Age cannot be determining factor in trying out new things
"Nowhere to go but up”—one of those reassuring old cliches contrived by irrational optimists to ease the pain after hitting bottom. It is used to replace total surrender to what appears to be the final collapse—and sometimes it works.
It was 1931 when Harry and Bertha lost their business, their home, their hopes for a future. With total despair they watched from a distance as customers came to the locked door of their bankrupt store, then walked away in confusion and disappointment. Harry, the realist, knew that the end had come—it was all over. Bertha, the irrational dreamer, didn’t believe it, so they sold their last few trinkets and borrowed their last few dollars (nothing left to lose, no place to go but up, so why not?) and managed to open the store and begin again—and survived profitably and happily for several decades more.
But that spirit works as well in adding new challenges and designing new boundaries for people long past their prime. Except for the limitations of health, there is usually a fair degree of flexibility, even for the very old, to pursue dreams that had long since been ruled out. And it is that continuing challenge in the distant days of life that offers us the best hope for tomorrow.
In 1887, for example, Anna Mary Robertson was a farm girl in Greenwich, upstate New York, when she married the hired man, Tom Moses. For the next five decades she bore 10 children, dutifully worked the farm (with her husband until he died in 1927, and then alone), then in 1936 the fragility of her 70 years forced her into retirement. That endless ritual of work and responsibility served her needs, but not her pleasures, so when she quit and had no academic or technical skills or hobbies to fall back on, she had to find something new.
She learned to paint.
She had no training, but she did have determination, so beginning in 1940, at age 80, she used the oils to capture the look and spirit of farm life—and in it found a new vigor and exhilaration that had been missing for her past eight decades. And then, despite their crude construction, those little pictures began to sell—at first for $5 each, later going up to $8,000 to $10,000 each and finally capping at $1.2 million.
This little old woman who refused to quit was better known in succeeding generations as Grandma Moses, a happy and productive woman who lived to be 101—still working until the end, finishing 25 pictures in her last year.
And then there was Harry Bernstein who, at age 24, published a short story in a magazine in 1934—and was hooked. He kept on writing for the next seven decades, completing 40 novels—not one of which could he get published. We all know that enough is enough, but clearly that logic eluded him, so when his wife died in 2002, and he was in his 90s, he began writing “The Invisible Wall,” a book recounting the love and activities he shared with his wife during their 70 years together. That hugely successful memoir was published when he was 97, then was followed by another book with equally wide and enthusiastic acclaim when he was 98, then still another when he turned 99 years old. When he died in 2011 at the age of 101, he was working on still another book.
And there is Nola Ochs who was born in 1911 and worked a long and arduous life on a farm with her husband, then went back to school after he died, finally graduating—with her granddaughter sharing honors beside her in the same ceremony—in 2007 at the age of 96. She succeeded in getting her Master’s degree in 2010 and recently applied for a job as a graduate teaching assistant in her college’s history department.
Similar instances of continuing to build a life and achieve fulfillment so very late in the day are almost without limit. As strangers, those individuals mean very little to us, except as telling examples of the magic that still might be available to us however close to the end we might be. Old is old and may often be inconvenient, but as with most other handicaps, the limitations of age need not be the final and determining factor in the pursuit of pleasurable experiences or gratifying accomplishments.
All of which brings us to that profound insight of one of America’s great philosophers, Yogi Berra, whose observation that “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” applies as much to conditions of old age as it did in the world of sports.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.