My friend Jane wrote: I know in my mind that I’m getting old, but it seems a relative term. I have lived a lot of decades, and half decades. And every once in a while I think about them, or something makes me think about them, brings them back to life in a vivid way. I tend not to dwell on the miserable times (why should I?), but the other ones are interesting from this perspective. I guess being old means you have a different perspective on what you did in the past. You can appreciate (and perhaps forgive) your stupidity, and also your adventures and joys.
Memory is a subject I’m trying to get hold of. Some philosophers, scientists—the sort of people who worry about this kind of thing and aren’t prepared to assign us souls—believe that we are constituted by our memories. Although I watched closely as my mother lost her’s, I’m not sure what to think.
I get great joy from my memories. I don’t dwell on the miserable times either, though some of them are not so miserable now, just curious and, thank god, a little remote. I’m not sure that I have a different perspective on my memories than I did when I was younger. But then again, maybe I do, because now I see them as part of a larger, longer whole.
I am puzzled, even alarmed, in a way I wasn’t when I was younger, that they will disappear with me. My mother’s and my grandmother’s already have. In the not too distant future, there will be nothing left of all sorts of events, people, feelings the three of us knew. That’s one of the reasons I write. To save it all, however temporarily. And that’s one of the reasons for this blog.
There’s another that’s just as complicated. My friend, Joan, wonders why I suddenly decided I was old, as she so charmingly puts it, “at the tender age of 70.” For better or worse, I’ve settled in a community of people over 55 and they seem to disappear at the rate of two and more a month. I am quite healthy, but most of them aren’t. Even though I don’t feel 70, I am, and I find that because of that the world suddenly views me as old, probably infirm, and certainly not at the beginning of anything.
Of course, both the world at large and the elderly themselves like to make jokes about memory. Poor dithering, absent-minded creatures that we are. Don’t get me wrong; my memory has never been my strong suit, and it’s getting worse. Nevertheless, I got angry. And like the gay folks and African Americans who claimed the demeaning titles of “dyke” or “faggot” and Black for themselves, I’m claiming “old” and trying to redefine it. I think old can mean something wonderfully positive. It doesn’t have to be a negative thing—a thing to be feared and despised, or even denied. It brings with it something exciting—another kind of creativity.
Although I do grant you that not all growing old is good. If it’s attended by disease—and old people are of course more prone to disease than younger ones—then it can be devastating. Like my mother who suffered from Alzheimers. Which brings us back to the subject of memory and its power. Below is an excerpt from a book that’s still being written.
…. Nor do I remember her worrying about her long ago memories when the past began to dim although that may have been because the struggle to hang onto the near past, the day before, even the hour before, became overwhelming. In order to remember, she filled notebooks describing each day.… She transcribed events: telephone calls, hairdresser’s appointments, lunch and dinner-she made an outline of each day, as if shorthand were sufficient. A few neat notes about the tree; leaves, fruit, and squirrels playing in the branches could be inferred. In the meantime, the broader horizon of her life began to dim. The lights were being turned off one by one. It might be the taste of her mother’s sweet pickles; cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., the day she met my father, Hiroshima. This, that, and the darkness began to gather and there was nothing to be done about it. Most of the time she didn’t even notice.
Today my mother is left mostly with her early childhood…. They say childhood memories are what disappear last. She’s an old, old woman but in her memories she’s a toddler, never more senior than a teenager, and there’s almost nothing left between then and now. As if the gray-haired, hunch-backed her sprang whole from the little girl with the ribbon on top of her head. The ribbon looks like the key on a wind-up toy in the browning photographs of her five-year-old self. Wind her up; she spins around and by the time she whirs to a stop, she’s been bent, damaged beyond repair.