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Aging Well

by Frances Roberts

dad and frances on her 60th birthdayShift happens.  It happened around my 60th birthday. As I began to think about the legacy of my working life and beyond towards retirement, I realized that I identified with my parents.  This was a 180-degree shift.  A shift away from looking backward at what I received as a child and what I gave in compensation to my children; forward, towards the future, and the footprint I’m leaving behind me.   

One afternoon recently, my father was helping me plant a perennial garden in my new house.  He’s always been a man-of-the-soil, planting many beautiful gardens over the years.  As we labored together, I learned about his teachers.  They were Edwardian gardeners, men spent and devastated from WWI and left unemployed as England’s grand houses slid into decline.  These men made their horticultural knowledge available to the local orphanage where my father was raised.

It must have been a difficult childhood.  But as my father dwelled on the generosity of these Edwardian horticulturalists, I heard a new note of gratitude for what they had given him – a sense of belonging to the earth – an exposure to the scent, colour and beauty of flowers, that in the no-mans-land of his abandonment, had left an indelible impression.  Now I too was grateful to learn from these old men about how to plant a garden that would last.

But what shapes identity in the later years?  It seems to require the additional years or decades in order to be confirmed and fulfilled.  I tore at the weeds left from years of neglect as he told his graphic and terrifyingly real stories of WWII.   Recounting how RAF (Royal Air Force) airman landing burning planes, themselves on fire begged to be shot rather than endure a life of pain and the shame of disfigurement and lost youth.

He witnessed this inferno when he was only 20.  My mother, then a young WRAC (Women’s Royal Air Corps.), took care of him for days afterwards until he could finally stomach some food.  Clearly, their love for one another was greater than the fear they experienced as each supported one another.  These burned airmen were they able to give it time, may have chosen life over death.  They could have become aware that love may take years to become mature and fulfilling, and that memory is seasoned and mellowed by these same years.

In many ways I am rediscovering my father.  In between we exchange ideas about my garden.  “You’ll need a bower, a place to sit and be solitary”, he says. Having emerged from a workplace burnout where my Blackberry kept me on call 7/24, this is exactly what I need.  And yet I intuit that he means something else. With aging comes the time to sit still long enough to ponder, meditate and savor to the full, the surrounding ripeness. It’s life looked at like the splendid tree resting on solid trunk planted in my new garden 100 years ago, or enjoying the perfume of a ripening bower, or relishing the lingering taste of aging wines and cheeses.

I began to learn a valuable lesson.  It takes living longer and becoming older for true nature to emerge. The metaphor is not lost of me. “Oldness” begins to take on a different value.  It’s valuable because it adds value to things I treasure – like places, people and things like the Beethoven music I first listened to 40 years ago that now feels deeper and more meaningful.

In other ways our values are complimentary.  Both of us chuckle and shake our heads in frustration at the distracted and uninformed teenagers who serve in the local DIY centre.  My father is determined not to ape youth, but to reverse prevailing wisdom, by embarking upon a personal re-invention.  The gritty purpose of someone who’ll not go out with a whimper!  In his 80s, he’s reinvented his identity, mounting an acting career. He speaks about the art of acting with as much passion and dedication as his beloved gardening. He gets a kick out of the recognition he receives as the actor in the commercial for the “Bathroom Diva.”  Perhaps acting was always in his nature, a seed lying dormant all these years that has finally come into fruition?

And he approaches ideas about “character” in acting with great insight. Does being old bring out character?  It’s like my father has been waiting in the wings of his own life for the cue of the right age, before taking centre stage in this new identity.

There are so many stories like mine.  My friends, also entering their sixties with living parents tell me that time spent with these 80 and 90 year-olds is very special. Of course, we adore our grown-up children and like most Boomers we have raised good people who now contribute their curiosity and talents to life.  It’s amazing what our grown-up children are doing with their lives, living into their potential and authenticity.

It’s when we turn to our parents that we speak differently.  Perhaps because we’ve left behind the psych-speak of the 1970s and 1980s, laying to rest the psychological baggage of the unmet needs for what we felt we deserved – and at times angrily demanded from our parents?  However imperfectly, most of us have succeeded.  Now transitioning into retirement, we’re passing the torch onto others. 

As a generation we Boomers face at least another 20 years of creative life ahead of us. Our parents are a challenging example of the value of leaving behind a legacy.  My father’s transformation is proof that the human heart lives life fully to capacity in these later years.  So I’ve decided to live my life, not in the fast lane, but under the bower watching the garden bloom without haste.

But what’s left after they’ve left, after my father’s left?  I think something tangible lasts.  Like the garden and the memories, it’s perennial in its beauty. Yet poignant because sadly and mysteriously, many plants simply won’t endure. 

According the James Hillman, “Our culture treats aging like a disease to be cured.  It ignores and denies aging as a process through which fulfillment is reached as true identity is revealed.”  In the world of work and commerce, people credit attaining perfection and eternal youth as the best way to live life before leaving it.  But I must agree with the poet, T.S. Eliot whose theme on aging in Four Quartets is about living life – “driven by daemonic and chthonic powers”* – authentically, imperfect as this is.  Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s incantation to “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.”**

After all these years my father is unfinished and imperfect, a work-in-progress, still planting gardens.  And this may be how we make sense of the shift that happens to us.  As we age and sink our roots deeply and strongly into our authenticity, it’s from the aged gardeners and poets that we learn to live a life “not too far from the yew tree/The life of significant soil.”  This is, after all, a contentment that lasts. 

* T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages.  Faber & Faber. London 1944.

** The Hours (2002) starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf.





Francis Roberts is a writer and communications consultant from Toronto. Her company is called PushaPencil.


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