Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
September 26, 2017
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
In 1972, when my daughter was four years old she noticed a photograph of Caroline and me, as we were leaving the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York where we had been married eight years earlier. “That’s a picture of Mommy and a man,” she explained. Caroline looks eternally young, but my hair was dark then and no glasses were perched on my nose. By thirty, my hair had turned white. It was genetic, not marriage related. I got old early, I would tell people, and just stayed that way.
I will turn seventy-seven in January. “Growing old,” said Billy Graham, “has been the greatest surprise of my life.” That has been true for me, given the way age sneaks up. At any rate, I don’t feel my age. It is physical and mental, not a chronological thing. By standards of friends at Essex Meadows, the late seventies are young. (Caroline and I are sometimes referred to as “the kids, which makes us feel like yearlings.) On the other hand, our ten grandchildren see us as part of a past they know only through history books and old photos. In fact, we are not singular. We are among about 20 million Americans who have reached our age.
The Population Reference Bureau is a non-profit organization founded in 1929, specializing in collecting and disseminating statistics for research and academic purposes. In a report dated January 2016, they noted that the number of “senior citizens” (those over sixty-five) will double over the next forty years, and, as a percent of the population, they will rise from 15% to 24%. Older people are working longer and living longer. I stopped working at seventy-four, though writing essays has me at my computer several hours a day. The average life expectancy in the U.S. has risen from sixty-eight in 1950 to seventy-nine today. Part of that stems from improvements in geriatric medicine, but the elimination (or reduction) in childhood diseases like Polio and Small Pox has played a role. Also, the gender gap has narrowed. Odds makers still favor women, but the gap has narrowed from seven years to five over the past quarter century.
But the news is not all good. Obesity rates for the elderly have increased. Poverty remains a problem, though not as acute as it once was. More older adults are divorced, and Alzheimer, which has already increased in frequency, is expected to triple in the next thirty years. Our economy will be pressured, as Social Security and Medicare rise from the current 8% of GDP to 10.5% in 2027, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Age does not arrive unattended. It is accompanied by fears – most of which are perfectly natural. We face unknowns. What infirmities will we suffer? How will we die? What happens when we do? In our pseudo-sophisticated Twenty-first Century lives, many of us have given up going to church regularly. So, we are more likely to miss the comfort religion provides, as we consider a world without our presence.
But the magnetism of the future still lures. We may sleep more, but we are not dead. For those of us with children and grandchildren, we know we will live on, in their genes and their memories. We can argue as to whether their lives will be better or worse than ours. Certainly, they will miss some things we had, but they will enjoy other things we did not have. While politicians and others speak of inequalities and injustices in our culture, there is far less inequality today in terms of living standards, race, creed and gender than in the 1940s and ‘50s. Despite Cassandras who write and speak of the earth’s imminent demise due to man-caused climate change, life on Earth is improving, thanks to the spread of democracy and capitalism. The U.S. Agency for International Development reported last year that global extreme poverty has been cut in half over the past thirty years. There is obviously much to be done, but the trend is right. But, it is a mistake to assume progress will persist unassisted, for nations in the past have miscalculated, as happened in 1914 Europe. Vigilance is wanted. Nothing should be taken for granted.
Growing older involves accepting what we cannot change. It’s in the order of things to die. The last leaf does fall from the tree. The Serenity Prayer takes on added meaning: “God, grant us the serenity to accept those things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Age is a time for reflection, to look back at our lives – not to worry about what we might have done, but to recall what we did: To think of those we love. To pass on stories and memories to our children and grandchildren, stories that have lessons or morals: mistakes we made they can avoid; pleasures we derived that they might enjoy; places we visited that they should see; and people we knew they should learn about. “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old,” wrote Gabriel Garcia Márquez, “they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
Change is a given. Our memories are not what they were. Senility lingers off-stage. We can recall the smallest detail from our youth, but have trouble with what we did, said or read yesterday. We empathize with the “Oldest Member,” when P.G. Wodehouse has him proffer advice in The Clicking of Cuthbert: “One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” Our bodies adjust. Bones become brittle. We make strange bodily sounds. Tendons stretch. Muscles weaken. Bruises take longer to heal. Our chest rolls down to our stomach. Where we were once told to stand tall, we are now warned not to fall. Ladders are a “no-no,” and stairs viewed with warily. The membranes in our spinal column wither and shrink, and so we lose height. As T.S. Eliot wrote:
“I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
We remember our youth and contraposition it with growing old. In his poem “Youth and Age,” E.B. White wrote of the mysteries of youth, contrasted with the crosscurrents that age encounters:
“This is what youth must figure out:
Girls, love and living.
The having, the not having,
The spending and giving,
And the melancholy time of not knowing.
This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going,
The loving and the leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.”
“In the spring,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem “Locksley Hall”, “a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love.” In the autumn, an old(er) man’s fancy turns to thoughts of mortality. It is not depression, but rather that past remembrances compete with future aspirations. Having an interest in history and having worked in an industry where numbers are important, I find it fascinating to subtract my age from my birth year. I don’t feel old, but January 1865 seems a long time ago. The Civil War was in its last stages, and Lincoln still served as President. By the end of the year, the War would be over, Lincoln would be dead, and slavery would be abolished. Such exercises make me realize, not how old I am, but how young is our Country and how connected we are to its past.
My grandchildren love to ask what it was like in olden times. I like to tell them that George Washington was revered, but was stiff and formal in person; that Abe Lincoln had a humorous sparkle in his eye, despite bearing the weight of the Civil War; and that Theodore Roosevelt was the busiest man I ever did know, always bustling about, speaking softly, but carrying a big stick. But, seriously, their questions are good and I try to respond honestly – to give them a sense of a time gone by, which is now part of the foundation on which their lives are built. None of us are immune from the past, and none of us are indifferent as to the future. It is important we pass on the knowledge that time has allowed us to gain. But, after a while, with their questioning and my eyelids heavy, I feel like Lewis Carroll’s “Old Father William:”
“’I have answered three questions, and that is enough.’
Said his father; ‘don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!’”
Aging is part of the process of living. “After all,” said Charlotte, “what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” “Life’s but a walking shadow,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “a poor player that struts and frets upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” Getting old does not bother me. It is inevitable and preferable to the alternative. I am thankful for the life I have had, for the place and the time in which I was born and the health that has been mine. I was fortunate to be raised in a solid, close-knit family, whose history reflects that of our Country’s. I was too young for Korea and was in the Army before Vietnam. After a life on Wall Street, the writing of essays has brought new meaning to my life. The discipline of writing, along with keeping up with the news, and making time to read novels, histories and biographies have been stimulating and enlightening. I hope, (and believe) these activities have broadened my mind. We should never stop learning. Temperance and wisdom are natural trappings of age – not because we are smarter, but because we have time to deliberate. What we lose in spontaneity, we gain in reflection.
I cannot imagine a life without Caroline. We have been married for almost fifty-four years. I cannot imagine life without my children and grandchildren. They mean the world to me. I look at them and see the future. They, their progeny and for generations to come, will carry our genes into the future. And I cannot imagine what it would be like not to have friends – some going back decades, others recent.
Going back to that moment forty-five years ago, when my wife and daughter stood before the black and white photo in the silver frame, I was amused, not insulted when my daughter did not recognize the young, dark-haired man with her mother. She needn’t be concerned my feelings were hurt. Euripides wrote 2,500 years ago. “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.” Getting older ain’t all bad.