Oddly enough, as a child I was enchanted by Grandma Moses. I loved the fact that she made art out of many of the same experiences I was having growing up on a farm–gardening, sledding, planting, and harvesting.
When she died in 1960, I was 12. But when she was born, Abraham Lincoln had not yet taken office! I learned that she started painting at the age of 76. The lesson I took from that is that old age does not have to be a time of decline. It just might become the most creative, exciting time of one’s life. Even as a young person, I found that prospect exciting.
Many memoirs take the reader back to childhood. One of my favorites, Little Heathens, was written by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (reviewed here) when she was in her 80’s. Looking backward seems to come naturally after a certain age.
But Diana Athill, author of Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir chose to go the other direction in this book. She explains her reason for writing about old age this way, “Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away.”
Born in 1917, Diana Athill, educated at Oxford, served other writers as an editor before she became a writer herself. As editor of Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir. V.S. Naipaul and many other greats, she participated in literary life vicariously until she began to write short stories and then memoir. The current book is her sixth and most popular one and won the Costa Award for biography. Recently the Queen of England appointed her an Officer in the British Empire. You can read a delightful interview by Kira Cochrane in The Guardian here.
The book itself consists of 16 short chapters, cascading toward the end, just as the life of the author does the same. The falling away metaphor fits the central image of the tree fern a plant purchased by Athill even though she will never see it grow into a tree. She enjoys the fern stage and notes, “This little nub is the start of a new frond, which grows very slowly to begin with but faster towards the end–so much faster that you can almost see it moving.”
Life starts out slow and finishes fast. Or so I have been told. My own experience as I round the corner on my 60th year, already confirms this: time is speeding up.
Athill’s metaphor of falling deepens every carefully crafted chapter. Whether she is talking about former lovers, caretaking, make-up, or the act of writing itself, she directs a steady gaze at the realities of aging and death–as well as joys still possible. She says no book on aging can end with a bang, but hers does not end with a whimper, either. She ends by affirming the desire to live. The fact that she wrote the book at age 89 and published it the year the Queen appointed her an Officer, makes her readers want to live as long and as well!