AGELESS

As We Grow Older, Everything Is Illuminated

By Deborah Tannen
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not long ago, I read that slaves made up one-fifth of the population of New York City in the 1700s. I gasped. The 18th century, which at one time sounded to me like ancient history, now feels shockingly recent. It was less than 300 years ago -- less than three times the span of my father's life. And how absurdly young the United States now seems, our country's age only a little more than twice my father's when he died two years ago this month, just shy of 98. Because my father's life spanned nearly a century, my sense of time, of history and of aging have been transformed.

My father recalled attending, as a child, a Veterans' Day parade led by men who had fought in the Civil War. When I think of this, that once-distant war comes within range of my experience, through his.

I always knew that old people had been young people once, but until my parents aged, this was just an idea, not something I knew in a gut-level, automatic way. For most of my life, I saw old people as old first, people second. It wasn't until my mother and father joined their ranks that I saw old people as people first, their age a meaningless mantle laid over who they really are.

I think I now understand why former classmates often meet again years later and fall in love. They see one another as the young people they were when they first met, which means that they see one another as they see themselves -- their real selves, not the senior-citizen pods who have replaced them in the eyes of the world.

At my 40th college reunion, I spied a gray-haired man across the room and wondered, "Who's that old guy, and what's he doing here?" But as I looked at him, familiar features began to emerge. As though I were watching a time-lapse film in reverse, the markers of age -- the gray hair, the wrinkled skin, the extra pounds -- all fell away, and the old-guy face dissolved before my eyes into the face of an 18-year-old I'd known in college. Aha, I realized with a jolt, it's Craig! That's who he is, that's who he really is. It was as if aging was a layer of makeup smeared upon his face -- makeup that someone had just wiped off.

I remembered then a conversation I'd had with my father when he was in his early 90s. "Daddy," I asked, "what does it feel like to be old?" "I don't know," he replied. "I don't feel old. When I pass a mirror I think, 'Who's that old man?' "

My father's own sense of time was telescoped as he aged. Though he never lost his mental acuity or wit, he often remembered past events as more recent than they were. Toward the end of his life, he referred to his mother having died a few years before. I pointed out that she'd been dead for 33 years. "Thirty-three years?!" he said in astonishment. "And she's still bugging me!"

In his last year of life, my father remarked, "When I'm walking along and thinking of people I knew, I think about them as if they're alive. Then I remember that they're dead." This comment gave substance to the cliche of people living on in memory. And so my father lives on in mine. Because he lived nearly a hundred years, history isn't history anymore.

tannend@georgetown.edu

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of "You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." Her father would have been 100 on Oct. 3.


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