What We Talk About When We Talk about Being Old
Don't worry, dearies. This won't bore you.
I turned 84 yesterday. (Thank you, thank you, no need to make a fuss. It just means I haven’t died yet.) It got me to thinking about how many pieces I’ve written about ageing, and I almost decided to hang it up. Nobody cares.
But that’s not true. I care. I’m an old writer, and who better to write about ageing than an old person? Who knows it best? I thought the problem with writing about old people stuff is that young people really don’t want to read it, but then I remembered there are more of us than there are of them, and they write about their young selves all the time. So why not?
I won’t always write about being old, but it’s sure to wiggle its way in there now and then. And rather than being ashamed of it, I’ll capitalize on it, instead. It’s who I am. Not that I want you to feel sorry for me. God, no! I want you to celebrate it with me. Or at least read it. That would be good, too.
This is a repeat of a piece I wrote a while back. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Everyone who isn’t old yet seems to think being old is all we old people talk about. If we’re old we’re supposed to spend our last days griping about toenail fungus or bowel movements or ungrateful children. Eventually, if you hang around long enough, we’ll get to the hard stuff: joint replacement, Alzheimer’s, and the dread cancer.
We’re losing our hearing and our eyesight, so all of us need hearing aids and have had cataract surgery. You’re sure we’ll want to tell you all about it.
If we were vain when we were younger, we’re supposed to complain about putting on pounds and losing our looks. (There are 100 words for flab, including cellulite, beer belly, blubber, and cottage cheese. Or at least it seems that way.)
We have wattles and arm flaps and dark patches all over our skin.
Our dentures don’t fit and sometimes we spit.
We’re really kind of disgusting.
But here’s the thing: We’ve lived such a long time we can’t help but have stories to tell. Some of them are even interesting. Don’t ask us about our health. We might feel forced to tell you. Ask us, instead, what it was like when we were growing up without TV remotes or phones we could carry with us. Ask us how we ever learned to drive a stick shift. Ask us how we lived through the disruptions caused by World Wars and atom bomb scares and women’s lib and the hippie generation.
Ask us about carbuncles. (Oh, wait, that was the generation before us. Never mind.)
We want desperately to be interesting. (It’s why some old men tell the same stories over and over again. They got a rise out of someone once and they figure it’s worth another try. Also, it beats having to reach into the vaults for something new.) We know, long before you yawn and make excuses to leave, when we’ve failed to grab you and keep you. Not all of us are good at it. Some of us have to be drawn out in order to get the gold out of our life stories, but sometimes it’s worth it.
When I was much younger I taught creative writing in our school system’s Adult Ed program. I didn’t require anyone to show their work if they didn’t want to, but in every class there were several who read out loud every week. Several students were there to learn about publishing, and I warned them I would be tougher on them; that I would probably red-pen their purple prose to death. But I didn’t set a lot of class rules, preferring to get these newbies comfortable with their writing. It was pretty free-wheeling. Lots of laughs.
An older woman — I’ll call her Dorothy — came every week and left without saying much of anything. At first I wondered why she was there, since she never showed her writing and didn’t engage in any way. But finally, toward the end, she turned in a story she’d written about growing up in Appalachia during the Great Depression. While the depression was in full force her neighbors and kin were so used to subsistence living, she said they barely noticed. She wrote about the food they grew or foraged or hunted for, about making lye soap, about how they kept going without electricity or machinery.
It was wonderful. It needed some editing but I left it pretty much as it was. I asked her if she would read it to the class. She said she couldn’t do that. I asked her if I could read it to them, and she agreed. When I was finished, the classroom erupted. She was in the dreaded spotlight and at first she just smiled and nodded. But the questions came hard and fast and before long she let herself go, and she was into it.
She apologized for the way she talked, as someone from deep within the Appalachian “hollers” would, but explained in charming detail how they made use of almost everything they could get their hands on. She talked about poke salads and rabbit stew and moonshine and how you could turn a 50 pound flour sack into a serviceable dress. She talked about herbs and roots used for holistic healing. It turned out that Dorothy was a born storyteller, and I’d like to think my class opened her up to doing more of the same.
Our stories get better with age — especially when everyone who could dispute them is dead already.
All old people have a lifetime of stories to tell but most of us are shy about telling them. We think they’re not worth telling, that nobody would be interested, but it’s not that hard to draw us out. It’s all in how you relate to us. If all you see is aging skin and bones, if all you hear is a kind of melancholy wistfulness, if all you say is, “How are you doing?” (and hope we don’t tell you), you’re missing out on the best parts of your elders. The stories.
When we talk among ourselves we tend to crack ourselves up. We turn even our most horrific ailments into black humor. We sometimes laugh at you guys. (We used to be you.) But mainly we talk about the old days. Not just the good old days, the “Happy Days” days, but sometimes about the bad old days — those days we would sooner forget.
Our best days are behind us and in our circles “nostalgia” is always trending. Our stories get better with age — especially when everyone who could dispute them is dead already. We might make up some of the details we’ve forgotten now, but our stories define our generation. Every generation needs to understand what came before.
A lot of the stories written by old people today are written for the express purpose of showing how someone in an old body can keep up with you young ones. I think they miss the point of writing while old — that they’ve witnessed periods no young person can even imagine.
We’ve lived without things that now seem essential. Everything electrical was tethered to a plug. Long distance telephoning was expensive and intimidating. Our main forms of communication were letters written with ink pens, and, later, with those marvelous but leaky ball points. We lived through our entire childhoods without pizza or MacDonald’s. Or TV.
We read books and listened to the radio. We listened to soap operas and mysteries and detective shows and had to imagine in vivid color everything that was happening, from settings to movements to murders — all with special effects that clicked and clanged and whooshed and whizzed.
We lived our lives differently and now we’re living our lives as you do. The transition from then to now is amazing. So much had to happen and we had to grow along with it. But the most amazing part is that we’re still here — still alive — still interested and interesting.
You ought to check us out.