On Becoming an Orphan

You are sitting on a moving train, reading. Gradually, you become aware that the train is moving more slowly and stopping more frequently. Annoyed, you reach up to pull down the window curtain to block the view: it crumbles in your hand. You look at the seat in front of you; its fabric looks more worn than you had noticed when you got on; the headrest cover is soiled. When the train stops again, you have had enough; you rise from your seat, stride purposefully to the end of the car to get off. The door is locked.

I am paraphrasing a passage from the memoir of a British author in failing health at age 77.* It is a description of how it feels to grow old: the passenger is you, the train is your body.

What has old age to do with the subject of orphanhood? A lot. When we think of orphans, we tend to visualize some David Copperfield- like lad of ten or eleven, off to an unfortunate start in life. In fact, by far the most common kind of orphan is an elderly person whose parents, yet more elderly, have died. I became an orphan in 2005; since then, I have fitfully wondered about that state as I think about my parents** and do my part to prepare my daughter for her coming orphanhood.

My mother once told me how she found out she was old. She was standing in line at a grocery store, when a youth in front of her turned to his companion and said: “Let the old lady go first.” My mother turned to see who they were talking about. There was no one behind her. That hasn’t happened to me yet, perhaps because politeness is less common nowadays, but equivalents abound: there is the mysterious “sir,” for instance. I can’t remember the first time it was used on me, but I’m sure I did the psychic equivalent of turning around to see who the lad was talking to. Oddly, it still takes me aback slightly each time, even though it usage is at least a two decades old at this point.

Then there is the way that young people stare, not at you, but through you. I am not exactly invisible to them, but something more akin to furniture. There is a recognition that I occupy space, or rather, that space is being occupied, but there it ends. What is missing, of course, is the sizing up that used to occur. Is this dude a potential rival, friend, enemy, teacher, lover, threat? No. From a youthful perspective, I am simply occluding their view of someone or something else who may have that potential.

I have come to find this relaxing. Once you’re not in the game, you can study it more pleasurably, with an increasingly welcome detachment. Of course, I’m referring mostly to encounters in anonymous public space. Most of us, no matter how old, are still in the game in other relationships. We may have spouses and children who love or hate us or both, and we may have jobs in which we oppress or nurture those below and above us, and by virtue of that we do matter to those people.

But much of our lives are spent in anonymous public transactions, and it is those which alert one to something interesting about ourselves. The train metaphor captures perfectly for me the increasingly yawning divide between inner thought and outer carapace in myself and other old people. When my mother looked around to see who was being talked about, it was not that she was vain or delusional. It was that she had not noticed that she was an old lady, because she, and we, see ourselves from the inside out, not from outside in, and all of us house in our ancient bodies a vast number of age inappropriate thoughts and feelings.

This is just common sense. Though no young people house memories of being old, every old person does not just contain a dense swamp of feelings and thoughts from many years previous, in some sense we are the compilation of those memories. It is this which creates an increasing estrangement from our bodies, which by and large faithfully reflect only this year’s flesh.

Here, for instance, are four random memories, among thousands of others, which still work actively in my mind:

1. It is 1950. I am in sixth grade. We have a Christmas pageant at my school. Three of us have been assigned to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I am Myrrh. On stage, I get as far in my solo as “Myrrh is mine…. “ and my brain goes completely blank. Frankincense and Gold do fine.

2. In seventh grade, we have a biology teacher who is elderly and partially deaf. Two other boys and I, by pre-arrangement, place transistor radios turned to the same station under our hinged desk tops in different areas of the classroom. Inappropriate music is dimly heard by our teacher, who drifts around the room listening for its source. She finds it, triumphantly opens Stephen’s desk top and confiscates the offending radio. The music continues. She feels brain sick.

3. I am twelve. I am spending the summer at my grandfather’s architectural school, which includes a farm with six tractors. Because labor is always short, I am allowed to operate them under close supervision. Obsessed, I sneak one out of the barn one evening and drive it ecstatically to a nearby pond where I swim. One of the senior architectural students notices its absence, guesses it whereabouts, sneaks down to the pond and disconnects a distributor wire. When I try to return it to the barn under cover of darkness, it won’t start. Caught again. When I confess all, he smiles seraphically, then helps me restart it.

4. I am in my first year of college. A friend and I explore Coney Island for the first time. We get high; we make love on the beach; we fall asleep. Hours later, I wake up to the sight – through an early morning mist – of an old man who has been scanning the beach with a metal detector staring at me and my companion.

It is memories like this – of which every old person has thousands – which conspire to prevent us from feeling the way we look. *


It’s tempting to push this point, to concede corporeal deterioration vis-à-vis-youth while claiming intellectual and spiritual superiority. You are more beautiful, but I am wiser; I “know better;” I contain you, you are just a subset of me. In traditional societies, this is actually true. The duty – and the wish – of every young person is to become like his or her elders. Generations succeed each other without friction. Individuals are subject to the effects of time, but the culture is timeless. Old age is honored.That ain’t us. In our culture, young people are not simply younger, they are later, which is key.

They have grownup in a world different from the one we grew up in. They have developed different ways of seeing, hearing , touching and thinking, in short, of coping.

Thankfully. Of course, they don’t honor their elders as they would in a tradition-bound world. But I trade that gladly for the chance to of see things I thought I knew anew through their eyes. In exchange, I offer a sympathetic ear for ideas and feelings sometimes too risky to share with peers. Teaching for me is key. I honestly don’t know what it is that they learn from me, but I know I always learn things from them.

To do my bit to further cross-generational communication in a culture that conspires increasingly to stratify by age, I have developed a system of barter. When someone sees a video of mine they admire, I no longer tell them how to buy or rent it. I give it to them in exchange for some product of their own. If they haven’t yet made a video or written a story or made an artwork they wish to share, a mix-tape will do just fine.

*I would be grateful to anyone who can identify the author of this memoir. I think I read it in the magazine Granta years ago.

**My sister Elizabeth, following our mother’s death, discovered a cache of love letters from my parents to each other during the Great Depression and has just published them . http://stores.lulu.com/dearbobdearbetty. I have done some related video which can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/blinktank

*** frame from the film Atonement, rephotographed by author

Author: Tim Wright

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