The gloomy Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote a book called Fear and Trembling, which I always meant to read, but never quite managed. No great loss, though: I always felt deep down that I could have written it myself.
As a young child, and always really, I have been a mass of fears. Afraid of heights, tornadoes, bumpy air on a plane, spiders, rules, “the grownups” — You name it, I’ve quivered at it. Now I’m an old lady, and truth to tell, I’m still afraid of most of those things, along with some new ones, like elevators and other claustrophobic situations.
I’m reminded of all this because I’m reading Anna Quindlen’s memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. (Anna’s not afraid of much, I’ll tell you that.) The reason I’m reading her book is that it was sent as a gift by a very dear, and much younger, friend, who’s at a critical point in her life. In the past couple of years she’s experienced three weddings and a funeral, within months become a grandmother twice over, and is looking at retirement, both her and her husband, within the coming year. Fear and trembling, indeed! And she’s basically a pretty fearless lady —
All this triggered (like Proust’s madeleine, perhaps) a happy remembrance of what happened when I became a grandmother for the first time, almost 22 years ago. Fearful me, a new grandchild maybe six months old (it took a while for the experience to kick in), and one morning I awoke to find myself saying, “Let me through, I’m a grandmother!”
The dream scenario I’d flashed on was a traffic accident in the street, people milling around, all chaos and upsetment. And in I strode in full command and confidence, saying loudly: “Let me through, I’m a grandmother!” Fully expecting all to give way, as they would before a priest or an EMT. And in my scenario, they did.
It was a revelation to me. Somehow achieving grandmotherhood triggered a kind of confidence I’d never had before. And — I’ve never lost it. That doesn’t mean I’m not still afraid of the physical things I’ve listed, the tornadoes and spiders and heights, all that stuff. But rules and authorities? I’ll make up my own mind about these things, thank you. The finishing stroke in becoming an autonomous grownup was achieved maybe five years ago when I decided to let my hair go white, which I’ve written about here; but the process, I now realize, was first triggered by this embrace of grandmotherhood.
What we’re talking about, of course, is age and aging. It’s what Anna Quindlen is talking about, and what my friend is engaged in assimilating. In the teeth of a culture that devalues every year, wrinkle, line, how do we respond? Do we devalue ourselves? Or do we make up our minds for ourselves, assess what we’ve learned over decades of living, ponder the judgment and wisdom and moral gyroscope we’ve accumulated along with our advancing years? Can we claim for ourselves what other cultures have always known and valued about their elders, that age brings physical weakness, but it can also bring strength of character and depths of wisdom that more than make up for the loss?
Some of you have grown old along with me, already have found yourself transformed by some experience, if not of grandmotherhood, than of something else (and perhaps you’ll consider sharing your thoughts and experience here). To you who are young and strong and vigorous and still gaze on an expansive future vista — I offer some questions:
What have elders — your own grandparents, teachers, mentors, advisors — meant to you? What does aging mean to you? Fear and trembling, or something else? What are your expectations for yourself in the realm of the physical and of the spirit? As an old person I’ve learned that I don’t have any answers except provisional ones for myself, and really, none at all for other people. But I have learned that the right questions will last you a lifetime. So that’s my offering to you, it’s what I have to give.