"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Women Of A Certain Age

Navigating the waters of advancing age is no picnic. Although they are calmer than those sailed in years past, they are no less treacherous.

Margot Trumbull was ‘a woman of a certain age’, well past fifty but with a few years yet before she crossed the line into territory where under no pretext could she be considered young.  She was uncomfortable contemplating the crossing but knew that the true angst would come not from worrying about balky knees and faulty vision but from the narrowing of her life.   There would be fewer lateral opportunities and the passage to the end would be only through well-marked channel markers.

Margot was a very social person who had been called vivacious in her time – spirited, happy, and gregarious; known for her dinner parties and soirees, but no less for her informal teas, lawn parties, and picnics.  She was happiest in the company of others, had little time (or patience) for intellectual or introspective pursuits, and felt that her whole life would be one of continued engagements, relationships, and good times.

She had been an adventurer.  Never one to climb things or shoot rapids, her risks were more predictably social.  Hippolyte Diagne was a Senegalese with a burnished mahogany complexion and a gold signet ring from the Third Crusade. His great ancestor was one of the very few Africans granted knighthood in service of the King in the journey to liberate Jerusalem, and family members had served at court as counselors, advocates, and financiers. He was a direct descendent of Maad a Sinig Kumba Ndoffene Fa Ndeb Joof. King of Sine of the Royal House of Boureh Gnilane Joof, and was proud both of his European and African heritage..

Senegalese King


Margot liked him immediately, recognized him as a Wolof aristocrat with French manners, went to bed with him in due course, and managed the relationship from afar for many years.  Things could have turned out badly for her. European breeding and a regal African heritage fixed M. Diagne within a known if not familiar context, but Casamance and Falls Church, Virginia were as different as any two cultures could be in 1968.

Image result for images casamance

Margot had had many such affairs, most of which turned out as she had expected.  None interfered with her marriage.  All were temporary but with that peculiar superficial-but-not-insignificant personal engagement that only cultural vagabonds can appreciate.

In other words, Margot Trumbull led a very exciting and rewarding collateral life. She always kept on course in the shipping lanes, but just as often sailed her yawl in unfamiliar waters.

Image result for images yawl under sail

Old age meant an end to these excursions. It would be hard enough, she had heard, to keep an even keel amidst deaths, illnesses, infirmities, and loss of mental acuity. Side trips would be things of the past; and this is what bothered her most. While most people were content to stay on a predictable course, slowing but steady and determined, the loss of lateral adventure was unthinkable.  Her husband and her children were indeed important to her; but she knew that they were expected milestones and not the signposts in ‘a world without maps’.

As unthinkable as the loss of her family might be, the loss of adventure was in many ways far worse.  When she was with Hippolyte Diagne, she was as God made her and not the product of ages of social configuration.

Margot Turnbull was enough of a determinist to accept her fate, and knew that old age meant the final clipping of wings and paring of eccentricities.  She would, like all older sailors, have to haul in the jib and the mizzen, and finally with only the mainsail hoisted, sail behind gentle trades back to harbor.

Some of her friends, seeing the same inevitable dimming of the candle, went through periods of persistent activity – hikes along the ancient Spanish Pilgrimage Road, tours of the Aegean, intensive courses in mythology and genetics, or immersion courses in Bambara and !Kung.

Image result for images sailing on aegean


She had no interest in filling her sea bag with items which would only encumber her trip.  Languages, cultural experience, and new learning at a late age were only artifacts, museum pieces collected and displayed but with no real relevance or meaning. What difference at all did proficiency in Tagalog make at age 75?

Vladimir Nabokov was a memorist. He somehow knew at a very young age that the past was what defines us most.  The present is momentary.  The future is only a possibility; but the past was real. We are our past, he said. He deliberately learned how to fix memories so that they would not be forgotten.  He would recall the most important every day, running old reels of memory film so that he would always remember. 

Image result for images vladimir nabokov


Margot could not completely share Nabokov’s sentiments.  While she believed as he did that present and future were so impermanent and improbable that they were hardly worth bothering with, the mnemonic past was too lifeless and still. Sepia photographs of summers in St. Petersburg would never be enough. Flashes of Hippolyte’s Third Crusade Ring did come at odd times, and brought back vivid memories of sailing up the Gambia River; but they were insubstantial compared to the energy and vitality of the relationship.  In other words, relationships, once they were over, were irretrievable; and nothing could replace them but new adventures.

As she aged well into her sixties and early seventies, Margot surprised herself with an unusual intellectual interest. If she could no longer have romantic adventures or be the Gertrude Stein and Pearl Mesta of her generation and assemble the best and the brightest in her Russian River salon, then she had to make some sense out of the aggregations of her life. Were her lovers and lawn parties no more than bagatelles and pastimes? Were any of the patterns of her life important configurations for the end of it?

Image result for images perle mesta


Those younger friends who had known her in her vivacious phase, wondered at this now much older and increasingly solitary woman. Was something wrong? Was this dementia? Their solicitude was appreciated, but Margot suffered from none of the above.  Solitude, she now knew, was simply the space of later life. She had no regrets about her friends or losing contact with former lovers because she had set a new course, one which was more steady and true than any she had set in the past.  The last one, and certainly the most important.

All lives should end like Margot Turnbull’s – without melodrama, stress, or frenzy; and with more purpose and direction than at any time before. Margot was under no illusions about sudden epiphanies or revelations.  She was simply a woman more attuned to her life and its phases than most; and certainly more reasonable if not sanguine about her end than anyone I had ever known.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.