dear old (love, older): a film festival on aging


Me again. I’m blaming the garden that we haven’t exchanged proper letters since it woke from it’s nap in April and latched back on to Mommy. With each windy day’s dump of leaves, my big, beautiful baby is gradually releasing its grip. I confess I feel relief.

I’m writing because it’s as if Netflix and Amazon are “reading” our little archive of letters—three pairs, filed in my blog’s database under the rubric “Dear Old”—then inferring via their algorithms that I have the topic of aging on my mind.  As a result of clicking on “Top Picks for Margaret” and “Related to Titles You’ve Watched,” I have lately been hosting an impromptu film festival for one, themed to the subject.

My fete opened with the 2006 movie “Venus,” which earned Peter O’Toole his final Oscar nomination. He plays an aging actor (Maurice), as does his friend in life and this role, the splendid Leslie Phillips (as Ian). Ian’s young grand-niece, who features herself an aspiring model, is sent to care for him. That plan misfires badly, but she and O’Toole do much better.

It’s not pure Pygmalion, nor “Lolita,” but there is some of both with a dominant note of pure tenderness. The relationship between the two old gentlemen friends is pretty swell, too. We should get so lucky.

When “Venus” debuted, the “New York Times” review said it demonstrated, “how complicated, how impetuous, how alive older people can be,” and I say, yes, yes, and yes. One little moment:

“What do you do to her at your age?” Ian asks Maurice.

“It’s a very difficult thing,” he replies. “I’m nice to her.”

Being nice to ourselves as women—also a very difficult thing sometimes—was the subject of your latest blog post, Katrina. I loved the passage where you wrote:

“Ah, and there it was again, this age-old, heart-breakingly cruel thing we women do to ourselves. We compare ourselves to someone else and come up wanting. We…feel our own contributions mean less, are worth less, amount to less. We assume other women must have things all figured out, and that we must be the only ones stumbling along in the dark, unsure of our choices, managing invisible aches and pains, uncertain of our purpose, hesitating to take the next step.”

I could create a festival of films exploring that, but back to my current theme:

The next night’s feature provided another window on aging, portrayed not in the story of a new affection but of a longtime love struggling for oxygen. “Le Week-End,” with Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan (no one has a voice like hers, no one) depicts a second honeymoon to Paris, 30 years in.

“People don’t change,” Nick says.

“They do,” says Meg. “They can get worse.”

Footnote: What I didn’t know until I did my homework is that “Venus” and “Le Week-End” are by the same director, Roger Michell. Maybe the algorithms were actually suggesting a Roger Michell film festival, and I mistook it for one on older age. I like my story of what happened better.

I didn’t need Netflix to suggest “Olive Kitteridge,” the new four-part mini-series from HBO, the story of a Maine couple aaround retirement age or thereabouts. I merely had to hear (and read) the fierce and fantastic Frances McDormand speaking out about the subject of women and aging on NPR and in “The New York Times.”  McDormand, who stars as frumpy but outspoken Olive and was also the catalyst of the whole project, isn’t keen on contemporary cultural standards like having work done, dyeing hair, or dressing like a teen at our age.

“‘Olive’ is her answer to an industry and a society that she finds perverse in their fixation on youth,” the Times says.

It was my friend Erica’s suggestion that I watch “Transparent,” and this might win the prize so far in my series, which I suspect will be ongoing.

Of course you already know the story: Jeffrey Tambor, at like 70ish, comes out as trans to children who used to call her Daddy. Imagine hiding oneself—something we all do in smaller ways, often based on the self-doubt you wrote about the other day—so entirely for so long.

Speaking of coming out from behind a secret:

I’m ignorant.

At this point in my life, I don’t want to write a bucket list (and come to think of it, “The Bucket List” is about aging’s last stage, when facing terminal illness). I want to write my ignorance list—to finally get the dirty secrets of what I don’t know off my chest. Let me explain.

People often comment that I know things they find impressive, saying, “How did you get so smart?” or the like. When I was a kid, family and close friends nicknamed me “Encyclopedia Britannica,” because I crammed in what seemed to be deep pockets of knowledge.

Here’s the truth: The holes in my knowledge-base are so vast, it shocks me. Those deep pockets in my memory banks were really, really narrow, more like fingers in a glove than pockets at all (and usually about obscure topics). They still are.

FYI, there are no penguin species in the Arctic (nor polar bears in Antarctica).

No, Burkina Faso (in the news for its violent leadership shift away from a longtime dictator) is not a new nation. I guess I never got the memo when in 1984 it changed its name from Upper Volta.

My geography in general is shaky, truthfully. I mean, where does the Midwest begin and end, really? I could use a history lesson or two to fill in some big blanks. My grasp of opera pales beside what my 19-year-old niece’s, a regular opera-goer. (I don’t get out much, and I’m only interested in what I am interested in. Maybe I will work on widening both policies.)

Want to confess what ignorance we have been hiding all these years? Might make a good next pair of letters, no?

Love to you meantime,


P.S. – A little more “Venus” trivia: If you have watched “Broadchurch,” one of the recent procedural dramas from the U.K. that I cannot deny addiction to, you will recognize the Jodie Whittaker, who apparently made her debut opposite O’Toole in “Venus.”

Yes, I have already seen “Happy Valley,” and “Hinterland,” “The Fall,” and even “Southcliffe,” too, and am hoping those damn algorithms turn up loads more just like them. The days are under 10 hours apiece now, so streaming therapy seems the best antidote, no?

a series on aging: part 4

THIS IS MY THIRD in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Katrina Kenison, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging. She’s Old (just 56) and I’m Older (turned 60 this year). Who knows where it’s going, but since the subject keeps coming up, and we’re both writers…well, you get the idea. Read along. You can work backwards to the three previous pairs of letters that started the conversation starting at this link.

  1. Beverly Poag says:

    Hi Margaret, If this is part 4, how did I miss the others? I would love to read them. I am 71 going on 72 and really need a pathway on when I grow old.lol You’re so right, gardening will keep you young…watching rebirth all the time is so invigorating! Have you read Gardening for a Lifetime by Sydney Eddison? I’m about 3/4 way through. It’s not about having to give up so much in the garden, as it is to know what is the most important. Perfection is not in an older gardener’s vocabulary! Love your blog and FB page!

  2. Thank you for these film titles. I’m older still – 62 – and recently retired and finding out I don’t really know myself very well at all.

    In my opinion, the Midwest is Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, because I’m a Midwesterner and those are the states I have lived in nearly all my life. Once you cross the Mississippi, you are in the Plains States.

  3. Susan F says:

    I must agree about Le Weekend. I love the actors, but the characters were rather mean spirited. I’ll try Venus, I’ve avoided it because I thought of it as being another “older man young woman” romance.

    One of my favorite movies re: being older, is “An Unremarkable Life” 1986. It stars Patricia Neal and Shelly Winters, about two sisters living together and then someone comes between them. Very well done all around.

    Another is “How to Make an American Quilt” featuring lots of older actresses and young ones too. Have you seen it? 1995

  4. Judy says:

    I am 74 and hubby will join me at that age in a few months. We decided to plow under the large prairie garden featuring some gargantuan plants with prairie dock and compass plant reaching over 25′. Happily, several of these beloved plantings other than the ones mentioned, were transplanted into the patio garden in the back of the house where we enjoy red wine. As a present to us, we had two new autumn gold ginkgo’s planted to join our 10 year old saratoga. So now we’re down to the veggie garden, the asparagus patch, and the patio garden along with the shrubs and other trees on our property. Goodbye to several containers around the patio. They are too much work. But on our front porch sits 4 large pots which are planted with coleus and during the winter months I take beautiful brown debris from lion’s ear and grasses and spent geranium blooms to make gorgeous pots. Even some brown basil. As we age, we adjust so garden maintenance remains a joy instead of a job.

  5. JCB says:

    In my eighties, I still garden at my summer cottage albeit with aches and pains. I enjoyed Le weekend…..maybe 58 is not old enough to “get it”. I am still learning every day but retention becomes more difficult as the years go by.

    Love every minute, treasure every friend, be kind to the earth, our home.

  6. Brooke says:

    What a delightful writer you are! Had my first laugh of the day reading your lines about the garden “latching on”. Just like a child, it can be come tiresome in its afternoon (August) but after dinner (fall) it can have a nice happy burst of energy. Then, thank God, it goes to sleep!

    Ignorance? Don’t get me started.

    “Amour” is a French film — provocative with wonderful performances — that should be on your list. Not uplifting however. I’m looking forward to seeing your recommendations.

  7. Barbara says:

    Love this letter!! Love that you are still learning and not giving into older! Also, I am so far behind in my movie watching. I have dedicated goals for retirement such as scraping booking, however I think now I want to catch up on movies that I haven’t seen! Thanks for the inspiration!!

  8. suzanne says:

    Thanks for the viewing list (more to add to mine…missed Venus back in the day, missed Le Weekend recently, don’t have HBO but LOVE Frances McDormand nor Showtime which is what I think Transparent is on…later on DVD from the library)!

    All time favorite movie on women and aging (probably will be now and forever)…
    Strangers in Good Company

    Just watched the trailer online and it’s hideous (if I’d just seen that I might not have gone to the movies to watch it). The music is akin to slapstick and the narration is not really indicative of the movie.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it (watch it every few years) so it’s about time for another viewing!

    You can read what some IMDB (Internet Movie Database) viewers had to say…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Suzanne. Transparent is an Amazon thing, I think (their own production). Glad for your other suggestion, and thanks for saying hello.

  9. Sharon says:

    Re: The holes in my knowledge-base are so vast, it shocks me.

    There is nothing so humbling as trying out for Who Wants to be a Millionaire
    and Jeopardy and not getting past the very first set of questions.

    let’s face it, botanical Latin will never be a category, but sports and classical
    music as well as opera and rap leave me speechless, And you have to be fast.

    I suggest doing balance exercises in the garden as a defense against falling.

  10. elizabeth van dyk says:

    What a jewel you are-and I thought your knowledge was limited to plants…
    I love your books and the wisdom of the media presentations is seemingly limitless.

    I have trouble with the square states too.

    Thank you for sharing- I shall return to the previous sharings


  11. Laura says:

    Great recommendations, thank you. Hm, we seem to have similar tastes in films! I assume you’ve seen “Best Marigold Hotel”? It’s sweet, funny, uplifting, all at once. I can’t wait to see “Olive Kitteridge” and have been enjoying Ms. McDormand’s interviews on aging very much. Love her even more now. Also looking forward to “Transparent,” but I don’t have HBO or Amazon Prime, so I may have to wait until they’re either on Netflix or at the library.

    Ignorance…very true. Although it taught me a lot, taking the Master Gardener course mainly served to illustrate to me just how ignorant I am of all there is to know about gardening. ;)

    I will add your recommendations to my list. You might also like the British detective series “Vera” – also on Netflix streaming. I did, anyway.

    1. margaret says:

      Loved the “Best Marigold,” Laura. And I have watched all the seasons of “Vera” — why didn’t I add that to the list? Silly me.

  12. Betsy Williams says:

    I’m 75 and still avidly gardening! I am, however, planning to dig out large two beds next spring that have gotten away from me. It’s time to consolidate a bit. I will also add a few containers closer to the house for herbs and vegetables.

    I love the exchange of letters on aging. It’s a topic that needs to be discussed and discussed! If we are lucky, aging happens to all of us and yet somehow we often feel diminished by it. Please keep the letters going and thank you for an inspiring and always engaging garden blog!

  13. Rosella says:

    So very timely, your comments on aging! I am 77 going on 108, and am trying desperately to decide what to eliminate from my garden so that I may continue to manage it! The vegetable garden is now gone — well, except for the asparagus bed — and the perennial beds are cut down to what I consider a minimum — that is, no more than 10 peonies, plus all the lilies and minor players like geranium, lady’s mantle, clematis, etc.etc.etc. How to do it?

  14. Karen Budnick says:

    Ignorant? I hardly think so. Coming to grip with mortality (just like I’ve been doing for the last two years since hitting the big 60) , yes. I think I’m getting a handle on it, though. Here’s what I’ve realized. My best feature is my curiosity. Age won’t be taking that away for a long time (God willing). As long as I continue to get excited when I learn something new (and Margaret, one of the reasons I listen to your podcast every week), read a book I haven’t read before, listen to a new (or beloved and forgotten) piece of music, visit a new destination, discover a new plant, a new craft (I’m a passionate knitter and spinner) each day renews itself. And when you share your knowledge and excitement with others, it’s all new again.

  15. Santha says:

    Yes — I’m glad someone mentioned the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” And, does anyone remember the name of the film made a number of years ago about a school bus full of old ladies that got stranded somewhere in the middle of the USA? That was a wonderful movie as well.

  16. Jan Evancho says:

    Thanks for the wonderful piece on aging. I enjoyed the movie reviews, but most of all I love reading all the comments from the peanut gallery– those of us who follow and admire you. “…maybe 58 is not old enough to get it” made me laugh aloud. It is here I find my tribe. Hugs all around to the wise crones with whom I most enjoy spending my time anymore. I’d like to cook dinner with all of you. Oh, can you imagine the conversation?

    Smiling, smiling.

  17. Olivia says:

    Bravo !! Crying and laughing at the same time. Joyous that you still write letters and flying high that you value it. Not sure how I missed the beginning but why complain. Just like growing older I will catch up!

  18. Marj says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for these thoughts (and movie/tv suggestions) on aging. I just turned 81, fractured my kneecap a few weeks ago and, necessarily, have been watching more television. Am also a long-time fan of your gardening blog and had no idea of your contributions on aging. What a find! Will go back to see what I’ve missed. Like your recipes too.

  19. Judith Henry says:

    What a beautiful series of letters, written with such grace and wisdom. I connected with so much of what you say. From your Saab, the old gray lady (my Camry is the old gray mare) to the T.S. Elliott quote about discovery and exploration, which has been my favorite for many years, and your preferences for movies and television shows that echo my own, especially British who-done-its, which I’m happily addicted to. We’ll have to exchange lists!

    I’m going to enjoy taking some time to meander through the rest of your garden here.

  20. Lin says:

    How is it I managed to miss the first missives on aging?? Probably too busy in the garden. Anyway, at 72 yrs. old, I’m renovating one garden bed and creating a new wildflower bed; this time with professional help. No more deep digging for me. Don’t stop me now, I’m just learning who I really am, and loving the freedom to do what pleases me. Keep on truckin’ girls!

  21. Carole says:

    Hate the Bucket List concept! Once you’ve done everything on that list, I guess you should just lie down and die. No thanks. When I retired I made a list of 100+ things I wanted to do in retirement–more for my friends who kept asking about my plans than for me. A couple of the things that taught me: (1) priorities, goals, and dreams keep changing as our experiences and circumstances change; (2) I don’t want ever to get through such a list. How wonderful when nearing life’s end to still have things to look forward to.

    Loved Strangers in Good Company. Also, Ladies in Lavender (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith–how could you go wrong?!) Quartet is a movie I want to see.

    My husband has the kind of knowledge you reference–he has to remind people he doesn’t really know so much, just a lot of meaningless trivia that he picked up from encyclopedias, dictionaries, Readers’ Digest, etc., but it’s still awfully impressive to the rest of us. I keep being surprised by how much I used to know that I don’t know anymore. Thus, my recent intensive self-teaching re: gardening and food preservation. Thankfully, I’m also being pleasantly surprised at how much I’m still able to learn.

    Older than you, younger than some of the other commenters. Glad to be in such good company.

  22. Lisa - Ontario says:

    I’m 47 and unfortunately “got” Le Weekend. I enjoyed it, and Best Marigold. Love Frances. I will need to hunt down a lot of movies apparently this winter.

    I do have a Bucket List, because if I don’t get started now, I won’t get to do these things. In 2016 I am going to Kent to see Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. I’m not sure what other gardens yet. My mother has signed on to go with me, although at 75 this year, she was a little concerned that she might not be up for it when she is 77. My sister in law may come along as well. I was planning on going on my own because my boyfriend has no interest in going with me, and now we are up to 3!

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