Prolific journalist and writer Anna Quindlen talks of a wake-up call she got the day she read a news story aloud to her adult children. It involved “an elderly woman” who was later identified as being 60-something. “How is that elderly?” she ranted. They broke it to her gently; “Mom, it’s definitely elderly.”
Quindlen celebrated her 60th birthday in July 2012 and turned that affront to her sensibilities into a lively memoir, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” (2012). The collection of essays celebrates the changes and chances that advanced age brings. It rings with Quindlen’s honest take on life that had characterized her Pulitzer-prize-winning columns in The New York Times and “The Last Word” columns on the back page of Newsweek.
She almost lost me, though, in the early chapter “Stuff” where she reminisces about filling her house to the brim with goods. She is a shopper. I am not. She delights in gathering tons of serving trays and bowls and candlesticks and pottery. I do not. But life experience has changed her. “Stuff is not salvation,” she now acknowledges. “House Beautiful is not Life Wonderful.” I started warming up to her.
She hooked me right in with “Next of Kin” where she looks at long marriages. In typical Quindlen style she doesn’t deal in platitudes or conventional wisdom about pre-feminism versus post-feminism times. “Lots of old-fashioned marriages were happy ones, in part because no one expected to look over and see their best friend in the adjoining twin bed,” she says. “And it turned out that some of the terms of the new egalitarian partnerships were not that great for those involved.” Her narrative lights up when she gets personal: “A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation.”
In “Mirror, Mirror,” she tells us her new mantra is “gains and losses. I know more but remember less,” she says. “My hair is still thick, but much of it is gray.” Her positive tone is infectious. Some readers might say that Quindlen can afford to be upbeat; she is lucky, with relatively good health, a strong marriage, three healthy, productive children and a successful career. Yet she suffered the loss of her mother to cancer when she was only 19, and she considers that tragedy a lesson on the value of each day we spend on earth.
Quindlen reports that when she says to a group of women at lunch that she “wouldn’t be 25 again on a bet, or even 40 … everyone around the table nods. Many of us find ourselves exhilarated, galvanized, at the very least older and wiser.” Quindlen comes across as an optimistic messenger about what may lie ahead for the lucky among us who get to be “elderly.”