Last week, while driving from a campaign event in Keene, N.H., I stumbled upon a used bookstore that I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. I stopped in — even though I was rushing to catch a plane — and came upon a sad book published anonymously in 1911.The book is called “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman,” and it’s a description of what it was like to be old a century ago. The woman begins by recalling the stages of her life: the misty days of girlhood; the precious years when she was raising her young; the rewarding times when she and her children were adults together and companions.
But then something changed.
“I do not know when the change came, nor do they, if indeed they realize it at all,” she writes. “There was a time when I was of their generation; now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a moment when my boys were more thoughtful of me, when they didn’t come to me anymore with their perplexities, not because I had what is called ‘failed,’ but because they felt that the time had come when I ought to be ‘spared’ every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household.”
She describes how her children baby her. They offer to give her rides in the carriage to run errands when she could just as well walk. They try to prevent her from doing normal housework on the grounds that it’s too taxing. “You count the number of your years by the way your daughter watches your steps; and you see your infirmities in your son’s anxious eyes.”
She describes living in a different dimension. She sees and understands, but her counsel is never sought and she has no ground upon which to act. “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear before their feet.”
Though writing in the age of the gas lamp, she understands what the latest scientific research is now concluding. “Very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don’t understand and others that you understand only too well, for, like weeds, your faults come up and refuse to be rooted out ...
“There came a time when I realized that every child on the street my child stopped to talk with had its share in bringing up my sons and daughters. One week in school was enough to upset all the training of years.”
The book is a lament from a person put on a shelf, bound by convention and by the smothering concern of others not to exert any power on the world, even while seeing more clearly than ever the way power can and cannot be exerted.
It’s a remarkable little book, and when I did some research, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t written by an old woman. It was written by 37-year-old Mary Heaton Vorse, using the voice of her own mother.
Vorse was a bohemian and a radical journalist who wrote for The Masses, hung around Eugene O’Neill, John Reed and Louise Bryant, and she helped found the Provincetown Players.
Using her mother’s perspective, Vorse wrote a sort of “The Second Sex” for the elderly of 1911. It is about a class of people unable to exercise their capacities.
And what she described was real. In “Growing Old in America,” the historian David Hackett Fischer writes that age was venerated in early America. But starting in the first half of the 19th century, youth was venerated and age was diminished.
Thoreau wrote that the young have little to learn from the old. The word “fogy,” which had once meant a wounded veteran, acquired its current meaning. Dinner table seating was no longer determined by age but by accomplishment. Scientific knowledge gained prestige over experience.
Women, who had once rarely lived much past their youngest child’s marriage, now lived on with no clear role. The character in “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman” is a victim of all this.
I don’t know how many of her opinions will ring true to today’s oldsters. Now, elderly are richer, more active and more engaged than their cohorts of a century ago, but are they still living in a different dimension?
Is it now a dimension of their own choosing?