Saturday, January 23, 2010

`Don't Prettify Decrepitude'

Occasionally I work with an 80-year-old semi-retired teacher whose strength and lucidity belie her age. She possesses the quiet humility, not to be confused with self-abasement, of someone who long ago gave up fretting and who speaks her mind when necessary, not when she wants to. She has five great-grandchildren and plans to tour the eastern Mediterranean with her husband (84) in March. More than most people I know she is given to speaking aphoristically -- a privilege of age and intelligence. During a momentary lull in the classroom Friday afternoon, she warned me about the assumptions people make when you are officially recognized as elderly:

“Hell, I know people half my age and younger who are older than me. Some of them were old children.”

And this:

“If I want help I’ll ask for it. This isn’t pride and I’m not shy about asking. I think everybody has a job to do, and that’s where they ought to keep themselves focused. Pity is a dirty emotion.”

And, finally, this, a phrase:

“…the terrible egotism of youth.”

I hope I don’t make her sound like one of those “spunky” old people who say self-consciously wise and sassy things to the amusement of their juniors. She probably detests that sort. Eric Ormsby is a poet wise in matters of aging. In “Adages of a Grandmother” (all quotes from Time's Covenant: Selected Poems, 2007) he writes:

“Grandmother said to me, `Keep thyself
Unspotted from the world.’ She spoke in quotes.
I got the feeling that she had rehearsed
All her admonitions as a child…”

In “My Mother in Old Age”:

“`Oh, don’t prettify decrepitude,’
She demands. `Don’t lie!
Don’t make old age seem so ornamental!’”

And in “A Freshly Whitewashed Room”:

“Sometimes I think the sufferings of the old
Make heroes look ridiculous.
Sometimes I think to bring down Ilion
Was easier than to guide the bitter spoon
At medicine time to the reluctant lip.”

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