My husband’s best friend and business partner skied off a cliff last April and was killed instantly. We flew to Edmonton for the funeral; in the cab, we saw the airport flags at half-mast. The driver wondered why, but we knew. Flags flew at half-mast all over the city, in front of the many public and private buildings Tom had worked on, shaping and re-shaping his hometown. The basilica was full – a thousand mourners there in appreciation of this brilliant architect, dead at fifty-three.
Back home we talked about selling the cottage, pretending it was not about Tom. We both loved the place, but it seemed like too much work, too much money. Just too much. It had been in my husband’s family since 1947, but nothing lasts forever.
Drying my tears that day in May, I said, “Okay, but not until next spring. I want this last summer. I’m going to go up there at the end of June and stay until Labour Day. Come up when you can.”
“I’ll really get to work on the next manuscript.” I thought. “All that peace and quiet – it will be perfect.”
The July long weekend Craig arrived. Saturday morning, his eye fell on an ad in the local newspaper. “Jayne’s Cottages,” it read. “Let me rent your cottage. Leave all the work to me.” Always open to new ideas, Craig called her up. She listened to the description of the second cottage on our property and quoted the rent she thought we could get. I thought it was per month; it was per week. She came by, suggested a few minor changes, took some pictures, and there it was on her website. We rented it for four weeks and a long weekend, paying for all the repairs. Some of the weight of responsibility lifted from Craig’s shoulders. Selling receded.
Tradespeople and renters tromped across my tranquility. I thought I needed more quiet to think and to write, but soon had to acknowledge I still had plenty of quiet; what I needed was something to say.
My first book had been about women in their thirties and forties, struggling to find a way to manage raising children while also building their careers. I wrote it, not quickly, but with dogged determination. Each woman I interviewed felt she just was not managing very well – that she was lazy, or crazy, and all alone in her struggle. I believed I had useful things to say to those women. It took me years to get the words down on the page, but the long gestation didn’t matter. I got older, but I kept meeting thirty-two year old women with the same issues. I enjoyed writing the book, was thrilled to finish it, and appreciated the response from young mothers who read it.
Now in my fifties, with my son grown, I had been thinking a lot about the issues facing women of a certain age. If women over fifty spend too long staring at photos of Taylor Swift or Beyonce in the pages of Vogue magazine, they will become discontented with their crepey skin, furrowed brows, and gravity-ravaged flesh. I thought about women I knew who no longer felt included in the portrayal of ideal, desirable womanhood, who saw younger women and men fill the workplace around them, and who woke in the night to hot flashes, or financial worries, or rage at unfaithful ex-husbands, and who felt unappreciated on all fronts.
I had thought that my second book would be about this tragic devaluation of women over fifty in our culture. I had a rough vision of resurrecting the important role of the wise-woman as it had existed in other times, other cultures. My first book had been anchored in my own experience. Last summer, my outward gaze fixed on the lake view from my screened porch, my inward gaze directed to my own experience as an older woman, I was a little surprised to find I had no real problems. And if I had no problems, maybe I had no book.
I kept showing up at the page, as the writing coaches tell us we must. I contemplated my own mourning of lost youth and dewiness. I scanned Facebook updates on the campaign that Geena Davis is leading to raise the profile of women, especially older women, in Hollywood. I read the Globe’s Report on Business articles repeating the news that women remain under-represented on Fortune 500 boards. I watched reality TV shows about the extreme things some women are willing to do to their faces, only to end up with rich face, bitch face, trout face and worse.
Despite all this public sturm und drang I have decided that in the bigger picture of the world, white, affluent, able-bodied women over fifty don’t have much to complain about. Divisions of race and class are costing people their very lives. Alive is so much better than dead, that the minor differences between thirty and fifty just don’t count for much. I am a good example of this. The problems I had as a young working mother are gone now. I have a great job, granting scholarships and working with recipients and alumni who are busy making the world a better place for all. I work part-time, from home or cottage –a gig custom-made for my introverted soul. My son is pretty much grown-up, reasonably happy, and more or less healthy. Friends, family, health, meaning, joy – check, check, check, check, check. People ask my advice and seem to value and appreciate it.
Many, many women do have problems, of course – problems, regrets, misfortunes. But someone else will have to write that book.
Life after fifty: it turns out it’s not about less. It’s about more. If our hearts are still beating for one more day, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s about taking each of those days, greeting our wrinkles as badges of survival, and going on to make something constructive and meaningful happen. It is not wise to bleat about our ropey necks and how we no longer turn heads; it is much better to find a fabulous black turtleneck sweater and get on with tending to hearts and souls. It’s not about ditching the cottage; its about finding a way to keep it, so we can share it, not only with renters but with writers, artists, and social visionaries in need of a retreat.
The winter has passed, and as the days grow longer I sit at my third-story desk and look out over the bare branches of city trees. We will mark the anniversary of Tom's death in a few weeks.We just received an email from Jayne telling us the cottage has been booked for next July. There are no Vogue magazines in my house now. I look instead at pictures posted beside my desk: Gloria Steinem, June Callwood, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader-Ginzberg, and Audrey Hepburn, all over fifty. One I was proud to call my friend, one I just met. All did or still do good in the world. They look out from these photos, appreciated, appreciative, and looking really great in black turtlenecks. I’ve got one on myself.