Monday, October 14, 2013

On Being Eighty

A few days ago, my daughter and I were browsing in a used-book store.  She pulled a book off the shelves, thumbed through it, and then handed it to me.  “This is something you would like,” she said.  “It looks sad.”

The book was a novel, EMILY, ALONE, by Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2011), and it wasn’t sad, or at least, it wasn’t to me.  It is a lovely character study, a meditation on growing old with grace.  I found myself riveted.

The book is told entirely from the point of view of Emily, an eighty-year-old woman, recently widowed, who lives alone in Pittsburgh.  Emily’s days are quiet, occupied with reading, puzzles, classical music, the care of her dog, and occasional outings with her sister-in-law Arlene.  She waits expectantly for calls from her adult children, for warmer months, so she can indulge her passion for gardening, for family reunions held every year.

The book is interesting for several reasons.  I was amazed that a man had written it.  I did not for one moment doubt Emily’s voice, her way of looking at the world.   It is one thing for a male dramatist or a short-story writer to craft a well-drawn heroine, but it is quite another for a male novelist to inhabit a female character so artfully and so completely.  The fact that she is eighty makes the accomplishment yet more notable.  O’Nan (who is younger than I) captures beautifully the rhythms of aging—life slowing and shrinking—as well as Emily’s dignified submission to them.

The story dwells less on death than one might expect, even though death is all around.  Emily thinks often of those she has lost.  Still, there is forward motion, however slow.  But it is a story without the devices we have come to expect in modern novels.  There are no car crashes (of any significance), no brutal crimes, no life-shattering revelations, no epiphanies to speak of.   Ultimately, we are told the story of a woman who, even within the constraints of a life winding down, manages to change and grow.

I read the book expecting to see my mother in Emily, but, surprisingly, I didn’t.  Before dementia began ravaging her mind, my mother was not as introspective as Emily.  She was more adventurous and less preoccupied with the past (at least as far as I know).  She had little use for friends, no patience for crosswords.  She did not care for the neediness of dogs.

Instead, I saw myself in Emily: a woman who takes comfort in books and music and the company of friends and family.  I hope I do not end up as alone as Emily feels herself to be.  But maybe I can muster some of her grace.  That would be something.

When you’re my daughter’s age, you can’t imagine being eighty.  I can’t really imagine it, either, but I know it’s coming.  (At least, I hope it’s coming.)  I don’t know what my life will look like then, but EMILY, ALONE underscores that the things I value—good health for me and those I love, a well-functioning brain, books and music and a friend or two—are reasonable things to hope for.  Can you take spin classes when you’re eighty?  That would be nice, too.


  1. Have you read Penelope Lively's recent article on being 80? If this were a novel, she'd be critcized for writing under the name of "Lively," it's so symbolic. It looks like 80 is the new 65.

    1. Martha, what a beautiful, beautiful piece! Thanks for pointing me to it.