I can only imagine, thanks to discussions with my mom many years past, and to a heart-filled wrenching letter she wrote to me back in 1975, what it was like growing up in a New York world where women were treated as second-class citizens. The opportunities available to me while growing up all seemed quite normal, and I recall rarely questioning what it took for that sense of normalcy to, indeed, be the norm. It took till our older son, now in his late twenties, studied women’s literature, for me to revisit those years in which my mom so passionately, sometimes vehemently, grew up, married, parented, and crafted her adult and elder life.
Carolyn Heilbrun has returned me to my mom’s world. They were contemporaries – 1926 for Heilbrun, 1929 for my mom. They both were lovers of literature, Heilbrun becoming the first female tenured English professor at Columbia University (perhaps crossing paths with my dad, who started at Columbia just prior to WWII and returned after the war to complete his studies), my mom earning her undergraduate degree in English, followed by a masters in teaching. They both married and had children. They took their lives in quite different directions, but I suspect the underpinnings of their feminist views were based in similar experiences and beliefs.
With all that said, I read Heilbrun to gather a sense of living one’s life as a sixty and seventy year old. And it is some of her wry commentary and observations on aging that I’d like to share here.
Heilbrun was ahead of her time in her thinking about keeping the brain active throughout the elder years as a means of maintaining cognitive health.
The point is only that for those retired, with too much time and no world, a world must be found, and not necessarily one that is heavily populated. One can join a group or work alone; the essential, it seems to me…, is that the work be difficult, concentrated, and that definite progress can be measured. If the undertaking is not to become but another daily habit, daily donned and discarded, it requires strong effort and the evidence of growing proficiency.
On the topic of computers (ah, my field!), she had this to say:
I’d like to put a functioning computer tied to the Internet and e-mail in the home of everyone over sixty-five. Especially in the homes of those who think computers belong only to the future, of which they are not a part, or who think because they cannot program their VCR they cannot operate e-mail.
I hope it is now obvious that e-mail is especially suited, as I have found, to those of us no longer revolving our days around the working world. It reaches into our privacy without invading it, an astonishing accomplishment; it connects us to those with whom the possibility of connection might have remained unexpected; it offers us welcome without the necessity for social arrangements; it inspires us to confidences and the practice of wit.
My mom was right there with Heilbrun on the benefits of computers, the Internet and email. Not a day went by that I did not receive at least one email from my mom, and she would be the first to tell you that she could (and did!) spend hours each day perusing the Internet for reading news and researching ideas. She emailed her grandchildren, her friends, her cousins; she read The Washington Post online, a paper she could not receive locally as she lived in New York and not D.C.; she was able to access an entire world from the comfort of her cozy apartment.
Heilbrun also chimed in on the state of the news with an opinion not unlike my own, though I do watch the news, public television’s The News Hour, typically streamed over the Internet onto a laptop or iPad.
I follow the news in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, but not on television; I detest sound bites, the banishment of complexity, and, above all, the frequent hammering of commercials.
My mom thought her children and, most especially her grandchildren, were the most delicious, beautiful, perfect people she knew. Yes, she was quite biased, to be sure, but I understand how she felt. Here is Heilbrun on being a parent:
The most potent reward of parenthood I have known has been delight in my fully grown progeny. They are friends with an extra dimension of affection.
Carolyn Heilbrun had very definite opinions about aging, growing older.
I find it powerfully reassuring now to think of life as borrowed time. Each day one can say to oneself: I can always die; do I choose death or life? I daily choose life the more earnestly because it is a choice.
The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years.
For more about Carolyn G. Heilbrun:
- Carolyn Gold Heilbrun – Wikipedia entry
- Carolyn G. Heilbrun – Jewish Women – A Comprehensive Encyclopedia
- Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Feminist in a Tenured Position – Columbia News
- When Men Were the Only Models We Had – My Teachers Fadiman, Barzun, Trilling – book by Heilbrun
- Writing a Feminist’s Life: The Legacy of Carolyn G. Heilbrun – The Scholar & Feminist Online