"It's quite wrong to think of old age as a downward slope. One climbs higher and higher with the advancing years, and that, too, with surprising strides."
- Novelist George Sand, quoted in a newspaper clipping found on my mother's kitchen table.
Under the golden cherubs, cut-glass chandeliers and rococo curtains of the main ballroom of the soigne Hotel Pierre on New York's Fifth Avenue, my 70-plus-year-old mother graduated from college on Sunday afternoon. Only in America.
Officially Jean Turan was only one of 123 "candidates for Associated in Arts degrees" in a Retired Adult Program given to Touro College, a relatively new institution that stresses a personalized, Jewish-oriented approach to education, and if she had her way that anonymity would be kept even at the expense of her son's story.
"Such a fuss about a little A.A. degree," she said over and over as relatives and neighbors called to congratulate her. "I'm just funny, I don't like praise," she would add, even telling the photographer assigned to cover the graduation, "Please, I don't want to be glorified."
Yet like it or not, this was definitely an occasion, as Arthur Miller said in one of the plays my mother studied, when attention must be paid - if only to recognize the tremendous pride the graduates took in each other, in finally completing what for almost all of them was the dream of a lifetime.
For this was a graduating class that would have nothing to do with the know-it-all attitude that younger degree-holders shower on their own accomplishments.
"Some smart-alecky 21-year-olds could care less, but almost all the senior citizens are here," is how Peggy Rice, Touro's director of college relations put it, and my mother in the same vein, noted that "there was not one absentee the whole term. The senior citizens all came, even in those big snowstorms. That's how much it meant to us."
"A college education was always one of her goals in life; she wanted very much to achieve it," my cousin Lillian noted as she watched my mother in her cap and gown walk down the aisle. "During the Depression, she even offered to help pay for mine, that's how she felt about it."
No one knows how old my mother is; she was born in Poland in a time and place where not too much attention was paid to dates and birthdays. In many ways she marks her life from the day she began working for the Jewish Family Service, transcribing social work cases. "That," she likes to say, "was more than a college education."
By the time my sister and I got to know her, my mother had stopped working but was already characterized, as she is now, by a fiercely independent intelligence, a strong, almost physical will toward knowledge. She had ideas, opinions and curiosity about everything, and she even wanted to put it all down in a book for which she had the title all picked out: "Random Thoughts at the Running Sink."
That book would surely include my mother's special way of looking at things, her aversion to stares, for instance, and her championing of farmer cheese. Whatever your mental problem my mother would ascribe it to "chemical imbalance," a theory she had faith in long before it because seriously considered. And when her children would come home exhausted from some adventure she would look at us askance and say, "In America, when you're tired you know you've had a good time."
The book has yet to be written, but the idea of college, which she had almost given up on, reappeared suddenly in 1975, after my father's death, after the New York City Department of Social Services, her last employer decided, in my mother's words, "that they couldn't afford my services anymore."
"I worked almost all my life, it was part of life, when it stopped it was a terrible letdown," she remembers. "I wondered, 'What am I going to do all winter?' It was such an empty feeling."
Then, in the Brighton Beach YMHA in Brooklyn, she saw a notice that Touro College was going to give classes for senior citizens at conveniently located neighborhood centers. "I was the first one to arrive for registration," she says proudly, and so the process of learning began again.
It was a process that meant the taking of grandiose-sounding courses like "Self and Society" and "Science and Human Values." Books as diverse as Michael Harrington's "The Other America" and Camus' "The Stranger" began appearing around the house, and, most of all, my mother became immersed in the writing of papers.
"When it came to doing papers, a lot of people dropped out, it was too much for them," my mother reports. "And these were real college papers, with bibliographies in certain forms and everything. You can stress that, they realy made us work." (Consider it stressed, Mom.)
Hampered by problems with her eyes that made prolonged reading difficult, my mother found ways to cope. Like generations of students before her, she discovered various study aids in the local library, and telephone calls to her son as often as not dealt with Steinbeck's philosophy vis-a-vis "The Grapes of Wrath" rather than more mundane family matters like the length of my hair.
When asked what she was learning, my mother's invariable response was to say, "I'm learning how little I know." The college course became the center of her life, the events she looked forward to most of all.
"It's not the degree - I enjoyed going," she explained. "I go not only for the knowledge, but to keep my mind active. And the discussions in class with the other senior citizens with life experiences, they're very stimulating. That's really what makes it so interesting."
So interesting, in fact, that no sooner did she get enough credits for her A.A. then my mother promptly signed up for another semester, the first leading to a full B.A. "I'll go as long as I'm able," she says, which presumably will be long enough to allow her to say, when yet another graduation comes around, "I've had the same opinion from beginning to end: It's just too much fuss."