I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads
itself grandly as it pours in the great sea.
Walt Whitman, “To Old Age”
We pull up to the flower shop in the 1970 Dodge Charger my brother lent me while he was away repairing U.S. bombers for missions over Vietnam. It’s just the three of us: my brother, recently arrived from Thailand on leave, my then-husband, and me. I’m in my early twenties and wearing, as I did most cool southern California evenings, a bright red and black Guatemalan poncho. My favorite garment, it suits my dark eyes and deep brown hair, which flies all about me and down to the middle of my back.
We’ve come to order flowers for our mother, who languishes in an Iowa hospital where she’d contracted a staph infection after a surgery. She’ll be okay, but we do not yet know that.
We step out onto the parking lot of the small strip mall and walk toward the shop. Through its glass door I see an older woman – in her sixties for sure, possibly even seventies. We see her in profile as she bends over the shelves at the very front of the shop. I figure someone has just bought a large arrangement, so she is busily moving all the smaller planters to fill in the unsightly gap left in the display. I push the door open, step lightly through the door, and greet her casually, as if I were a regular customer and she will know who I am, though I have never been here before.
The woman straightens and turns to see who has spoken to her. As she turns to me, she strikes me as so beautiful that I experience a catch in my breath. I say to myself, “If only I could be so beautiful when I am her age.” I feel a wave of surprise, perhaps even shock, coming from her in the seconds before the many lines of her face compose themselves into a smile. There’s a snap to her dark eyes.
Now, because I’m afraid I’ve offended her with my overly friendly greeting, I’m all business. I explain the purpose of our visit. We move to the counter and begin flipping through FTC catalogs. After conferring back and forth, we decide on a large parlor palm to suit Mom’s green thumb, and to express our belief that she will live to bring the plant home and add it to her collection of philodendrons, African violets, and geraniums. We make sure to spend enough money so she’ll notice that we care, but not so much that she’ll feel too fussed over. Meanwhile, I regard the older woman’s beauty surreptitiously, her long, wild hair tied loosely in a silver-gray bun at the nape of her neck, sprigs darting out at both temples and along her neck. I can’t escape feeling that she’s looking at me oddly. I become even more contrite about my too-casual address to her and suspect I’ve violated the behavior code from childhood about respecting my elders. I become extra polite to compensate for my faux pas.
Then she says, “Excuse me for staring. I don’t mean to be rude, but you startled me. When you walked into the shop, I thought I was seeing a ghost of myself from forty years ago. You look just like I did, and that shawl is exactly like something I would have worn.”
“Oh,” is all I can muster. When my breath returns, I add, “Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment,” hoping she feels complimented, too. I am so relieved that I haven’t, after all, blundered that I begin prattling stupidly about the shawl, as if it were the ghost she’d been staring at and not me.
The moment we step outside the shop, my brother exclaims, “Wow. I had just thought to myself that she looks like you will forty years from now, right before she said that.” My ex seconds the impression. I have no words to describe the peculiar feeling of having just stepped out of, then back into, time. We drive home in silence.
She had invited me to come back and visit her. I wanted to, once even parked the car in the lot and observed her through the double safety of windshield and door glass. I was hesitant to speak to her again, afraid to break the spell, or discover I’d imagined the whole interlude. At that moment in my young adulthood, this woman had presented me with an older self I had no backbone to accept. Beautiful like her, I wanted to be, one day. Old, I did not.
On my 50th birthday, my last menstruation began. A couple months after that, my back went out on me. I bent to lift a bag of newspapers for recycling and felt something give. Later in the day, a mere sneeze sent my entire spine into spasms. I couldn’t bend, move, sit, or walk. For months afterward, I treated with a chiropractor. I had to adapt the body mechanics of every daily activity until, gradually, I could take up my life again, though not without modifications and a regular schedule of back care exercises. That same year, just a month before my 51st birthday, I was stung by a yellow jacket and went into full blown anaphylactic shock. In one single year, my 50th, my body betrayed all my trust, all the nonchalance of my younger, joint-swinging self.
I also began to notice that when I got together with my sister and brothers, sentences I remembered hearing from aunts and uncles had crept into our conversation: “My eyes don’t gather light like they used to.” “All my joints ache.” “I just don’t have the energy I used to have.” Suddenly, I had entered the territory that only recently, it seemed, had been the exclusive province of my parents’ generation. Like millions of Baby Boomers, twenty years after the magic age of thirty when we’d believed that life would be over, I’d stepped across the threshold into my fifties. The image of the flower shop lady began to rise and bob just outside my consciousness with more frequency, but less accuracy.
Now, instead of a simple vision of the sweet little eighty-year-old lady I wanted to become, I found myself wondering how her lower back felt as she bent over the shelves that day lifting and arranging heavy pots full of flowers and soil. I wondered about her knees, what standing on the poured concrete floor of the shop did to them, and whether she had one of those cushioned pads behind the counter and a stool to sit on when her knees began to ache. I marveled that there had been no glasses in my memory of her. Had she worn glasses that day and lifted her head those slight inches to shift her gaze from the reading portion of bifocals in order to focus on my face, my red shawl? Or had she raised a pair of half-glasses from their resting place on her bosom, a black cord looping around her neck to keep them ready to hand? Had she peered over the top of them from the cash register at my brother and me? Or had she by some magic escaped that part of the aging process and kept her vision intact? More than likely, I had rubbed her glasses off my memory, erasing all but what fit my idea of a beautiful little old lady, a woman whose charm I wanted to inhabit, if not her actual body.
I would like to be able to write about growing old with charm and without complaint. When I was a kid, and especially a teen, the complaints of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles bored me to nearly choking over holiday dinners. When I paid any mind as I passed among them, it seemed they spent an inordinate amount of time comparing notes about ailments and doctoring. This one had lumbago. That one arthritis, fingers twisting painfully away from palms. Another had gout. Several required medication for high blood pressure. Some had survived heart attacks or other serious illness. Now, their list of ills, so bothersome and remote at the time, has shifted into the column of things I need to concern myself about. Which ills am I genetically predisposed to? What can I manage to stave off with preventive care? In the end, it’s the list of complaints that gets my attention about my own aging.
I notice I’ve written that I had “suddenly” entered the territory of the fifties. At family dinners and picnics, this decade once seemed to me near old age. Yet, to my aunts and uncles who survive and look back at me from their nineties, it must have felt like the mere beginning of middle age. Each day has added another twenty-four hours to the process, drawing me ever closer to now. The “being here” feels sudden. Too busy to notice the life, I am forced by my own complaints to pause and take that long overdue look, one that is now longer in the looking back than the looking forward. I am surprised to find that the number on my years is sixty-five.
I’m not alone in that surprise. In The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir quotes Goethe as saying, “Age takes hold of us by surprise.” Each of us, de Beauvoir explains, is our own “sole, unique subject,” the “I” of consciousness. When it strikes us that we share the fate of those outside ourselves, those Others, we are caught unawares. Of her own experience, de Beauvoir says: “I remember my own stupefaction when I was seriously ill for the first time in my life and I said to myself, ‘This woman they are carrying on a stretcher is me.’” Even more perhaps than accidents or illness, age, this mere “passage of universal time,” astounds us when we discover that it has “brought about a private, personal metamorphosis. . .” We regard old age as alien, as Other, in the day-by-day journey into our future. The term “sixty-year-old” applies a biological number to people we know, but our own “private, inward experience does not tell us the number of our years. . . .” When confronted by my own aging, I find within myself that “Other—that is to say the person I am for the outsider—who is old: and that Other is myself.”
When I return in memory and imagination to the crone leaning over the shelves of flowers, I advance her age in numbers. She would have to be over a hundred now to remain forty years older than I am, yet she looks exactly the same. Old. White-haired. Dark-eyed. Thin. A bright floral print apron, red-handled pruning shears peeking out of a pocket, a simple black, mildly faded dress under all the color. She’s still beautiful, and she still looks at me quizzically. I never knew her name or anything about her life, other than that she worked in a flower shop and had, in her youth, worn a poncho like mine. All these years, she has represented the Other for me, Old Age. Yet somehow I have internalized her as Subject, the self I want to be when I am in my nineties.
She steps into my mind’s eye now with a caption, a quote from Tai-Chi master T.T. Liang, who himself lived to be one-hundred-and-two. He wrote, “Life begins at seventy.” I acknowledge with more empathy than ever before her aching knees, the pain in her lower back, her fatigue from rarely sleeping through the night. I wonder what she would say to Liang, to Simone de Beauvoir, or to me across the distance. Or whether we may one day glimpse each other again in that grand estuary Walt Whitman describes.
• • •
Morgan Grayce Willow added Dodge & Scramble (Ice Cube Press, 2013) to her poetry collections Between, Silk, and The Maps are Words. She has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. Morgan’s creative nonfiction publications include “Riding Shotgun for Stanley Home Products” in Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers (Borealis Books), “Signs of the Time,” an honorable mention for the Judith Kitchen Prize in Water~Stone Review (2011), and “Legend” in Imagination & Place: Cartography (2013). Her essay collection in progress is titled A Matter of Translation. Morgan lives in Northeast Minneapolis and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.