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The best thing about getting old…

What I like best about getting old is the clarity that comes from watching the roller coasters soar and sink for so many years that, while I never lose interest in what will happen next, I am also less likely to expect that whatever is happening now will go on happening. Buddhists call it impermanence. The breath arises and falls away, and that becomes a metaphor…. I’ve received a wealth of emails from old friends over the last few days, and I sit here with my arms outstretched, as if I could embrace us all.

Christine has shared the journey with me since 1970. She had what I thought was a perfect life: loving marriage, interesting and useful employment, great kids, life on a houseboat, everything anybody could ever wish. She writes today to report that the three kids are all married and doing well, but the husband has never really recovered from a heart attack about five years ago. They lost their house, the business went belly up, they’ve moved in with her 83-year-old mother, and she, at 57 and with asthma, is now the family breadwinner. All that, and she’s incredibly CHEERFUL about it all. I love this woman.

Her essential spirit has not changed since the day we met. I was 24, she was 19. I was divorced, working as a secretary, and had saved my money for months and months, so I finally had enough to visit the UK, which I had dreamed of doing since I was eight. But about six days into my trip, when I reached the moors where Wuthering Heights was written, I began to feel terribly lonely. One afternoon I’d been wandering around the moors and fell into a depression. I returned to my hotel and drifted into the sitting room, where an aging black lab was stretched out by the fire. I sat down by him, he licked my face, and I started to cry. At that moment Christine, who was working as a maid in the hotel, found me and asked what was wrong. I broke into sobs and wailed, “I’m so lonely,” and she said,

“That’s it, then. You’re coming home with me.”

She took me home to her mum and da, her sister and brother, and the home they all shared with her granny (the very home she and her husband have now returned to) in the shadow of the mill where her parents worked all their lives. They took me in, showed me off to their friends, and I joined them at the pub that first night: grannies and kids, young people like Christine and me–the whole community went to the pub together. My hair was longer than my mini-skirt, and I had my first Shandy (beer and ginger ale), and I fell in love with Christine’s whole way of life. On her day off work, we went to York in my rented VW, dropped into Yorkminster just in time for Evensong, and were both moved to tears by the music and the slant of light falling through the cathedral windows. We’ve been friends ever since, through all the years when we were having kids and making what it was that we made with our lives. She made a healthy, functional family. I made a career in theatre, and then a career in teaching; I traveled and wrote books, adored Seth, fought for custody of Chris, and adopted lost children. She stayed in one place and got to know that place and all the people in it really well.

For decades in that pre-computer age we wrote letters on paper, and we had to take them to the post office and get them weighed. Sometimes we didn’t have enough money for the postage and had to wait another month to mail the envelope. Her granny died; her dad died. She had two daughters and a son; she made Yorkshire pudding (which is not a pudding) and got a part-time job at the local hospital, where she learned to use computers. I went on tour with my one-woman show, went to grad school, got a high-flying academic job, published my first book. Her mum, who had served in WWII, marched in veterans’ day marches and kept tabs on her grandchildren; my mum quit speaking to me. Christine’s husband worked as a mechanic, and then somehow he made the leap to sales. He was so successful as a salesman they moved to a big house with a fabulous view over the moors. Her sister married an engineer and moved to New Zealand, and they remained close. My sisters no longer speak to me at all. We made completely different choices and had completely different circumstances but sent each other detailed reports, even if we only wrote once or twice a year. I made it back there for a visit in 1984, with Seth in tow; and again in 1993 alone, and in 2001, with Manko.

I saw Christine’s life as idyllic: functional family, loving partner, holidays in Majorca with her brother and his wife and all their kids. Friday nights at the pub. Taking casseroles to friends in need. What made her life so wonderful to watch is that everybody genuinely loved everybody else. Even when her brother left his wife and children, Christine didn’t judge him. She remained best friends with his ex-wife; her kids still went on holidays with their cousins; when her brother re-married, his new wife also became part of the family. It was, and is, a model functional family. I’ve never had that, never created it. But I had what I had, and that was always OK with Christine. In a way, we lived alternate realities through our friendship. We still do.

Since her husband’s heart attack she has lost her home and the business they thought would set them up for their retirement. Her husband is proving less resilient than she is. He spends most of his nights at the pub. Her life no longer looks so idyllic. But she focuses on what works. All that matters to her is the love, and everybody still genuinely loves everybody else, in that family. Some years ago I used to dream that maybe I would move to Yorkshire and settle in and live a life like hers. I no longer dream of that. It was never possible. I live my life, she hers, but we both have these thirty-seven years of friendship. No guru’s wisdom can match what that has taught me.

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2 responses to “The best thing about getting old…”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    I think you’re quite right, that an advantage – possibly the only one – of ‘maturity’ shall we call it is a greater clarity of vision. It’s rather like ascending a mountain and getting gradually a wider view in which details merge into perspective and take their rightful place. One has, of course, to be something of a mountaineer to get the view, and that’s an ability which can only be acquired in youth

  2. Nacho says:

    Dear Kendall:

    As usual, a thoughtful and eye-opening post. And marked with your sweet sensibility and sensitivity. Thank you. Another thing that might help in this regard of impermanence is going through tough times. Perhaps after one has had a few falls and gotten back on one’s feet after the hard work of looking at the ground – it is a bit easier to look at things differently and recognize the waves. Not always though! : )

    The love is indeed what matters. So easy sometimes for folks to turn away from that and instead grasp on to bitterness and grudges.

    37 years of friendship! Many lifetimes Kendall. Thank you once again. Thanks for your wisdom.

    Best, and hugs,


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