Thursday, February 04, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments (8)

On Becoming an Orphan

posted by Tim Wright

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

Comments (8)
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What a wonderful reflection on the effect of time in our lives. Our lives are cast in an inevitable narrative, we have a beginning, middle, and eventually end. It's that end that makes our perception of time change as the beginning fades in the distance and the end starts to loom on the horizon.
Posted by David Tames on 2.4.10 at 9:01
Tim - Thanks for the memories, and a perspective on them. I love the bartering. I like mix-tapes.
Posted by Amelie on 2.4.10 at 11:39
I enjoyed this very much. I have felt recently very acutely the "through-looking" by younger generations, or even the more traditionally employed, or now that I'm back in New York City any number of people experiencing a radically different social milieu. That can be an isolating experience so it's a great thing to realize that others share it. Interestingly though with these people I pass on the subway, for example, I can go an entire lifetime without ever being relevant. Which is oddly comforting in it's way, I guess because there's no loss. Interesting stuff, thanks for a good Sunday morning ponder.
Posted by Chris Britt on 2.7.10 at 6:46
That's a scary literary quote... Congratulations for finding such a smart way of cross-generational communication! As to being "transparent", here in Spain women start experiencing that when they reach the age of forty, so it's no longer a surprise by now. But aging is, not only surprising but plain unbelievable!
Posted by Angiola on 2.7.10 at 8:24
I like to look through the young people. They are the furniture in MY world. I say that as long as the train is still moving, there are still destinations ahead for which to prepare.
Posted by The Big Lefty on 2.9.10 at 6:36
Having hurt my back and been immobilized for the first time, the first part of you piece particularly resonated with me. I live in a personal world consisting mainly of people thirty or forty years my junior. So far I can keep up--but the question looms how long. [Jasmine] is 26. How long would she stay with an old geezer? Or would I want her to? I look in the mirror and see gray hair and new wrinkles. Whom do I see? That can't really be me. Can it? Yes, as long as we stay healthy, older is indeed wiser, steadier, less threatening--and may even makes us better tennis partners. It is what comes later that is scary. But for now we have a choice--live scared or live life to the fullest. To quote something I particularly like: "Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out and proclaiming, "WOW WHAT A RIDE!" "
Posted by anonymous (by request of author) on 2.10.10 at 7:40
We all loved your essay on aging. Ann has sent it out to her brothers and several friends and all have commented warmly. The Utube videos are also fine. What a lovely women your mother was. We look forward to reading your sister's book. Great to see the family photos of little Tim, Tom and Elizabeth. Notes on aging: A decade or so ago I accompanied my mother to an event at the ACLU. My dad was to come a bit later. I was offered a drink by a wandering young waitress. I took a glass of wine and she asked me if my wife would like a glass also. It took my only a flash of a second to realize that from her youthful vantage point the difference in visage between an 80 year old and a 50 year old was only a matter of degree. Old was old, gray was gray. I really shouldn't have knocked over her tray of wine. I was crossing a street in Madison a couple of Winters ago on the way to a play. I was wearing an overcoat and a beret and a red scarf. Some youths coming out of a bar yelled, "hey professor, what do you teach." Sex, drugs and rock and roll I replied. That seemed to give them a good laugh. My dad always said old age was 15 years older than whatever age he was. When he turned 90 he said old age was 10 years older than him. Jonathan once commented on how fast the school year had gone by. He said it took forever to get to Christmas and now the school year was almost over. He was 10 or so and it was April or May. I asked him why he thought that happened. He thought about it for a while and said that it must be because you could sum up any period of history in a sentence but it would still take us an hour to get through the next hour. Well said, I thought. I could go on but I suppose we all have these markers on getting old. My grandmother was 90 when she said to my mom, as they both stood in front to the bathroom mirror, "Sylvia, inside there is a seventeen year old and in the mirror there is an old lady." And there is always Groucho's comment, you are only as old as the girls you feel.
Posted by Ed Wohl on 2.10.10 at 7:46
I think your topic is aging, rather than orphanhood. I think orphanhood is interesting in that it changes the dynamic among siblings, or at least I feel that's what happened in our family. But that is perhaps another essay. On aging, I echo Angiola in that I was most conscious of my age when I turned 40 and became invisible in hip discotheques frequented by people in their 20s. Then I discovered Scottish dancing, and no more problem. So maybe it's just a question of adaptation. I have never been one to measure how many lengths I can swim or stairs I can climb so it doesn't matter to me whether I can do more or less now. I recently published my first book, at the age of 66 (by the way, thanks for the plug), something I was never able to do before. I'm happier and happier as I grow older, and that's internal, and matters more to me than whether people notice me on the street or not. I'm also living in a place I love, France, and I feel that people in the rural area of France I live in pay more attention to older people than what I have seen in the States. I don't feel invisible here. Young people I pass in the street may consider me odd, but they do look at me and often speak to me. Once when I was out walking along the river here, a group of high school students were on an outing with their professor, and they called out to me to ask if I wouldn't like to go out on Saturday night with him. Were they making fun of both him and me? Undoubtedly, but there was something rather sweet about it also, or at least that's the way I took it. So, anyway, I think aging is wonderful - I don't always like seeing the wrinkles in the mirror, but I do feel basically great and liberated from some of my youthful anxieties.
Posted by Elizabeth Wright on 2.10.10 at 11:22
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