I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
~ T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock“
Like it or not, once you’re born, you grow old. (If you’re lucky.) The end is inevitable. Think taxes.
In the first few sentences of Growing Old: Notes on Aging with Something Like Grace, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – best-selling author of The Hidden Life of Dogs – appears to agree with Western sentiment.
“Why write a book about old age? Nobody wants it. Nobody likes it,” she writes by way of the Introduction.
But then she creates an almost magical stage on the page, pulling the curtains back, revealing stereotypes of aging, stereotypes which still cloud people’s minds.
She begins by describing the prejudice against older people in American society. An incident with a younger neighbor stands in for this mindset, and Thomas recognizes something: “Your neighbor sees you as a walking cadaver….”
Thomas includes a short litany of the most common physical and mental afflictions that strike most people once they pass the goalposts of seventy and older. But that’s not the main message of the book, nor the depth of it. What makes Growing Old such a delight to read lies in the personal mixed with the universal.
Thomas lived in and studied other cultures, such as the San culture in the Kalahari and Dodoth of northern Uganda, so she’s well-qualified as she brings her immense power of observation to a wide variety of topics: the importance of community, funeral practices, cultural stereotypes surrounding older people, and wisdom gleaned from her eighty-eight years (at the time she wrote the book). She mixes in a lot of practicalities, too. Want to know about the different burial options once it becomes necessary? Look no further than Chapter Fourteen, which includes a frank discussion of cannibalism in light of funerary customs.
These days, because of COVID and the aftermath of seemingly endless solitude, Thomas’s book strikes a chord, especially in her discussion of the almost innate human need for community. Ironically, the book came out in April 2020, so the section on social isolation and alienation is not based on the cataclysmal social impacts of COVID.
For me, Chapter Nine became the most memorable of the twenty chapters in the book. It deals with the need humans have always had for safety in numbers, rewarding them with both community and connectedness. She conveys this message by using the personal to state the universal.
Thomas first brings in her own experience with a woman whom she calls Mary, the daughter of friends. Mary is around sixty or so years old and lives with Thomas for months, free of charge, and does nothing, but secretly complain about everything to Bella, Thomas’s friend and housekeeper. The constant fault-finding makes Mary very unpopular, to say the least. So at an age when she needs community, Mary’s behavior ensures that she has none. Then one day, out of the blue, she’s gone. Thomas’s comments on Mary lead her to another, similar story, this one about a man named /Gao, a member of a group of San tribesmen. For various reasons, /Gao also becomes isolated from his community. The end of /Gao’s story demonstrates all too clearly the ancient human need for community and connectedness in dangerous times.
Growing Old, therefore, focuses on much more than the aging process. By sharing anecdotes and facts about other cultures, animals, and even the universe, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas creates a guide for understanding aging in the context of not just the here and now, but in the greater scheme of life on Earth.
Other Books by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas:
- The Harmless People (1959)
- Warrior Herdsmen (1965)
- The Harmless People (Revised ed. 1989)
- The Old Way: A Story of the First People (2006)
- Ethology and animal culture
- The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993)
- The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture (1994)
- The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company (2000)
- The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World (2009)
- A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed (2013, reissued in 2016 as Dreaming of Lions: My Life in the Wild Places)
- The Hidden Life of Life (2018)
- Reindeer Moon (1987)
- The Animal Wife (1990)
- Certain Poor Shepherds: A Christmas Tale (1996)