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. Louisa Dunlap says:

    At 73, I laze around a lot…..but I also run 26.2 miles/week, bike 50 miles/week 9 months of year, kayak, do yoga, play a bit of tennis, stack lots of firewood and tend 5 acres, including a huge vegetable garden + berries, fruit trees, herbs. It’s a lot easier since I retired!!!!!
    Do count me in.

  2. Karen says:

    I fear that I am “a saver”. After reading both your letters and reflecting on their wisdom, much as I would like to suddenly change my saving ways, I fear that I will always find comfort in knowing that something special is tucked away. I will say that when I find that special something, be it a long forgotten picture or a gift certificate for a favourite movie theatre, the memories it evokes makes me smile. But thanks to both of you for the reminder to appreciate “the now”. Headed out to appreciate the sunshine sparkling on the snowdrifts!

  3. Monica says:

    I used to save things for special occasions or it was too pretty to use. With my kids birthday gifts, like a really nice book would put it up on a shelf for later and eventually forget to read it. After my Mother passed I so cherished her things, (still am always afraid to use them in case they get broken), but couldn’t bear to put them in a box. So I have them everywhere so I can see them. You never know what tomorrow will bring, so in the meantime my family enjoys eating dinner on a Tuesday night on the nice dinner wear.

  4. Carol says:

    Here I am 3 years older than Margaret and 8 years older than Katrina, and I still save all the good stuff. I enjoyed both letters and am determined to wear my trendy jeans (and the silk underpants that could go underneath) more often. And well, there are many other things to use and use up around here. Yes, the garden is a wonderful metaphor for our lives. Thanks for the nudge.

  5. Debbie says:

    My late grandmother’s set of dishes were recently given to me. My Mom has encouraged me to use them so I’m going to hold a tea party!

    Please count me in.

  6. andie stewart says:

    my older half sister always told “I use my good china everyday. I really like it. What am I saving it for?”
    Smart woman

  7. Rae says:

    I was newly married years ago I had an upstairs neighbor I would occasionally visit in the evening when she was home from work and my baby was put to sleep. She alway wore a lovely long gown and would serve us a cup of tea in best china and from her sterling tea set. I knew then that relatives who saved items for some future use or never did enjoy them had it wrong.

    I decided then that except for formal clothing I would use all the lovely items I had received and gifts. Over the years I was able to gain so much pleasure in my world from enjoying life to its fullness.

  8. Kaaren Anderson says:

    Wonderful sentiments as I celebrate my birthday — the last of the 60’s — and warm thoughts as the winter days pass into spring.

    To Margaret and Katrina — Thank you.

  9. SHERRY BROWN says:


  10. Olivia says:

    I try hard to remember that this is the real deal and not a dress rehearsal … And so I keep trying to live my life fully. I have saved up enough already … Count me in !

  11. Elana BW says:

    Having cleaned out my aunt’s and my mother’s homes after they passed, I decided to use the “good” china and glassware, use up my best perfume, and not postpone what I want to do. Today is “someday”. It has arrived!

  12. Debra Slagle says:

    After 40 years of storing my wedding gift china and rarely using it even on holidays, I decided to pass it on. I gave it to my niece for her wedding present. I added a note as to the history and that I hoped she used and enjoyed it more than I did. It felt good.

  13. Alice says:

    Delayed gratification, saving something for a special occasion: neither matter. The only things that matter are whether you grab or miss the chance to be involved, to love, to laugh, to engage in meaningful thought or activity, to connect, to appreciate someone, to enjoy our brief time together. The past is gone. Today and what we do with it is what matters.

  14. Teresa Sopher says:

    I think most people, both men and women, by nature try to set things back “for good”. Since I spent the greater part of last year battling cancer, I’ve resolved to change my ways and live for today. Just turned 56 yesterday, so I hope to have plenty of time to spend my children’s inheritance!

  15. Nancy Collins says:

    count me in. I save art supplies for some great masterpiece but I must retrain myself that
    “not every artwork must be frameworthy” and process is just as valuable as product.

  16. Jo Hunt says:

    I love this topic, now that I am 71, and a bit of a saver, I still have memories of my Grandmother of receiving an especially nice Christmas or Birthday gift – she would announce on the spot that either she would put this away or that this was what she wanted to be buried in. Alas, she had several such items, but only needed one when her time came. Looking forward to reading this book and I promise, it will be read promptly and not be placed on the shelf next to the others that will be read when I have time.

  17. MaryG. says:

    Thank you for sharing your lovely writing. I do seize the moment, enjoy what each season holds, but…..maybe that little house or condo in a warm winter spot needs to be bought and enjoyed in small snippets now before “the big move!” Thank you for the “go ahead”.

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