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. Jeannette says:

    I’m striving for the balance, trying to be more present while honoring the past. I’m purging stuff, taking more photos. It’s getting easier to hold my tongue, waiting for an appropriate time to express my thoughts. Gardening helps!

  2. Gigi says:

    The timing of this poignant (and funny too, thank you) dialog is perfect. I will turn 58 next month; I’ve just realized I am no longer “middle-aged”, whatever that is! Time to read only the best books (and blogs), drink the loveliest wines, and celebrate big & small. You are so right, M&K! Thanks!

  3. RoseBonanno says:

    Maybe it was the Depression or coming from a family of 6 but my mom was always a saver a reused and a proponent of saving anything new for a special occasion. Not sure it was a good thing but it is definitely a philosophy that has guided much of what I do. Sitting is not an acceptable activity nor throwing something away too soon.

    It takes a real effort to relax in my window seat and enjoy the heat of the sun while looking out at a snowy landscape. Yet I am trying to indulge and enjoy ordinary and special things without guilt.

  4. Marie Tapp says:

    Talk about our Prime Time ? At 84 I would say RIGHT NOW is Prime.
    Good luck to all gardeners out there. And now I am going out there to enjoy the day.

  5. Barbara Tetreault says:

    I turned 70 a couple of months ago. I have always enjoyed my age, whatever it was. I have been one to always want everything just right before I stepped out to enjoy myself or spend the afternoon on the front porch. Thanks for reminding me that “now is the time”. I enjoy your newsletter. Thanks.

  6. Jan Evancho says:

    Of course I find myself hanging on to favorite clothes I hope I’ll fit again, but most of all, lately I have seen myself from afar–clinging to the hope of making my home perfectly organized and finishing all projects already begun. I’ve chased that dream for so many years and finally reached the conclusion: that process continues forever and will never be complete. So, stop chasing. Relax, slow down and saunter to a cleaner closet. I’ve lowered my standards and accepted a bit of disorderly conduct on my own behalf. Things will be left undone, projects unfinished. At 58, so be it.

  7. Pam Duckworth says:

    I’m 70 and I have a 5 acre garden that I work in for about 5 hours every day but its still not enough. I worry about not being able to look after it and sometimes think I should downsize but lately I have been using some of my savings to hire a friend to help. I feel guilty about paying for someone to work in the garden and spending money I should be saving for my “old age”! But seeing the benefits I get from it in terms of exercise, good health, organic food and social contact (open gardens for charity, fruit and vegetable picking and canning parties, plant sharing, flowers in my and my friends houses) I think old age can wait.

  8. Mary Kowalski says:

    One of the things that I hang onto, rather than using up, is fabric. If I don’t get busy, I’ll have too much fabric left at the end of my life so it’s time to get in there and cut it up. What am I saving it for?

    Looming in the not-too-distant future is a move to a smaller home. We know we will have to downsize, but making those decisions – each individual decision – about what to keep (my grandmother’s tea cups, his grandmother’s gravy boat) and what to discard (help!!) leaves us almost paralyzed. It’s good to remember that we should be using these things instead of storing them in the cupboards.

    1. Kathy says:

      Speaking of fabric and saving it. My Mother died two years ago. About a year or two before that I had been visiting and she was sorting through “stuff”. She had piles of left over fabric from clothes etc that she had made for us as children. We shared lots of memories of each piece and I said it would be nice to put all this fabric into a quilt. Neither of us is a quilter and I will never be. After she died and I had to go through things I found the quilt She had taken all the fabric and made the quilt top.
      On the other side she also had hundreds of dollars of plates she had collected and they were still in their original boxes because she was afraid to put them out. We never saw them.
      My lesson: use the things that are special and get rid of the meaningless ‘stuff”.

  9. Kandace Myers says:

    I am 63. I lost my father last year unexpectedly though he was 87. My mother is a vibrant 84. And now I know that one of my sisters will most likely never see her 62nd birthday. Aging can be a blessing if you love and are loved. Kandy

  10. Christina I. says:

    I am 33, with two small children who make using the good dishes impractical at the moment. But meanwhile, from this vantage point, I am grateful for the reminder to live life to the fullest NOW, and I promise myself I will reduce the blah stuff I don’t really care for enough to be able to play with the lovely, special things.

  11. Jackie Dandurand says:

    I grew up saving everything I was emotionally attached to, the things given to me by special people, for the day when I would feel the occasion was worthy of what they had given me and could enjoy their use. Last year when I moved to a different house after 17 years in the previous one, I made myself either use and embrace those things, or not take them in the move. The most remarkable thing happened. As I used and enjoyed those things, the rich memories of how I was given them came back to me as though they were happening again. I don’t save things up anymore; I use them fully and give gratitude to the giver for 1) the thought behind the gift, and 2) the gift. Now, my fabric stash is a different story–those are pieces I bought for just the right ‘next project.’ That’s a whole different kind of saving :).

  12. Dee Marotta says:

    My husband and I were given a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne more than ten years ago. We were quite excited and decided to save it “for a special occasion”. So many occasions came and went; anniversaries, new job, selling a home, moving to a new state into our dream home we had built. And still, that bottle sat, waiting to help us celebrate.
    We both turned 50 recently. It’s amazing how perspectives change when you reach that magic number. During the past holiday season we looked at that bottle of champagne and said “no more waiting”. We brought that very old bottle of champagne with us to our new friend’s house on New Year’s Eve and toasted the new year and new friendships! The champagne was still bubbly and very tasty.
    We knew we got lucky that the champagne was still good after being chilled and then put into storage and then chilled again, sitting in our fridge again for over two years. We vowed never to take that chance again; with anything!
    I love the saying “There is a reason today is called The Present. It is a Gift”
    Thank you for a great blog!

  13. Kathy says:

    Oh my … Let me think about what qualifies. Is it the wedding silver which has lasted 28 years longer than the marriage itself but used only on a couple of special occasions ? Or the exquisite sari brought from the Far East that I lovingly touch when I search the trunk? You have awakened my sensibilities!!!! No more. Tonight it’s a fine dinner with silver and sari !

  14. Leah Elliott says:

    Because I live with Bipolar Disorder, the concept of denying myself something is terribly foreign to me. That said; gardening has taught me an amazing level of patience that I don’t believe I could have developed otherwise.
    This is my first visit to your site and it certainly won’t be the last. Thank you, Margaret for “and I shall have some peace there” I have read and enjoyed it many times.

  15. Margaret Kirsch says:

    I remember something that I used to do with my cat, Punky.
    That was to take a walk around the garden.
    Even when I had many projects that needed attention,
    I would call him and he knew that I wanted him to come.
    Nothing else mattered.
    He died a few months ago and is buried on our trail.
    I am so happy that we spent this time together.

  16. marcella gross says:

    This month I turned 75!!! and trying to clear away dragged along stuff and rethinking what I can do and my garden . It can be emotional to consider my body and my expectations of what I am able to. Seems to me to be ongoing as I age. I love my gardening and would grieve my not being able to work in it. Thanks for the letter and thoughts you have given me.

  17. margaret says:

    Thank you all for fantastic comments. Keep them coming — even though the giveaway is done.

    And the winners (who have been notified by email) are: Oma Judy and Louisa Dunlop. Congratulations.

  18. patsy says:

    No, I don’t find myself delaying gratifying for myself.
    At three years older than you Margaret, I find myself using everything I own to please all my senses in my world each and every day. I suppose when I die, family will have an easy time sorting through my “stuff”. No fine linen bedding, hankies, leather purses, shoes or much of anything boxed waiting for someone else to enjoy, or that special occasion. Life is short, as we all know, and maybe there won’t be someone to appreciate what I’ve saved, taken up space for, during my life anyway….what is important to me may not be so valuable to the next.
    So I go to sleep at night swaddled in lovely old linen, cotton, satin caressing my old body, and I awake in the morning with old eyes that get pleasure looking at old lace curtains with the sun shining behind them, at my windows, using that sparkly crystal glass for milk to nourish me at breakfast on ordinary days. Even, the lovely, soft cotton hankies instead of tissue that someone stored, I’m going to take great pleasure in using. I have lived too many years, as I look back on the what seems like MORE than one life, moving from place to place, culling, experiencing to the maxamine every emotion high and low that one woman can experience. So now it’s all about me and what will be pleasurable for me. I’m just NOT going to wait, now is the time.
    So no matter that I was late for the book give-away, I’ve learned about another good book to add to my list of reading and enjoyment. Then……I will give it away for another to enjoy instead of stuffing my bookshelves just in case.

  19. Denise Carlin says:

    This is so timely! I just received an email from my sister, expressing some of these things. Beautiful! I have saved things for…………whatever reason………and that just doesn’t make sense any more. I want to move my thinking to today! Burn those candles, plant those flowers, spend the time and relish in the day. Today, I am as young enough to do fun things.

  20. Pat says:

    We were stationed in Japan almost 50 years ago and after a recent visit to a shop that brings Japanese imports to our island, I realized our treasures are very valuable! Now I have to figure out how to move them along or take a profit. I’m displaying more treasures these days rather than storing them. I’ve also started hiring Gardeners, so I have more time and energy to paint.

  21. bibby moore says:

    I also recently turned 70 and celebrated by having right hip replacement surgery…now walking2-3 miles a day. Three years ago, I started planting more trees and shrubs in my garden to have year round interest without the high maintenance of perennials. I stress the most about not being able to haul in enough organic matter to continue building the soil in my raised beds in the hot,humid eastern NC climate. I love doing “give aways” to give my belongi gs new homes and to keep open the channels of life wanting to refresh us daily with appropriate inspiration “in the now”. Let’s exchange more ideas how we can keep gardening until our last breath…if only to sit and hear the birds/insects/frogs and smell the earth. Pleass write more on this subject.

  22. loretta says:

    For the first time in my sixty -five years I paid someone to paint my house’s interior this year.I cried a little but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.I have cried a lot more about not being able to keep up my garden so come this spring I’m going to do like someone in the comments above and pay someone to tidy it up out of my Old age security.Thanks Pam Duckworth for the idea.

  23. Joan DiMonda says:

    I’ve been catching up on your former blogs so I missed this give away but did want you to let you know I try so hard to live for the moment. I use sterling silver everyday, linen guest napkins, and best of all I just placed two plant orders that I have been thinking about for months. The time is now. Thanks for reminding me how best to live.

  24. Madeline C Carlson says:

    It’s nice to communicate with my generation, I’m 69 now….how did that happen?! I wanted to comment on your Jack. On Feb 17 I had to put my Boots down….he looked a lot like Jack, and your memorial to his life was touching. My Boy Boots was only l0, and like you said, one day it was, what’s wrong with him, to the vet giving me the news that he couldn’t be saved. My heart still aches, and probably always will. Thanks for listening.

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