You're Not Old Until You're Ninety


by Rebecca Latimer

I want to tell you about Emily Rockwood. She was a beacon in front of me, a light to follow. She had so much spirit, so much humor and she saw herself so clearly.

We had begun a lively correspondence after she entered an old people's home, "The Inn," in Florida, when she was eighty-five.

I found I had about fifty letters from her, written in her strong, rounded handwriting‹no grade school Palmer Method for Emily! When, later, she couldn't see what she was writing, her penciled uneven letters still gave out the rich flavor of her indomitable spirit.

Emily Rockwood was born in January, 1883. She died in December, 1984. A fortunate woman, she was her (feisty) self to the end.

In the summer of 1971, Emily Rockwood and her good friend, Jessie, had been asked to look after a beautiful little house perched above the sea in Rockport on the rugged New England coast. (Emily often escaped from The Inn to visit Jessie and twice escaped for the entire summer.)

It seems a pleasant coincidence to remember that Emily was then exactly the age I am as I write this, eighty-eight.

When I drove to Rockport, I didn't know it was to be the last time I would see her. I hadn't seen her for several years and I was pleased to find she had retained much of her strength and all of her quick mind. She didn't seem to have changed at all; it was characteristic of her to say as she got slowly up from a low chair, "It's only my body that gives me trouble. It creaks and it cracks, but it's not me. I only live in it."

Then she gave me a straight look. "I see you've finally grown up. How do you enjoy your white hair?" I was sixty-five then, and I didn't think of myself as old. In fact, I hadn't realized my hair was white; I thought it was still grey. But Emily hadn't finished. "You might try a cane," she was saying. "The combination gets me all sorts of privileges."

(I must confess I differ from Emily in many ways and this is one of them. Although I have fallen from time to time, I rarely use a cane, and I'm so stiff-necked I don't want special privileges because I'm old.)

Emily Rockwood was my first cousin, her mother the older sister of my mother. I remember being told that my grandmother had had her last child, her eleventh, as her oldest daughter was having her first, Emily. Times have changed, haven't they?

I didn't see Emily often while I was growing up, but when, at twenty, I summoned the daring to board a commuter train to Jersey City from my home in Cranford, to catch the ferry to Manhattan, my life changed.

I had gotten a job in Greenwich Village on a new magazine, Plain Talk, one my mother considered a "muckraker," though I thought it a trailblazer. My mother didn't approve of my working in New York.

It wasn't long before my mother reminded me that her sister, my aunt, who was living on East 56th Street, would be glad to put me up for the night, if I had to work late. I understood right away why she had made this suggestion.

About once a week I had found it convenient to spend the night in the city, and on those occasions I stayed with Doris, a good friend who had rented a basement apartment in Greenwich Village. The front window in her bedroom had a grating over it, and through it you could see the steps leading down to the apartment, and also the feet walking by on the sidewalk above.

Doris was very hospitable and I loved staying there, particularly as our sleep was often interrupted by one of her friends (usually male) tapping on the window, mouthing through it, "You can't be asleep this early!" Doris always let the visitor in and then got back in bed, while her friend filled her in on the latest publishing gossip. (I was sitting up in the other bed, wide-eyed.) This behavior seemed marvelously bohemian to me, but I never should have told my mother about it. To placate her, I followed her suggestion, staying the night with my aunt from time to time. I found I enjoyed that fully as much, though in a different way from the risqué delights of Greenwich Village.

My cousin, Emily, about forty at the time, was very busy running an interior decorating shop on the street floor of her family's brownstone house. The shop always glowed with color. Delicate, dazzling fabrics‹gold tissue, vivid cretonnes printed with wild flowers‹were strewn over the chairs and sofas. When I was married two years later, Emily's wedding present to me was a knife-pleated, Fortuny, sea-green tissue gown that clung like skin to my body, right down to my ankles, turning me into a mermaid. I am ashamed to admit that in those days my body embarrassed me. I never wore that lovely ethereal gown and I don't even remember to whom I finally gave it. (If it still exists, it's probably in a museum.)

I wonder what you would have made of Emily if you had met her then. She was plain, which as we all know, is a curse for a woman in our culture. Her nose tilted up and her face always looked recently scrubbed. Emily's straight black hair was pulled back into a knob on the curve of her head. Her body was spare but straight as an arrow.

Emily had already developed a faculty for being comfortable with people of any age. She never made me feel that she was older than I. She had not married but was always ready to hear about my dates and interests, which were just then centering on one person.

Emily supported herself with her shop and, I suspect, helped her father and mother financially. To escape the unbearable heat of New York summers, she rented a small shingled fisherman's cottage on the edge of the beautiful beach at Ogunquit, Maine, where she carried on a flourishing business. She took her mother up with her and twice asked me to visit them there. (Emily spoke of this many years later in one of those letters from Florida, reminding me that my one-piece bathing suit with no skirt had shocked her mother.)

When her father and mother grew old, Emily moved them to Florida, and after they left her, Emily stayed on, making summer forays north with her friend, Jessie, usually house-sitting for vacationing friends. When she was finally too old to remain totally independent, she entered "The Inn," a home for elderly people. Her graphic letters describing her life there gave me a series of pictures that astonished me. In that unlikely atmosphere she retained her cheerful spirit and her caustic wit, and even her relish for life itself.

Emily described the birds and flowering trees that surrounded her when she worked in her garden, so when she wrote, "I must be a comical sight, tending my garden with one hand and hanging on to my cane with the other!" I could see Emily standing awkwardly, cane in one hand, rake in the other, clearing the leaves away from her little flower bed, while birds sang around her.

If you are surprised to find her working in her garden at an old people's home, this was the result of her own magic. She had persuaded the director to let her have a little patch of ground to cultivate, just below her window.

She had two windows in her room, always crowded with seedlings and pots of blossoming flowers. Her room was ten feet by ten feet, and she used every inch of it. When the other old ladies looked in on her, they laughed, she said. And I could imagine a prim old woman looking around, saying, "What a clutter!"

But Emily said, "It's the only place I have, so why shouldn't it be full? My interests don't shrink with age, though my ability to do things does! I like to have my different baskets on the floor, handy to my chair‹and all my books, of course." She didn't mention the trowel, the little rake and the watering can she kept handy, too. She was always working on something. "At present, I am hooking a cushion for Jessie's cat, which proves how exciting are our interests here!"

Later, in 1976, she hooked a small rug for our Christmas. She was then ninety-three. She embroidered her initials and the year on the rug. It lies beside me now on my chaise lounge and I admire the beautiful red flower at the bottom. I like to think Emily liked that red flower, too.

Once she wrote that when a person died at the Inn, all their possessions were tossed out. She asked me if I would like any of her "trashy treasures," and when I answered I'd be honored to have them, she sent me a picture of herself at sixteen, with her two small brothers. (She looked prim and very much in charge.) She also sent a daguerreotype of her mother in her youth, who already had the sweet patient look I remembered. With these priceless pictures came one of our mutual great-grandmother, Hester Levy. I had never seen a photograph of her before; she was a strikingly handsome woman. These were treasures indeed, and far from "trashy."

I had always thought that Emily's life had not been an easy one, brought up strictly as she was, having to support herself throughout her life, never enjoying the frivolous amusements most of us have had. I always admired her cheerfulness and courage. But I found out that Emily did not see her life as I did. This emerged from an encounter with the chaplain at the Inn.

I imagine the conversation took place in her little room, the chaplain moving cautiously among the baskets and books spread over the floor. Emily wrote, "The chaplain here is a nice man, but he says I stress fun too much. That is because there is so little of it here! Maybe he has had less of it than I have had, which makes me miss it." I am sure Emily got the better of the nice chaplain in that encounter, but he wasn't the only one to criticize her. "There are those who say I am a bad woman, but don't you believe them!"

This was probably because she had never given up her love for a cigarette. How Emily managed to cajole the people at the Inn into indulging her in the pernicious habit of smoking would have been hard for me to understand if I'd not long ago discovered Emily usually got what she wanted. Even when she was in her nineties, she would be taken out to the garden in her wheelchair for the pleasure of smoking her one cigarette of the day.

My younger readers may not know that doctors often recommend to their elderly patients a glass of wine before dinner and Emily's letter on this subject made me break into laughter.

Emily was reporting on her 89th birthday, "my last birthday before old age. After my next, the 90th, I can no longer claim to be even elderly." She went on, "Jessie came to visit and we had a good time, if a quiet one. We had parties in my room. Birthday cake and sherry. Jessie had given me a gallon bottle of sherry for Christmas," (It was that Christmas gift that made me laugh.) Emily went on, "It amuses outsiders to think of all the old women indulging in drink. I guess they all do. There was one who went too far in her indulgence. It was so particularly hushed up that everyone knew about it."

Emily saw herself very clearly and did not pretend to feelings she didn't have. "This Inn is a cross-section of a woman's world. Everything from a club-woman type to a family cast-off." (She never minced words!) "When I'm good-natured, I find it amusing, but some days I'm disgruntled and don't. But life runs along smoothly with the simple pleasures of second childhood." And she added, always aware of what was going on outside her small world, "Hope you're not snowed in and freezing way up there in Vermont. We're in the midst of our first cold spell. I have been busily covering the flowers in my garden against tonight's frost."

I keep smiling as I read her letters. "I assure you old age is a strange condition, but one can take more than one would think," she wrote me. I can say Amen to that!

When she was ninety-seven, her nephew and his wife came by to take her out to dinner. "So you can see things are looking up! What I pay for fun is little compared to what it does for me. Why should I mind lying in bed after a good time? The payment for my gay actions struck me all of a sudden, but the fun was worth it."

A little later on, "I'm not a nice old lady at all. Yesterday I had to speak pleasantly to the dentist, though I would have preferred to bite his fingers." I respond to that too!

I find that most people don't like to think about death, but Emily often spoke of it. I remember in 1971 when we were visiting her I spoke of my mother who was then ninety-seven.

Emily said with conviction, "The nearer you get to the end of your life, the less you mind the thought of death."

I think I said, "It's just a change."

She answered cheerfully, "For the better!"

Later in the same year she wrote me again: "Death is my next great adventure and I welcome it. The last days have been hard to take, not being able to do anything and lacking patience to accept it. Maybe I will improve."

She had nearly five more years to go, but she must have had death often in her mind, for she wrote about it again, "Dying is my next step. After that I believe something good comes and I pray it will be a busy time, working. I am bored with doing nothing, and learning nothing. I am bored with my ignorance about so much."

Her spirit, her courage, her clarity, her humor, never lessened as she grew older. You may remember that she said, "My interests do not shrink with age." Instead of growing less aware, less observant, less interested in the world around her and the world outside of it, Emily remained alert and interested in everything. Though she often mentioned casually being in and out of the hospital, she never mentioned operations or physical symptoms.

We always called Emily on her birthday. I have come upon a note in my journal, January 29,1982: Today is Emily Rockwood’s 99th birthday. I called the Inn yesterday to set up a phone call, so this morning she was stationed in a wheelchair by the phone and when we called, she answered the phone herself! After the Happy Birthdays and good wishes, Emily said, "You may laugh at me but I am worried about you all and earthquakes. The TV stresses unpleasant things and I hate to think of such following you to your new house." I reassured her and she added, "Old age encourages worries!"

I had to dry my eyes after I talked to her. She sounded frail but very clear in her mind.

I had made a friend of the manager at the Inn, so I wrote her in 1984, as Emily's eyesight had forced her to stop writing. I was cheered by the reply that came back. "She is out in her wheelchair daily, smoking and enjoying the outdoors-still alert-and feisty most of the time-eats well-sleeps well-no pain-her eyesight is poor-hearing is fine." She was then 101.

My friend wrote me later that Emily had died, as she had lived, with grace. She had been taken out into the garden for a cigarette after lunch, had returned to take a nap and, while sleeping, left us.

You can't be surprised that Emily has been my role model for years. I am still in my own home, hoping to keep out of any and all "Health Centers," hoping that if I have to enter one, I will take it as cheerfully as Emily. I remember her letter, "Unfortunately, I am again in the Health Center, if very unwillingly. It cramps my style unmercifully, but I am beginning to feel better, if not younger."

I sometimes wonder whether Emily Rockwood would approve of my present interests and experiments. I rather imagine she would have been puzzled, if not downright antagonistic, to the idea of controlling one's mind and one's body. Better to tend to the natural things of life, growing things, watching the seasons.

SUMMING UP: Let's let Emily Rockwood have a last provocative word. She once wrote me, "It's a shame to confess it but I do not make a good job of being an old woman," and then added, "Do you suppose I expected to live forever?" As to the first remark, if I can make as good a job of being an old woman as Emily, I'll be surprised and delighted. As for expecting to live forever, I don't, and the way it takes me is to make me feel in a hurry to get done all I want to do while I'm still here.

From You're Not Old Until You are Ninety: Best to be Prepared, However, by Rebecca Latimer. Copyright ©1997 by Rebecca Latimer. Excerpted by arrangement with Blue Dolphin Publishing, Inc. $12.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-643-0765, or click here.