by Rose-Anne Clermont
- Germany -
Around the time little girls become preoccupied with their own reflections, I remember scanning the various jars of creams and tonics on my mother’s make-up table. I couldn’t yet read so well, but I noticed on the labels that the word AGE was always belittled by a hyphen and another word that “combated,” “defied” or “anti’d” it in some way. Once I started playing with make-up samples in drugstores, I’d see row upon row of these labels: anti-wrinkle; anti-aging; age-defying. Before I reached puberty, I had learned that aging was something to protest.
“She looks great for her age,” means: her anti-wrinkle creams have worked; she either has good genes or she used anti-cellulite cream; she has an anti-arthritis spring in her step thanks to her Omega fatty acids, and no one would ever believe that she is actually a grandmother. Forget about the twinkle in her eyes or a wise word from times past. Grandma today is supposed to work, do power yoga, climb mountains and make her daughters think, “I hope I look that good when I’m sixty-five.”
At some point, however, age happens. Our mothers’ skin begins to wrinkle. Their hair thins. Their baby-carrying biceps deflate. Their pearly teeth darken and crack. Weight grows harder to lose, or impossible to gain. They look at pictures of their wedding day and say “Look how pretty I was.”
But even behind her thick glasses, Barbara’s blue eyes are as clear as a spring sky. My mother’s cheekbones still stand as high and full as they did when I was a child and she was a young woman in the prime of her life. In part VIII of A Current between Shores Barbara and Renée, 74 and 68, respectively, share their thoughts on growing older in a society obsessed with staying young.
Part VIII: On Aging (Learning Experiences)
Is age only a state of mind?
Renée: “People say that but I don’t agree because there are real limitations in old age. Things affect you differently when you’re old. A cold can turn into pneumonia in an instant. You can fall down and that changes your whole life. I still do the things I used to, but I never took naps in my life and now I realize that I have to rest and slow down. A lot of people don’t want to accept that they’re growing older but the more you don’t accept something, the more it persists.”Barbara: “I never spent much time thinking about growing old when I was younger. I just accepted that one day it would happen. There are some people who appear not to age, but I think that depends on each person’s constitution. I know a lot of people at an advanced stage who are still very fit. But I don’t think age is only in the mind. The body ages faster than the mind and some people try to drastically fight that process, but you can’t put off aging. It happens to everyone. Society is fixated on this anti-aging fad. But I was never interested in being something that I’m not.” At what point in your life did you start to feel old?
Renée: “When I turned 60 I didn’t feel old, but in my mind I knew that I was getting there. I wasn’t resisting it but I was doing things that would keep me healthy, like exercising and watching my diet. I was never afraid of getting old, I was just afraid of getting sick and being dependent on other people. If I were to live to be one hundred and stay healthy, I’d be fine.
“After my husband died, I read a statistic that within the first two years after the death of a spouse, the remaining spouse is likely to die or develop a serious illness. That’s when I decided to join a gym.”
Barbara: “Between 50 and 60, the strength and vitality starts to lessen. But I also was overwhelmed for much of my life. After my stroke (2 years ago) I started to deteriorate physically.
“It’s like when I was pregnant, I never really felt pregnant in the beginning. But then when my belly got big and it got harder to move, then I started to feel pregnant. With aging, my hair doesn’t look like it used to. Clothes don’t fit the way they once did; it’s like being in puberty again and not yet knowing how to make yourself look good, you don’t yet know what your style is.”
Do you think men and women age differently?Renée: “I think women are more preoccupied with aging then men are, they resist it more with facelifts, and tummy tucks and those types of things. . . but women also spend their lives exhausting themselves for their children, their husbands, their grandchildren. Women spend most of their lives being selfless. Men, although many do a lot for their families, never exhaust themselves the way women do.”
Barbara: “I think some men are much vainer than women. Some men don’t want to admit to their friends or themselves that they’re getting older and they try to behave the same way they did when they were young men.”
What is the most difficult part about aging?
Renée: “The physical limitations. And being alone is harder in older age. I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s still hard that there is no one else around to help me do things.”
Barbara: “That you can’t do as much as you once could and want to. It’s very different from what I imagined as a young person. I’ve asked this question of older people as well, like my mother-in-law, and she said the same thing that I would now: ‘Aging happens without you even knowing it.’”
What is the best part about aging?
Renée: “People give you more respect. People will get up and give you a seat. You can retire and you have your time to do whatever you want with it.”Barbara: “It’s hard for me to be optimistic because I have so many physical problems and I’m starting to grow tired. I don’t feel wiser or more patient, I just feel slower. And although I have more experience than people in your generation, I know that they have to learn and experience things on their own.”
Do you feel wiser?
Renée: “Yes, in my dealings with people, with friends, and with my children. I’m much more accepting. If things don’t work out, I know life still goes on. I was more emotional before. I was vain. For every occasion I had to have something new, spending money frivolously; I don’t do that anymore.”
Barbara: “Some older people don’t seem to care if they’re bothering younger people with their advice, whereas older women like me always want to help and realize that some younger people don’t want to hear it. But it’s hard not to give advice, because I have so much experience in life. I often know how some situations are bound to turn out.”
Do you have any regrets?
Renée: “I regret that when I came to the US, I didn’t come with my child. I think my relationship with her would have been much better. If I could have done it differently I would.”
Barbara: “I don’t regret getting married, but if I’d known how we would age and how different we really are, then I might have gone about marriage differently. I don’t know, maybe I would have had off-times and had another apartment separate from my husband.”
Do you think about death?
Renée: “I do but it doesn’t occupy my mind. I hope that I can see my grandchildren grow up and that I’ll be around for a little while longer.”
Barbara: “I think more about death than I used to as a younger person. As a nurse who was exposed to death, I knew that everyone has to die but I didn’t have the relationship to death that I do now. Every time I say goodbye to my grandchildren, I know that it could be the last time I see them. I don’t worry about this, but it is present in my mind.”
Do you fear death?
Barbara: “Not any more. I spent my whole life believing in re-incarnation. Then one day I thought, ‘what if it isn’t true?’ But I’m mostly afraid of pain and violence. I’d be afraid of being paralyzed.”Renée: “I did, but now I’ve been reading a book that talks about death being only your physical body. Your soul is eternal. Even though I’m Catholic, the idea of eternal life never penetrated before. Now I understand.”
Is there any truth to the saying, “Once an adult twice a child?”
Barbara: “In some situations I react to things now like I would have as a child. Sometimes I feel left out or badly treated, and I can get pouty (and over-sensitive).”
Renée: “I don’t accept this saying at all; it makes people lose respect for older people. We should never look at an older person like that, even one who is completely gaga and can’t talk and is incontinent, like a child. An elderly adult should never be treated like a child.”
What is one important lesson you have learned from your life experiences?
Renée: “From my children’s generation, I learned that men and women can be equals in a relationship. And from my children, I also learned independence. I learned how to live alone without feeling lonely. I learned how to be by myself and be OK with that.”
Barbara: “When you get older and can’t do the things you used to and you become limited, you’re forced to look things over and reassess them. I’ve had to re-learn, re-consider what I think and believe about things and, because I don’t know how long I’m going to live, I’ve had to rethink how to live the rest of my life as the person I have become.”
- In Part IX, the last of this series, Renée and Barbara contemplate globalization. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy, in Part II, both women explored their struggles with poverty, in Part III, they shared how important education was in their lives, in Part IV they relive the difficult decision to leave home, in Part V, they share their thoughts on womanhood and marriage, in Part VI, they contemplate their roles as mothers and in Part VII they discuss how religion shaped their lives. - Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany as a Fulbright fellow from 1998-1999. She holds a Bachelor's Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. Rose-Anne is also a contributing writer to the upcoming NPR Worldwide series entitled The Berlin Stories, launching in November 2008. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as "parallel histories from different worlds." In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, "They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget."