Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When I Am An Old Woman

I imagine you know the poem "Warning" by Jenny Joseph. When it comes to mind, I tend to think of it as trite because it has been printed on greeting cards and has generally been overused. But then I read it and remember that I like it. I like it for it's honesty and attention to mundane details. It's overexposure should not detract from the fact that Jenny Joseph had something to say. Something worth hearing.

That poem came to mind yesterday afternoon when I was listening to NPR and a piece came on about depression in the elderly. It's a difficult issue, treating depression that is, essentially, understandable. Depression in someone who has reached an age where their friends are dying. Depression in someone who may have lost a spouse or siblings to old age. Their bodies don't work as well and for many people old age brings with it debilitating illness. Elderly people who are unable to care for themselves any longer find the transition to assisted living disheartening at best. It can be a very difficult time in life, particularly in a culture that values youth and disdains age, and the treatment of this type of depression is a complex issue.

I listened to the radio, thinking about what I expect from my own old age and what has made this time in life more difficult for older people I have known. I suppose that brought the poem to mind.

Hopefully I will have children and grandchildren. While I hope they will visit, I also hope my life is sufficiently full that I don't mind their absence when they do not. I am putting money away for retirement, so theoretically will be able to stop working and still support myself at a reasonable age. I will have a lot more time to paint. If my hands hold out and I don't develop arthritis, I will probably crochet a lot. Not because old ladies are supposed to crochet but because I enjoy it. I will have time to make more elaborate quilts and include hand stitched details that don't fit into my busy life right now. I will drink a lot of tea and make a huge production out of it. I will bake things I wouldn't allow myself to eat in my youth. I will audition for quirky old lady parts in local theater productions. I will make huge pots of homemade soup and putter around the kitchen all day. I'll wear my hair in a short white Louise Brooks bob but forget to put on makeup unless I'm going out. I'll go on long walks because I don't have to be anywhere. I'll spend too much money on fancy chocolates and wear brightly colored scarves.

I hope I am satisfied with my choices and the life I have lived when I reach my "golden years." And, as the poem subtly cautions, I hope I don't feel as if I have waited until too late in life to take the time to do the things I want to do. I try to make as much time for them now as I can, but I think having more time for my myriad hobbies will be comforting in my old age.

A friend of mine is planning her grandmother's 80th birthday celebration. Her family has this tradition, they throw a sort of "this is your life" celebration for the women of the family when they turn 80. My friend refers to it as being similar to "a funeral while you're still alive," which actually makes a lot of sense. As Jeff Goldblum's character said of funerals in The Big Chill, "They throw a great party for you on the one day they KNOW you can't come." What a wonderful idea to throw such a party when the person CAN be there to enjoy it, a party to tell them how important they are and celebrate their life while they are still with you.

I wonder if the women in my family would like such a party thrown for them? Some of them aren't very fond of being reminded of birthdays and might not think it was so great... If I am alive when I am 80, I think I will throw myself a funeral. Give away things that would have gone in a will. Have a big hoo-ha and play music that I want played at my actual funeral. Tell everyone what I really think. And then live another 20 years just for spite.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Jenny Joseph

It's funny to think that, while Jenny Joseph is now over 70 years old, she was not yet 30 when she wrote this tremendously popular meditation on the freedoms of old age and not wasting too much of our youth on excessive sobriety.


  1. Hi, I'm here via your latest comments on Liza' blog (Something Something) and because I AM OLD! 70! But 70 today is not what it used to be, so I am fortunately still almost fully-functional, except for needing more sleep than before. Or at least getting more sleep than before.

    You are very wise to be thinking about your life as finite...America in general is so youth-oriented that it seems the goal is to be immortal. At some point one becomes more aware that every day of life is a treasure. I say this having left my home in Tel Aviv two weeks ago to watch my 81-year-old brother's life ebbing away in Los Angeles...

    Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate!

  2. Thank you for your comment! I absolutely agree that U.S. culture is so youth oriented that we tend not to think in terms of our time on this earth being limited OR value our youth while we have it.

    My grandmother (who passed last year at the age of 85) always stressed the importance of taking care of myself and understanding the value of the time I had and the journey I was on instead of thinking only in terms of "someday." From a young age she had difficulty with her legs and yet she went swimming in the ocean every day at 6am until she had no choice but to quit in her late 70's. She always grabbed hold of life and made the most of every moment. Hopefully some of her spirit has rubbed off on me.

    I will be thinking of you in Los Angeles and wish you and your brother the best. I hope you are able to have some quality time together. I have sat with loved ones in the hospital during their last days and understand how valuable that time is.