Taking It As It Ccmes
by Julia Sneden
The other day, I came across a cache of letters from my father, written during the early ‘70’s when he was about the age that I now am. He began one letter with this quote from something called Country Road, by Elise Mclay:
“I’m sorry, God, but I don’t think sixty-five is a swell age. I’d rather be fourteen. Yes, I have strong legs, sturdy shoes, and a country road to walk. I’m grateful, but I remember how it felt to be fourteen, walking this same road barefoot.”
My dad didn’t explain why he included the quote. He wasn’t much of a complainer, so he just left it there at the beginning of the letter, floating in a kind of generalized, grumpy no-man’s-land. I thought fleetingly that perhaps he was leading up to announcing that something was wrong with him, but the body of the letter held nothing alarming, so I just smiled and forgot it.
Now that I myself am almost three years past sixty-five, and suffering from my own stiff joints and minor aches, I can relate to Ms. Mclay’s plaint. I don’t know about walking down that country road barefoot at fourteen, however. By the time I was fourteen, I had pretty much given up barefoot hikes for volleyball on the beach and dancing in the school gym. But I can remember much younger days when I never wore shoes except to go to school or church. In the earliest (pre-bosom, pre-bra) days when I spent my summer shirtless, in just a pair of shorts, I loved to run barefoot down our long, straight driveway, feeling the wind against my chest.
I remember how it felt to climb a huge tree, with every muscle and nerve cooperating as I stretched and clung, or swung on my monkey rope from branch to branch.
I remember how it felt to run through the sprinkler on the lawn at my friend’s house, and how lightly I fell when I slipped on the wet grass.
I remember doing long rows of cartwheels, one after another non-stop, switching from right hand lead to left hand lead to show off my balance.
These days my coordination is not as good and my balance is beginning to bobble, although so far I’ve managed to stay upright most of the time. But when I fall, it’s a doozie, because my reactions aren’t as swift as they used to be, never mind the fact that I weigh a whole lot more.
My bifocals make me pause when I come to shadows and steps, and I have trouble hearing my grandchildren if their heads aren’t turned to me, or if there is any background noise.
My hair is getting thin at the crown. I suffer from frequent, fierce bouts of insomnia – both of which make me mad as hell.
In short, I know where Ms. Mclay was coming from. The other day my husband, doing his crossword puzzle, couldn’t remember who wrote Doctor Zhivago, and for a good half hour, neither could I. The things I know take longer to float to the surface, these days.
I tell myself that my circuits are full, and have gone onto overload. “You just know too much,” I say proudly. Science, however, tells me that the connections inside the brain are firing slower. I prefer my version, but at least I can take solace in the fact that those connections still do work, eventually. “Pasternak” floated to the surface in the middle of lunch, but by then my husband had Googled Dr. Zhivago, gotten his answer, and finished his crossword.
Perhaps it’s instructive for people my age to think of things they can do, instead of the things they can’t.
Being almost 68 doesn’t keep me from walking two miles a day and enjoying it, despite some arthritic creaks. I don’t move as fast, but I move more steadily, and my pace allows me to see things I never used to notice, like the tiny, individual flowers of the crape myrtle, or a fat caterpillar chomping on milkweed.
There are some things that I can do better now than at fourteen. In fact, there were lots of things I couldn’t do at all back then, that I now can: drive a car, speak and read a couple of foreign languages; use my mind and education to put current happenings into historical context; understand basic chemistry and physics; balance a checkbook; view relationships with some perspective; diaper a baby; cook Thanksgiving dinner; play bridge; teach a child how to read; wallpaper; explain photosynthesis to a five-year-old; make menus and a shopping list for a whole week at a time; sew dresses and sun suits for my grandchildren; handle an estate; do simple plumbing and wiring ... the list goes on and on.
At fourteen, we were still in our parents’ care. Now we are the parents/grandparents/older generation. It seems to me that being the protector is a whole lot better than being the protectee.
In retirement, our days – all the hours in them – are our own, no longer dictated by school or work or the needs of small children. Even the chores we must do can be done when we choose to do them. I particularly enjoy my mornings, the glorious, slow, coffee-and-newspaper-filled mornings that I’ve slid into since I left the early morning mandates of a school teacher. Those mornings are now all mine to spend or mis-spend as I like.
Childhood was a delight, but I had no desire to hang on to it. Adulthood promised to be much more exciting, and once I got there, it was. And still is.
Each stage of life seems to have had things to recommend it, and for me, the current one – retired, with young grandchildren – is proving less stressful and more fun than I ever imagined. In fact, given what I’ve learned and accomplished, I think that being 68 is a whole lot better than being fourteen. Fourteen may have held the peak of physical skills and a thrilling sense of future possibilities, but it also carried a ton of adolescent angst. Sixty-eight has some physical discomforts and lots of memories, both fond and not so fond. The possibilities for the future may be limited, but the present seems all the more precious.
Those of us who remain vital at “a certain age” should be proud of having gotten this far, not unscathed, mind you, but nonetheless still here and able to think. And a whole lot wiser for the journey.