Aging Gracefully

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Reviewed by Judith Viorst
Sunday, April 6, 2008


Leaving Middle Age -- And Other Unexpected Adventures

By Reeve Lindbergh

Simon & Schuster. 226 pp. $24

In Forward From Here, Reeve Lindbergh's winsome meditation on aging and other matters, she confesses that she hasn't quite decided whether her style, as she enters her 60s, ought to be "Gracious Old Lady" or "Elderbabe." At the moment, however, she seems to have settled nicely into the role of Good-Hearted Grown-Up, accessorized by adjectives like wise and touching and honest and funny and eloquent. She seems also to have acquired, in a life with its substantial share of losses, a talent for contentment and delight, fostered by a happy second marriage, a late-life son to add to her blended family, and a farm in Vermont that engages her with turtles and lambs and chickadees and chicken manure, with the beauties and messes of the natural world.

Lindbergh, author of many books for children and adults, is the youngest child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and included in her essays are many intriguing glimpses of her famous parents. But there are other things on her mind as she moves easily from turtles to Anthony Trollope; from the ingratitude of bluebirds to her gratitude for drugs that help relieve anxiety and depression; from the challenges of motherhood (she thinks there should be a prize for the parents who can feed the greatest number of teen-aged boys on the shortest notice) to the discipline (write regularly) and procrastinations (sort the laundry) of writing. She abashedly admits that while she still maintains certain "back-to-the-country principles," there's a sybaritic hot tub in her woodshed. She considers the nature of time -- not enough time, making more time, is there still time -- and wonders what would happen if she slowed down. And embracing her late mother's upbeat view that "sixty is the youth of old age," she has much to say about the various benefits and afflictions of growing older.

The good news is that she no longer thinks of herself as a work in progress, as an interminable self-improvement project. The bad news includes the familiar complaints about sagging skin, misplaced glasses and creaky bones, but she also speaks of the heavier stuff: her surgery for a brain tumor, meticulously recorded in her diary; her "ongoing very real sadness" at the absence of family members and friends now dead; and, in a chapter called "Ashes," her somewhat irreverent examination of what to do with a loved one's cremated remains.

One friend's solution: Have lunch at the dear departed's favorite restaurant and, when the waiter's not looking, shake the ashes into a potted plant.

Lindbergh has lived long enough to understand that "terrible things can happen to anyone." She also has lived long enough to have learned that "dailiness outlasts despair."

Her lessons surely include the staggering public revelation -- in 2003, three decades after his death -- that her father, in his later years, had established three separate secret families in Europe. She describes her many reactions -- first, indignant disbelief; then bitter rage; and then a kind of acceptance -- to the news that this man she believed could not tell a lie, this "stern arbiter of moral and ethical conduct," had been leading another life or several lives, producing with three other women, in addition to the children he sired with Anne, seven more children -- two daughters and five sons.

Traveling to Europe to meet her many amiable new relatives, Reeve Lindbergh was sustained by her good manners, her distaste for melodrama and her inability to cling to moral outrage, as well as by the cheering thought that these new family members might "come in handy if any of you needs an extra kidney!" Thinking about her father, after her own intense emotions had settled down, she was able to feel some pity for the "unutterable loneliness" of a man who "could not be completely open with anybody who loved him anywhere on earth." And moving forward from here, whether as Gracious Old Lady or as Elderbabe, she will surely be able to count on the largeness of heart and generosity of spirit that enrich her life, and the pages of this book.

Judith Viorst is the author, most recently, of "I'm Too Young to Be Seventy and Other Delusions" and "Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days."

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