The Measure of My Days: From the Journal of Florida Scott-Maxwell

Magazine cover with three photos of elderly people

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 2/3, "Older Wiser Stronger: Southern Elders." Find more from that issue here.

Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction. Only a few years ago I enjoyed my tranquility; now I am so disturbed by the outer world and by human quality in general, that I want to put things right as though I still owed a debt to life. I must calm down. I am far too frail to indulge in moral fervour.

I used to draw, absorbed in the shapes of roots of trees, and seed pods, and flowers, but it strained my eyes and I gave it up. Then ten years ago I began to make rugs. A few were beautiful, though never straight. This gave them vitality. As I created patterns, banged and pulled, the wool and I struggling — the wool winning sometimes; at great moments I in full command — my heart knew peace, and my mind was as empty as a cloudless sky on a summer's day. But my hands were too arthritic, it had to end, and now only music prevents my facing my thoughts.

As I do not live in an age when rustling black silk skirts billow about me, and I do not carry an ebony stick to strike the floor in sharp rebuke, as this is denied me, I rap out a sentence in my note book and feel better. If a grandmother wants to put her foot down, the only safe place to do it these days is in a note book.

Another day to be filled, to be lived silently, watching the sky and the lights on the wall. No one will come probably. I have no duties except to myself. That is not true. I have a duty to all who care for me — not to be a problem, not to be a burden. I must carry my age lightly for all our sakes, and thank God I still can. Oh that I may to the end.

I wonder if we need be quite so dutiful. With one friend of my own age we cheerfully exchange the worst symptoms, and our black dreads as well. We frequently talk of death, for we are very alert to the experience of the unknown that may be so near and it is only to those of one's own age that one can speak frankly. 

Our sorrow is such a burden for others. If it were possible it might be best to show nothing, and this is often tried with arid results, for it is unreal, inhuman. . . . Expressing sorrow helps you to take it in, to know it better. But soon, soon you must claim it as your own, relieving others of its weight, so that they can say happily, "Better today? All right now?'' It is what they need to say, and you must answer brightly, "All right, thank you."

Always, through everything, I try to straighten my spine, or my soul. They both ought to be upright I feel, for pride, for style, for reality's sake, but both tend to bend as under a weight that has been carried a long time. I try to lighten my burden by knowing it, I try to walk lightly, and sometimes I do, for sometimes I feel both light and proud. At other times I am bent, bent.

We old people are short tempered because we suffer so. . . . Nothing in us works well, our bodies have become unreliable. We have to make an effort to do the simplest things. We urge now this, now that part of our flagging bodies, and when we have spurred them to further functioning we feel clever and carefree. We stretch from such concerns as these into eternity where we keep one eye on death, certain of continuity, then uncertain, then indifferent.

When a new disability arrives I look about to see if death has come, and I call quietly, "Death, is that you? Are you there?" So far the disability has answered, "Don't be silly, it's me."

My kitchen linoleum is so black and shiny that I waltz while I wait for the kettle to boil. This pleasure is for the old who live alone. Others must vanish into their expected role.

I wonder if living alone makes one more alive. No precious energy goes in disagreement or compromise. No need to augment others, there is just yourself, just truth — a morsel — and you. You went through those long years when it was pain to be alone, now you have come out on the good side of that severe discipline. 

Age is a desert of time — hours, days, weeks, years perhaps — with little to do. So one has ample time to face everything one has had, been, done; gather them all in: the things that came from outside, and those from inside. We have time at last to make them truly ours. 

When I was a child I went with my grandfather when he hunted wild turkey, or quail, driving through the roadless woods under great water oaks shining as though newly washed by rain. Once on reaching a river I jumped from the wagon and running into the deep shade sat down on a large alligator, taking it for a half-buried log. I was also the child who walked out on a plank placed as a pier to reach the center of the dark pool, then knelt, plunged in her hands to scoop up a drink, and saw that fatal snake, a water moccasin, dart between her closing hands. You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. 

When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality. When at last age has assembled you together, will it not be easy to let it all go, lived, balanced, over?

This morning when I woke and knew that I had had a fair night, that my pains were not too bad, I lay waiting for the uplifting moment when I pull back the curtains, see the sky, and I surprised myself by saying out loud: "My dear, dear days."

My only fear about death is that it will not come soon enough. Life still interests and occupies me. Happily I am not in such discomfort that I wish for death. I love and am loved, but please God I die before I lose my independence. I do not know what I believe about life after death; if it exists then I burn with interest, if not — well, I am tired. I have endured the flame of living and that should be enough.

It has taken me all the time I've had to become myself, yet now that I am old there are times when I feel I am barely here, no room for me at all. I remember that in the last months of my pregnancies the child seemed to claim almost all my body, my strength, my breath, and I held on wondering if my burden was my enemy, uncertain as to whether my life was at all mine. Is life a pregnancy? That would make death a birth.

A long life makes me feel nearer truth, yet it won't go into words, so how can I convey it? I can't, and I want to. I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say — "Of what?" — I can only answer, "We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won't be discovery."