dear old (love, older): a letter on aging

fallen maple foliageDEAR OLD,
When I got your letter, Katrina, I thought: I suppose I should have gone first and started the conversation, since I am our reconnaissance for each milestone (or are they now hurdles?), having nearly five years on you. I’m supposed to be “older and wiser,” right—to have some “been there, done that” insight to hand down?  Well, my dear, I’m afraid there’s no bumper crop of understanding being harvested over here at the moment. I simply, suddenly, feel certain that there’s no way around the acute awareness: I grow old.

a new series

THIS IS MY FIRST in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Katrina Kenison, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging. She’s Old (just 55) and I’m Older (facing 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. Listen in; her letter that started the conversation, if you prefer to read it first, is at this link.

Your stories of things you’ve been saving for some special occasion—that perfume your father gave you that you never dare wear, as if you’d be wasting it; the favorite (but unworn) jeans—bring up memories. My thoughts trace, as many things do, to Grandma Marion, my mother’s mother, the first gardener I ever knew.

Grandma always gave us treats—things like “homesick pills,” as she called the red and white swirled peppermints that she’d dispense to me and her namesake, my sister Marion, when our parents were away. Or the madcap gumdrop “faces” on our dishes of ice cream after supper, or the preposterous, home-baked birthday cakes, one shaped like a lamb, for instance, and flocked in shredded Baker’s coconut.

There were beautiful, big cookies from Schrafft’s shaped like ducks and chicks, colorfully frosted and carefully wrapped in clear cellophane so you could keep an eye on them.  Somewhere else, she found us pastel soaps shaped like miniature teddy bears.

I think my cowgirl of a baby sister tore open and beheaded her pastry poultry before we could even say thank you, but not me. I kept a big tin box on the floor of my closet, and each new adoptee would be gently added to my secret Noah’s Ark. I never ate a single cookie, nor subjected one of those rub-a-dub beasts to water or washcloth.  Everything stayed just so, and just in case. (Sound familiar, Miss Save It For a Rainy Day?)

I never told her, but if I had, Grandma would have understood.

She used to repeat the same line, you see, every Sunday at dinner: “I’m going to the old folk’s home soon.” A widow, she hinted in this way at financial insecurity, and fear.

It turned out that Grandma had a small safe on the floor of her closet, a safe my mother came upon when choosing a dress for her mother to be buried in. Inside was a stack of bankbooks that wouldn’t have qualified Grandma as rich by any means, but would have kept her from “the home” for sure. More important: They could have kept her in her beloved house and garden nearby—the one she and Grandpa had built early in their marriage, but that she “had to” sell, when into a gardenless apartment she dispatched herself.

The bankbooks represented the house proceeds and then some. The way I tally things, Grandma gave up 10 more seasons in her garden for the false security of a lockbox and some bankbooks.

I hope I can resist such emotionally costly parsimony.

You’re right, Katrina: We need to light the candles, drink the “too-good-to-drink” gift wine, eat those damn animal cookies already. (Well, maybe the latter are a bit past their sell-by date—but you get the idea.) We need to go ahead.

I hate the other half of that thought, but it’s the most important part of all, I suppose, the …before it’s too late!

We mustn’t postpone, and the garden, the most ephemeral of all art forms, is a constant reminder of why. It’s a vivid, perishable embodiment of how things live, and die.

Nothing lasts. (I say it all the time when I lecture to garden groups; the cry of carpe diem.)

Celebrate the passings, I say out loud, too—not just the full bloom on the crabapples, but the pink puddle of fallen petals beneath them.

Stop chasing just the “peak” moments, I invoke. Perfection, with everything “just so,” is an illusion (and here comes an angry gust of wind or a pounding rain or ice storm to prove my point).

Savor every drop—not just the obvious. Yes, enjoy the big, insistent flower, but don’t overlook the little things; the buds, the bugs, the bark.

I need to take a seat in the audience for one of my upcoming events, and really listen.  Or maybe just re-reading your letter will do; thanks again for sending it.

A final stray thought, my friend:

In the 1960s, when I was in grade school, the nation reacted to news of Sputnik with panic that such signs of technical excellence from them, the “Reds,” meant we’d fallen perilously behind. The New Math was invented as one antidote, and in elementary schools around the country—including mine—the New Math was the new drill.

It wasn’t long before that kind of thinking (whatever kind of thinking it was, because it was pretty out there) was deemed a failure, and abandoned.

I recall it now, because it strikes me that at this phase of my life everybody’s talking about a New New Math. Now it’s “80 is the new 60” (or is it the other way around, and 60 is the new 80?—I always get such sayings backwards, dense as I may sound).

Methinks whether 80 is 60 or 60 80, neither one adds up to a collagen-richer 29.

Not that I’d want to go back to that uneven age—but there are some other numbers, like 47 or even 53, that right now look particularly prime.

Onward, though—onward, and with gusto, no?  Thanks for reminding me, and for listening.



read more katrina (win her latest book!)

Magical Journey by Katrina KenisonKATRINA KENISON’S latest book, “Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment,” (affiliate link) was released this week in paperback, and she’s offering two of my readers a chance to win a signed copy. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comment box at the very bottom of the page:

Do you find yourself delaying gratification–saving something for “a special occasion” as if now isn’t that time?

No answer, or feeling shy? That’s fine; just say something like “count me in” and I will. I’ll choose two winners after entries close at midnight Wednesday, January 29. Good luck to all.

Categoriesessays woo woo
  1. Dale Hawkins says:

    One small room in my house is nearly full of all kinds of ‘souvenirs’ from world work travels before I retired. I resist sorting to save one or two really good things from each place and tossing all the rest. It feels like if I do that, some of the memories will disappear; as it is without sorting thru all that ‘stuff’ I only have the memories stored in my brain. Alas . . . . . . .

  2. Mary Schalk says:

    I am speaking on a panel for entrepreneurs and the title is “encore entrepreneurs” put on by AARP and the small business association. I find the word encore interesting and have been trying to wrap my head around it. I will tell my story of restarting my own business three years ago at 57.

    When I asked myself that pivotal question recently, “if not now, then when?” I gained the momentum to move ahead, face the inevitable fears of financial insecurity and future struggles. My new mantra is to “have the willingness” to stay open to new things and do what I must to succeed.

    Thank you for this wonderful essay.

  3. Donna says:

    It was a struggle to purchase the china that I have never used, and the cabinet it is stored in.
    What am I saving it for? Why even have it? Yes, it is lovely, but I am saving it until I have company. (Company?)

    Ahhh. First you need to make the home repairs, then the scrapbooks, then purge the clothes that haven’t fit in decades. Wait a minute, my ADD is getting ahead of me, I was having company over, let’s paint and recover some of the furniture.

    A friend of mine who is 45, (13 years younger than me) suddenly lost her husband to a heart attack. The dishes are coming out New Year’s Day. I will start by inviting my sister and her family over.

  4. Lin CLineburg says:

    At 76 , incredulity set in. How is this possible when I’m still feeling, well, maybe like 60? Last year I started a new garden bed for perennials that I can see from my sun room window. All plants are deer resistant! Refilling the bird feeder and the bird baths, trying to defeat the root knot nematodes in my raised beds, life goes on albeit at a slower pace. What people call the “wisdom” of old age is, if one is lucky, GRATITUDE.. It feels good. Do not fret the coming years, just Keep on truckin’!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.