I still think of myself as a girl. Often, I am reminded that I am not.
Here’s what makes me feel old: When I have to scroll down and down and down to find my birth year on a computerized form.
When the women I ride bikes with—younger women I can keep (or at least eventually catch) up with—call me “ma’am.”
And very recently, when, at a fraternity party (for only a little while!) with our college sophomore during parents’ weekend, the young people went wild when Sweet Caroline came on the stereo system. Apparently “Good times never felt so good ... SO GOOD, SO GOOD, SO GOOD!” I looked at my husband and thought: “Neil Diamond? Really? Isn’t he dead?”
Oh, also, just having a college sophomore makes me feel old.
But then I’m happy that I can see some humor in that annoyingly long search for the early 1960s. And I think of the kick I get from riding (never mind the fact that I can) with my younger cycling companions who have become good friends I otherwise never would have known. And I am grateful that across that crowded (startlingly dirty) room in the frat house called “Old House,” my husband of 24 years and I shared the same thought without speaking a single word. That feels good.
So I’ll continue the business of growing older gracefully. It’s not so hard, really. Besides, I have a guide of sorts.
Recently, with some sadness, I read Kathryn Tucker Windham’s last book, She: The Old Woman Who Took Over My Life. This slim memoir, written in the very last years of Kathryn’s life and published shortly after her death in June of this year, is about growing old. I picked it up knowing that reading it would be bittersweet. But I read it knowing I’d take something important from it and carry that thing with me from here on out.
I also read it wanting a few more moments with a friend.
Kathryn Tucker Windham, author, journalist, photographer and storyteller extraordinaire, was one of the first important writers I met some 15 years ago when I first began writing a book column in Birmingham. Back then, I took my children to readings with me because my husband worked afternoons and nights. (Even as crawling babies they were good on those outings.) I took Brother to Kathryn’s reading that day, and she delighted in his nickname, which has stuck.
That encounter stayed with me. Of course, I was thrilled to meet the woman who had so entertained me as a child with her many Southern ghost stories. My children grew up reading those same ghost books, and they loved getting Jeffrey postcards from her at Christmas. But then I got to know Kathryn better through her other books like Twice Blessed (1996); and Bridal Wreath Bush (1999); and, later, the sweetly important Ernest’s Gift (2004). This woman, I came to realize, paved the way for women writers and journalists (for me!), especially here in the South. Besides, we had both worked for the same two papers—The Alabama Journal and The Birmingham News—at some time in our lives.
My favorite of Kathryn’s books is Odd-Egg Editor (1990), which she sent to me one day out of the blue. Inside the book was a Jeffrey postcard decorated with little red hearts and a belated Valentine’s wish on the other side. She inscribed the book: “... so you will know a bit about what it was like to be a female newspaper reporter a long time ago.” The book details her life as a young journalist, and even the difficulties she encountered were turned into fabulous and often funny stories. Once, while covering the police beat, a desk sergeant said to her, “What are you doing here? You ought to be writing about weddings and parties and such.” And she replied: “I don’t know enough adjectives to be a society writer.”
In She, Kathryn shared her quiet humor, insatiable curiosity and remarkable wisdom with readers one more time. The stories are told, cleverly, with the help of an alter ego—She.
Kathryn wrote: “I can’t recall when I became aware that an old woman was nudging her way into my life. At first, her presence was hardly noticeable, but as my years soared into the nineties, it was no longer possible to ignore her presence. She disrupts my plans, demands my attention, shames me into completing abandoned projects, requires nutritious meals, curtails my away-from-home activities, hides things from me, makes my handwriting less legible, and pushes names and events into the deepest crevices of my mind even while prodding me to tell and write old family stories and traditions.”
Kathryn told people she found herself becoming “the caregiver for a crotchety old woman...” Adding, “It’s not a job I applied for.”
Kathryn considered herself “twice blessed” and, in fact, wrote in this book and once told me herself that she wanted these words from Jan Struther’s poem “Eulogy” on her tombstone:
She was twice blessed:
She was happy; She knew it.
Here’s what I took from Kathryn’s final book: Seemingly ordinary things—days, encounters, people, places and things—can be extraordinary ... if you take the time to notice.
And with that, I’ll move forward—feeling blessed many times over.