had merely had three new flowers and some foliage put in her last year's bonnet; it had, further-more, passed through the ambiguous process known as " freshening up." For my part, while I had indeed bought a new hat, the trimming on my old one being as good as new, I had used it over again. It had been more expensive in the beginning than I had intended to get; my daughter Margaret was with me when I got it, and overpersuaded me. So I, by using the last year's trimming and Eliza Storrs her last year's hat, had the feeling deep down in our hearts that we had outwitted our wise children, who are always trying to make us put more expensive things on our backs and heads than there is any need for. I think that older women often have the same guilty joy, in spending less on themselves than they should, that young women do in being extravagant.

So, borne up by the feeling that is as exhilarating for a woman of seventy as for one of twenty-seven, — that of having done something she should not, Eliza and I climbed into the electric car as light of foot as our years permitted. The car was full; we had barely entered it when two young girls, after giving each other a brief glance, sprang to their feet and hustled us into their seats. This kind act was accomplished promptly and thoroughly, and I would not for one moment be so ungracious as to give the impression that I was not grateful, nor would I for a moment undervalue the small kindnesses that the young so often shower on the old.

It was not their fault that the laughter died out of our eyes, and that our spirits flagged, and that even the triumph of having achieved a last year's hat seemed less amusing than it had a moment ago, while our young friends chattered as blithely, swaying to and fro as they held on to the straps, as they had before they gave us our seats.

You see, Eliza and I had taken a little vacation away from the Land of Old Age, — for there is nothing so rejuvenating as playing truant, and our day's excursion had been that, — and these young girls who had risen so promptly to give us their seats had led us back to our place in the world. We had forgotten for a moment that we belonged to the white-haired company who have won their right to a perpetual seat in the cars, and however welcome a seat may be, it is not so pleasant always to remember why it is our right.

I sat there watching them, and at last I asked Eliza: —

" What do you suppose they are talking about ? "

" Something foolish," Eliza replied, without hesitation. " The way girls go on nowadays I When I was young, children and young people were supposed to let their elders do the talking, and now it 's the young folks who do all the talking. I declare I sometimes feel as if I never had a chance to speak."

" Oh, come now, Eliza," said I. "You can't tell me that you've passed your life in a state of dumbness."

For Eliza has done her share of talking in this life.

I have known Eliza since we were schoolgirls together, and I tried to remember any concrete conversation that we had, as girls, in our endless gossiping together, and I found I couldn't.

Throughout the ride the young girls didn't stop their talk for one moment, and went down the street still chatting, while I tried to piece out from the shreds my memory gave me the fabric of their conversation.

" Eliza," I said, " does it ever make you feel old when girls hop out of their seats in cars the minute they clap eyes on you ? "

" Sometimes," Eliza admitted. " But," she added with decision, " it would make me feel a great deal older if I had had to stand on my two feet all the way home from Standish ! "

But while I might not wish to stand so long, I would gladly do without some of the small attentions by which I am fairly snowed under the moment I come among them. And this is not the only thing that happens when I appear. Conversation stops. They go on talking, to be sure, but I know they are talking with me for an audience, and that they expurgate their talk as they go along, just as older people's talk insensibly changes when a child of twelve joins them; just as I have weeded my talk a hundred times out of respect to the young, these dear children weed their talk from respect to the old. I am aware that they have a very vivid idea of what I think the conduct and conversation of young people ought to be, and as far as they can they instinctively conform to it — when I am around. It is taken for granted not only by these very young people, but by my older young friends my daughter's age, that by virtue of my years I am a conservative, and that I am deeply pained by certain phases of modern life. It is true that I should not like to see a woman smoke, and I wish that young girls were less slangy and noisy on the street; but I realize that each generation will have phases which seem unlovely to the older generation. So, while I may have opinions of my own at variance with those of the present day, I am not as hopelessly conservative as I seem in the presence of Gertrude and her friends.

I would be glad for the courage to tell them that I would rather be shocked than have this well-meant little farce played for me, but this I shall never dare, for I shall never know them well enough.

Perhaps it is the fault of us older women that the young people are so careful of our feelings. It must be that we have ourselves put so much distance between us and them. There are some of us who are too eager to tell how well-behaved we were when we were young; who have too much to say about the slovenly ways young people have of standing and sitting, and of their slangy ways of speaking, for us to meet them often on a comfortable footing. We older women have less criticism for the younger ones than older women had formerly, I think. I fancy that today our attitude is one easier to get on with. I don't believe I hear so much about girls being " giddy" as I used to when I was a young girl. So perhaps by the time Gertrude is an old woman the young people of her day won't be as afraid of saying something she will disapprove of as she is. Still, if she is one of those of us who don't take- everything for granted, she will find the way back to her girlhood a long one.

One does n't need to reach the Land of Old Age to smile over the things that caused one's despair when one was Gertrude's age; so it isn't to be wondered at that the dust of years obliterates all trace of the things we laughed over and cried over so long ago. And yet, while I know that the things that seem important to Gertrude seem unimportant to me, and will be unimportant to her five years from now, by virtue of her youth and health she can make me feel my years. She can set me wondering about the girl I once was, and I sometimes have a vague shame that I remember so little.

When I look at the young girls chattering in the street, I can only wonder about what they are talking; I knew once, now I have forgotten, and there is nothing that can make me remember.

If Gertrude lived here, we should get to be very good friends, and in spite of the mutual embarrassment we now cause each other, we should find a variety of things to say to each other, plenty of common ground on which to meet. Then, too, every day Gertrude would be growing older, she would be coming nearer to my point of view, and very soon we should come to understand each other, — and I should wake up to find that Gertrude was thirty and married, with a couple of babies.



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