It seems like when you leave youth behind, you should at least know it. There ought to be a requiem of some kind. A demarcation.

Mama_0001 copy.jpgThis year, at 74, for the first time I feel old. I’m not unaware that I’ve BEEN old for quite some time, but other than a twinge here and there, my ring finger increasingly getting stuck in the bent position, an aching knee when I walk too far, and forgetting a few more names than usual (I’ve had dysnomia since childhood – my own particular learning disability – and have consistently called my kids by their siblings names and my current husband by my first husband’s name), but still, I have FELT young. I’ve continued to live my life full steam ahead as if I was 30 – or 50 – and do far more every day than any reasonable person ought, exactly like I always have.

With the help of L’Oreal, I appear a little younger than I am, so people are surprised when I tell them my true age, pleasing me no end. Inside I still feel 17. My essential nature is girlish, the rebellious teenager. I continue to push myself to see as much of the world as I can before I bite it, and find a way to lug around my growing grandchildren whom I love beyond reason, though one-year old Harrison is a giant!

But this is the year – 74 – the year I feel the difference. I ache in more places, long for a nap every afternoon, and like nothing more than coming home and climbing in bed early, piddling, reading a book or watching a series, or if my energy’s up, writing. When I overextend, I feel it, sometimes for days. 

I find I have less and less interest in intellectual arguments, arguments of any kind, though I am as opinionated as ever. “Leave well-enough alone,” my father, an inveterate conflict avoider, always said, and at 74, I am beginning to agree with him. I like to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts. I am happy most of the time, and there’s a pile of good stuff about getting old, but that is an essay for another day.

It seems like when you leave youth behind, you should at least know it. There ought to be a requiem of some kind. A demarcation.

74 is my demarcation.

Mama had said it one day: “I couldn’t conceive of ever being like Papa and Mama. I felt sorry for them. They worked and worried and never seemed to be having any fun. Mama even fretted over meals, what she was going to have, and then when it was on the table, she talked about whether it was cooked right or not. Not long after supper, they said they were tired and went to bed. Poor things. They were old, but I’d never be that way.”

 “It kinda sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?” I agreed.

“Even when you and Carol used to ask me how I felt, and I’d say, ‘Not too well’ or ‘Oh, I guess I’m all right . . . just tired,’ and you’d get this look on your faces—the same blank expression I’m sure Papa and Mama witnessed on mine. I could have told you that I don’t really feel old inside, in my spirit—that I feel exactly the way I’ve always felt inside. It’s just my body that’s tired and getting old. But that look of incomprehension would still be there, because there’s no way to bridge the gap. Not then. You thought your skin would never get soft and wrinkled, and that your slim little waists would never thicken. You’d never feel sad because life was flying by and you hadn’t had time to do everything you wanted to.” 

“Well, that stage is long past,” I said, patting my belly. 

She continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Youth blinds you, and it’s a good thing. We need blinders at times. I wish I had some now. You let feeling take over and possess you. Even sadness, being miserable, is good when you’re young. Sorrow has a kind of beauty; it’s all of a piece, and you are in it, instead of it being in you.”

“Yeah . . .” 

“But later on, you try to temper all that emotion because it’s uncomfortable if it’s too strong. Better to be lukewarm than to burn with too bright a flame. You’d rather be comfortable. It’s a little like being in a harness. You feel the traces on either side, and they keep you in the middle of the road where it’s safe, away from the ditches and the deep embankments—the wide, open, scary stretches that could lead anywhere.”

I was only partially following.

“Sometimes, I wonder how I got on this safe, straight road to death. When did I cross the invisible line between young and old? At what moment, exactly, did I discover that strong feeling was bad on my heart and my blood pressure, that peace of mind was the be-all and end-all of living? When did I decide that cooking the meat just right was all-important? It seems like when you leave youth behind, you should at least know it. There ought to be a requiem of some kind. A demarcation. When you care more about cooking the meat just right than you care about how many people are starving all over the world or how a black man feels when somebody calls him Nigger, you at least ought to know when you changed.”

From Getting Old, a chapter in my new memoir: Shopping with Mama: Write ’Til the End. Buy my book and read more at

The Good Luck Club

Female friendships that work are relatioships in which women help each other belong to themselves.  — Louise Benikow

53.jpgOnce or twice a year, Mama; my sister, Carol; my daughter, Kirsten; and I would have a sleepover, climb into our pajamas and talk. Each woman got her chance to spill the beans—if there were beans to spill—or just laugh, drink, eat and commiserate. We were girls telling jokes, acting crazy, depressed, happy, cynical, silly, or whatever we really were in the company of our peers. Afterwards we found we could deal better with the pile on our plates, and sometimes gather the courage to smash the plate altogether. 

My grandmother’s generation had called this conclave The Little Helper’s Club: their tribe of womenfolk who helped each other with whatever life threw their way—some predicament, their husbands, or children. They may not have had much power in the outside world, but they had one hell of a responsibility inside the family frame. They got things done, moved themselves and their families forward. The name morphed into the Good Luck Club for Mama, Carol, Kirsten, and me.

True, we had a few fiascos when one of us got too honest or pushy. There were meltdowns, or one would leave with her feelings hurt. The group was for support, for God’s sakes! So, we would self-correct and behave. 

But as everybody knows: Girls rule! Certain things seem to transpire only when women are alone together. Here are a few snippets.

In Mama’s living room: “It’s fascinating to me to watch the dynamic, the various things that go on between husband and wife,” Mama said, settling back into her club chair and putting her feet up on the needlepoint footstool. “All for different reasons, of course. It’s like a dance to me.

“A dance implies something a little more beautiful,” I said.

“Yeah, some of it isn’t so beautiful, just a jumpin’ and a jivin’,” Kirsten added, pushing back a long strand of her russet hair. This time she’d brought her new baby daughter, Mena Claire, to our gathering—her gift to her grandmother, a baby, a namesake.
“Mena Claire throws me into a total trance. Look at me: I’ve got the smile of a complete simpleton on my face.”

Mena Claire gooed at her. She looked like a Scandinavian baby with her red cheeks and ribbed t-shirt.

Mama changed tack. “I need your help, girls. I don’t know if I’m going through retribution, hell on earth, or revelation, but I’m beginning to realize what a plain ole stinking person I can be! There’s a little blue car over at the McCuskers’, and I don’t know whose it is. My first inclination was to call Mary Jo and say, ‘Come on, Mary Jo, since you never come by and see me anymore, I would certainly like for you to just tell me who is living at the McCuskers’ now.’ I feel like someone should tell me that.”

“Mama,” I chastised. “Mary Jo’s not leaving you out. She’s busy. She works. She does so much for you.” I identified with Mary Jo.

“No. Nothing is the same any more, Marion. It’s not right for Mary Jo to all of a sudden ignore me, not after all these years together. It’s not right. I helped her get that house, introduced her to people around here. Now, I may as well not exist. And then I think: Let it go, Mena. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. But can I really change at this stage of my life and be a nice person instead of a mean old bitch?”

“Well, how do you think you’re going to handle it, Grandma?” Kirsten, the expert questioner, proffered.

“I just made the first move,” Mama said. “I aired my beef to my two kinsmen. Tell me the truth, not something just to spare my feelings. Here I am. I have lived this long and I’m not any better than I ever was. In fact, I’m worse.”

“Hmmmm. I can see how that would be troubling,” Kirsten mused out loud.

“I do not want that sweet little namesake of mine to ever know what a real bitch I can be,” Mama warned. 

“But that’s her birthright, Granny. It’s important for her to know the foibles of even the greatest. Maybe it doesn’t sound good, but it’s human. Everyone harbors grudges and complaints. We all have our low and small-minded moments. That’s okay. It’s human. I don’t like being around saints.”

“Do you know any saints?”

Kirsten thought. “Yeah, one. Joan.”

“They’re flat as batter cakes,” Mama said.
“Poke Salad.”

“If I were sober, I would know what that is. What do I do with it?” Mama asked.

“Put it in your nose,” Kirsten said.


We descend into silliness.


More can be be read about women propagating good luck in Shopping with Mama: Write ‘Til the End.