Ripeness Is All
MAY I recommend Barbara Meyerhoff's Number Our Days (Dutton, 1979). I first read this lovely book when I was relatively young and I loved it then. Now I am old and live in a retirement community myself. I understand it as I could not have done even 11 years ago.
When anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff was given a grant to study the process of aging, she felt it would be more meaningful to her, a Jew, to explore the lives of elderly Jews than to report on the communities anthropologists usually study. She spent the next two years living with and writing about the truly remarkable people who belonged to a small Jewish community center near her home.
Her subjects had come from the ghettos of Eastern Europe to work in the garment centers of New York and Chicago. Now, in their old age, they live a threadbare but wonderfully joyous existence near the beaches of Southern California.
A man Meyerhoff calls Jacob weaves his past into the present as he writes for his children -- and at the same time for others of his age group -- the Ten Commandments of Old Age:
"Dress neatly and don't try to save your best clothes, because after you leave this world you won't need them anymore. Keep your head up, walk straight, and don't act older than your age. Remember one thing: If you don't feel well, there are many people who are feeling worse. Walk carefully, watching for the green light when crossing. If you have to wait a minute or two, it doesn't make any difference at your age. There is no reason to rush."
Number Our Days is out of print.
PHYLLIS MAHON TYLER
IN Fifth Business (Viking, 1970), Canadian writer Robertson Davies gives us the life and times of Dunstan Ramsay, a Canadian schoolmaster who is writing his memoirs in the form of a letter to the headmaster of the school where he has taught for 45 years. Sound dry? Dull? Not one whit?
"My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old."
With this opening line we follow Dunstan through his life, which he constantly tries to make sense of. His dry, Scots humor and insightful remarks give us his own unique view of the world. Ontario, Canada, is the main locale, and Davies' main character provides us with constant food for thought.
"My father talked to me several times in a way that gave me some insight into his own character, for though he was a man of unusual courage as an editor, he was a peace-at-any-pricer at home."
One very powerful section takes us through the First World War with Ramsay as an ordinary soldier. The scenes are so graphically memorable that you are there slogging and crawling through the mud with him and afterward you know that that is the way it was. He wins the Victoria Cross, England's highest honor, losing his leg in the process. The historical view within the framework of Ramsay's own life could not be more intriguing. He is an odd man out, a loner and a pedant, and Davies weaves his characters in and out of this tale with malice aforethought. In the end, every character is accounted for, one with a chilling final twist.
There is a lovely oldfashioned tone to this book but the voice is "modern" and the vision is -- well, wonderful.
Fifth Business is available in Penguin paperback. It is one of the volumes in Davies' Deptford Trilogy.
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