I began working in the same building Maggie Kuhn stopped working in in the very late ’60s or very early ’70s. Our paths never crossed. I was still very young and she was 65 and being pushed into retirement. People laughed that she’d been okay about it until she realized that they’d taken away her mimeograph machine. Then she was furious. Later, she wrote:
I was hurt, and then as time passed, outraged…. Something clicked and I realized that my problem was not mine alone. Instead of sinking into despair, I did what came most naturally to me: I telephoned some friends and called a meeting.
And that’s how the Gray Panthers began.
I know Maggie Kuhn wasn’t an artist; she was heart and soul a political activist. But she began what others have since continued, and that is to call attention to ageism and make a beginning at dispelling the myths that are attached to old age. That bedpan was her nightmare, and mine; it belongs to most of us who grow old. We begin to catch glimpses of the attitude that informs the bedpan story when a waiter is too deferential, when a taxi cab driver is overly solicitous, when some other stranger calls us “dear” one too many times. I saw people do it to my mother even before her dementia was apparent. They talked about her to each other, as if she weren’t there. They told her how adorable she looked when she really didn’t. No one called her that when she was 30, 40, 50.
I think that, despite all the exclamations to the contrary from elders who run cross-country or gerontologists who are surprised that old age is not a disease, most of us recognize we will grow less independent as we grow older: we won’t be able to pick up the same suitcase with the same aplomb or run up a flight of stairs. Not surprisingly, we vary widely. Across the street from me are two people, about my age, who are already stiff and immobile with arthritis. Next door to them lives Nora, who, at age 89, came over on a summer’s day with a pick axe to help me take the watsonia out of the hard, hard ground.
Roni Bennett of Time Goes By, who may already have done more than any one since Maggie Kuhn to discredit the stereotype of the old, complained bitterly in her post today about finding herself wearier and weaker at 69: Okay, Now I’m Pissed Off About Being Old! Since I’m a few months older than her at 70, and sometimes as weary, I found her post upsetting. I don’t know if lifting weights would help; some say it might. I do know I’m going to keep on doing everything I can and, I hope, more. Roni Bennett is trying to pack up and move. My current struggle has mostly to do with playing the piano. I discovered when I went back to it at 60, that it was much more difficult physically than I’d thought. Beethoven wears me out some days. And when I heard that Alicia De Larrocha complained at 79 that her reach was not as wide as it had once been, I knew I would never play a Beethoven sonata even remotely the way it should be played. My reach is shrinking, and I’m only me, not Alicia De Larrocha. But I intend to keep trying to toughen up on the piano; I’m lucky, I truly don’t believe that Ludwig can hear me. And the trying feels good; the music is still amazing.
This blog has been another way of toughening up, trying to come up with something coherent and insightful every other day has been a wonderful exercise, and I’ve discovered through it and through the novels I’ve been struggling to write, that I write better today than I did 20, 30, 40 years ago. I believe more than ever that aging in someone with a need to create can be a blessing. Cicero, more than 2,000 years ago, said:
It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not only not poorer, but it is even richer.
Failing that, I’ll hang with Einstein: “How do I work?” he wrote. “I grope.”