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Monday, 18 May 2009

Catching Old Age

By Brenton "Sandy" Dickson

Surrounded by thinning white hair and shiny balding heads, I feared that I was catching old age. The three ladies gossiping and laughing in the row in front of me were clinging to youth with their brown, purple and blond tints.

Blowing on and wiping off his glasses a few rows further forward, an elderly man was listing left towards his large round companion. The odd sheens in what was left of his hair led me to believe he was still playing around with Clairol’s Beautiful Browns. Looking at him, I experienced a tinge of embarrassment because I had given up all that when I turned sixty, eleven years earlier.

My seat was near the center of the historic ballroom. Closing my eyes, I imagined being surrounded by members of the great merchant families of Salem, the Derbys, the Pickerings, the Bowditches and the Peabodys all dancing minuets and quadrilles in their knee britches and high-waisted Empire gowns.

Far above me hung a large brass Federalist chandelier. Streaming through tall Palladian windows, the morning sun reflected off grand, gold-framed mirrors and onto intricate moldings probably carved by the building’s famous architect, Samuel McIntyre.

Hamilton Hall was built around 1800, by and for the enjoyment of the wealthy. Now, once a week during February and March, the Thursday Lecture Series featured prominent academicians and diplomats who expounded on the economy, global politics and international affairs.

Calling for order promptly at eleven o’clock, the chairlady introduced our speaker. Sitting next to me, an attractive, slim, serious lady purposefully jotted down what she felt important in a thick, well-used, spiral notebook. Her beautiful handwriting filled every line, but stopped periodically when she nodded off. Suddenly coming to, a minute or so later, she continued writing as if nothing had happened.

Awkwardly stepping on and tripping over feet, a nearby teetering octogenarian desperately struggled to reach the aisle en route to the men's room before embarrassing himself. Enlarged prostates and weak sphincters were responsible for sporadic disruptions throughout the presentation. Hadn’t these people heard of Depends? The sponsoring Ladies Committee served only beef bullion in small Wedgwood gold-trimmed cups prior to the lecture. Clearly, coffee or tea consumption would have generated chaos.

A well-known, Harvard economics professor was explaining the reasons for and his solutions to the world's financial crisis. Members of the audience were on the edges of their chairs, hanging onto each word of his clear, concise explanations of credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgage pools, collateralized mortgage obligations and other toxic assets.

Leaning forward, tuning their hearing aids, pointing their “as seen on TV” amplification devices and cupping their hands behind their ears, they strove to channel his wisdom directly into their memory banks. Tragically, most of the receiving brain cells would soon be destined for burial or cremation furnaces. Those that would have benefited most from hearing all of this, their children and grandchildren, were busy at their Boston desks answering phones, entertaining clients, buying and selling stocks or real estate and making loans.

As the applause subsided, it was replaced by chattering din and the clattering of walkers and canes of the 400-plus attendees heading for the exits. Some of us had come in cars while others had traveled in mini buses supplied by Brooksby Village and other college dormitory-like complexes housing those “waiting for God.” A man and a woman impatiently nudged their way through those on the sidewalk and onto an idling, shiny, white bus, eager to get back to their bingo, bridge games and unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

The following week’s speaker was to be a leading Russian scholar. They all hoped to make it back. So did I!

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


...isn't it a shame that old age is so 'sadly put'.
The golden years with purple hair, tinted glasses, and replacement parts...wisdom turning into dust.
But, just one more time, let's dance, shall we?

There is never a time when empathy and compassion are so important as in our "golden years" .
"purple hair, tinted glasses and 'replacement parts'"
that's us.


One disgrace in our great country is the way those "coming of age", as my ninety year husband likes to say about himself, are treated.

I enjoy your writing very much.


Great visual, at 67 I can identify with trying to channel wisdom into my memory banks. Use it or lose it. Maybe the world needs is RAM for the human brain, so we can access all those scraps of information once more. I am amazed though at so many older people who have re-engaged with the world by visiting and hearing those on speakers' circuit.

Well observed! Who are these old parties anyway? Age (almost) 70, I still have not adjusted to being old and a little creaky and needing a hearing aid!

Sandy, I caught the malady of old age so long ago I am forgetting what it felt like to be young and energetic. The only consolation of succumbing to this malady is that we have lots of company.

Thanks for putting it in perspective.

Good topic and story, Sandy...
Well written and fun! Loved your toxic asset remark.

Thanks for all your nice comments. When I turned 70 a year and a half ago, I ranted and I raved! Quickly realizing that I couldn't do anything about being in my 70's, I pledged to myself that I would act and feel younger than my age until I cease to exist. So I took up yoga, watercolor painting, memoir writing, and learning to speak Italian.

I wrote this last month for an online non-fiction writing course. My nice young 'professoressa' told me I was being too harsh on the 'senior set'. (The only change I made was to make it clear that I am a member of that elite group at the end of the second paragraph.

From your perspective as a 70 year old this is not too harsh. Had it been written by a 30 year old it would seem too judgmental.
Nevertheless,you write beautifully and capture the angst of old age.

Sandy, what a lark. You make it all sound so comical. What a fine thing it is though that so many people come to listen to the lectures.

I am just your age and I live at Brooksby Village with my husband. Have you ever visited here? It sounds as if you haven't but maybe I am wrong...
It is not all card games and bingo although there is that, to be sure. But there is in any community 'outside' too. We have a TV station here, a vibrant theater group, volunteers who drive to and work in Lahey Clinic North, or work in local schools as tutors or as overseas volunteers. If you ever want to visit, yes you will see walkers, wheelchairs, and the like. But you will also see a multifaceted community. I'd be happy to host you!

Ann - I'm sorry! I didn't mean to pick on Brooksby. My sister is thriving at Oceanview in Falmouth, ME. She still carries on an active antique business, buying and selling at antique coops all over New England.

If you show this piece to a psychiatrist, he or she will tell you that the author is unable to deal with the aging process. He needs help!

I know I'm a stroke away from plowing into fellow shoppers on my electric-riding shopping cart at the local WalMart. I know I will look into the bathroom mirror and see what had been my not-so-bad facial bone structure giving way, my cheeks puffed up like popovers. I will have large discolored drooping eyebags, my chin will be indistinguishable from my neck, my teeth will be gone, my hair will have fallen out, and my hearing and my eyesight will be failing. Unsnapping my Depends, and grasping for the towel rack, I will try to lower myself onto the pot for another bout of diarreah. I will miss my target and collapse in a heap on the floor. I will howl. I will shriek. I will go stark raving mad! (Hmmmm, as I peer ahead, I feel another story materializing!)

I apologize again - Sandy

Sandy, don't apologize. A friend who teaches writing said something that stuck: The odds that a writer will say something original are slim to none. All that she has to offer is her own voice, used as purely and honestly as possible.

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