A few night’s ago, I watched a re-run of Titanic. The scene where Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio steam up a roadster did nothing for my libido. My favorite scene stars octogenarian actress Gloria Stuart. In a flowing white nightgown, with flowing white hair and fabulous red toenails, this make-believe centenarian Titanic survivor stands at the prow of the research vessel. She flings a rare diamond necklace into the sea. That looked like fun!
For couples my age, there is only one romantic gesture left--to die at the same time or at least within a couple of months of one another. It happens more frequently than you might think. Headlines like these are not that uncommon: “Couple of 62 Years Held Hands Until the Very End” or “Couple Married 63 Years Died on the Same Day.”
I call them the “Baucis and Philemon couples.” If you have forgotten your Ovid, here’s Wikipedia retelling the myth:
“In Ovid’s moralizing fable…Baucis and Philemon were an old married couple… the only ones in their town to welcome disguised gods Zeus and Hermes…thus embodying the pious exercise of hospitality…As a reward for their hospitality Zeus turned their cottage into an ornate temple…They also asked that when time came for one of them to die, that the other would die as well. Upon their death, the couple were changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden… "
On my way to a writing conference in Key West a few years ago, I got into a conversation in the Fort Myers airport waiting room with a seventy-something couple from the Midwest--and straight out of Ovid. I listened as they told me they wanted their ashes mixed in the same urn and plowed into the field closest to their Indiana farmhouse. They had worked out the details, including which of the adult children would be in charge of the urn until they were both cremated. They held hands as they spoke.
Devotion was built into the medieval concept of courtly love, the burden of proof on the male. The courtier tries to make himself worthy of the object of his affection by doing whatever deeds she might desire. My local newspaper carried this story of chivalry gone wrong:
Elko Daily Free Press, January 21, 2014: “An 88-year-old man who shot his wife in the chest in a Carson City hospital on Sunday told police he was trying to carry out a murder-suicide because the woman was paralyzed and didn’t want to live, authorities said. The man reportedly told police that he had brought two bullets for her and two for himself, but the gun jammed after his first shot.”
Ultimate romantic gesture or the story of an inept spouse who never could do anything right. You decide.
There are many powerful memoirs of couples mated for life and the survivor’s intertwining emotions of love and grief. Three books come to mind: Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband; Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, about the loss of his wife; and Mary Oliver, Our World, about the love of her life, photographer Molly Malone Cook.
It turns out long-term marriages are good for us. An article in the New York Times, “Study Finds More Reasons to Get and Stay Married,” notes that “social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier…” and that, “People have the capacity to increase their happiness levels and avoid falling deep into midlife crisis by finding support in long-term relationships.”
Another reminder from social scientists is that women are much more likely to face their elder years without a partner. The Huffington Post notes that “Because women typically live longer than men…and tend to marry men who are older than themselves, women are far more likely to be widowed.”
Which gets me back to Valentine’s Day. For those of us who have long outlived our reproductive capacity and outlived our spouses, Valentine’s Day is redundant. Rather than lament the fact or apologize for this phase of women’s lives, we should be celebrating.
I confess that my change in thinking is a result of reading an essay by Ursula LeGuin, “The Space Crone,” in a collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World. The essay is a bold argument for a woman to rethink life after the second “Change of Life.” She says the following:
“With the secularization of virginity now complete, so that the once awesome term ‘virgin’ is now a sneer or at best a slightly dated word for a person who hasn’t copulated yet, the opportunity of gaining or regaining the dangerous/sacred condition of being at the Second Change has ceased to be apparent….Virginity is now a mere preamble or waiting room to be got out of as soon as possible...Old age is similarly a waiting room, where you go after life’s over and wait for cancer or a stroke.”
Wow! Right on, I said to myself as I read her piece. LeGuin says there are no rites of passage for women to enter this third phase, one she considers our entrance into the fullness of humanity. The crone, LeGuin claims, is the only person “who has experienced, accepted, and acted on the entire human condition--the essential quality of which is Change…”
Perhaps it is time to recognize that our post-reproductive lives, which are getting longer all the time, are opportunities for growth, for adventure, for new accomplishments. This may sound like wishful thinking and it is--in the best sense of the word. Otherwise, it’s too depressing to feel condemned to the waiting room of old age and to a vision of a woman’s post-reproductive life as one big anti-climax. Pun intended.
There are vital septuagenarians and octogenarians out there and I want to be among ‘em. For my part this Valentine’s Day, I’m enjoying the pleasure of my own company, dispensing with the red roses, and buying a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.
Nancy Harris McLelland taught creative writing, composition, and literature for over twenty years and Conducted writing workshops for the Western Folklife Center, Great Basin College , and the Great Basin Writing Project . An Elko County native with a background in ranching. McLelland has presented her "Poems from Tuscarora" Both at daytime and evening events at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Her essay, "Border Lands: Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" is in the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters .