The Privileges of Age

I HAVE always longed for the privileges of age, — since the days when it seemed to me that the elderly people ate all the hearts out of the watermelons. Now it suddenly occurs to me that I am at last entitled to claim them. Surely the shadow on the dial has moved around it, the good time has come, and the accumulated interest of my years shall be mine to spend. Have you not had the same experience? For many years, as you may have noticed, the majority of the inhabitants of the earth were old. Even those persons over whom we were nominally supposed to exercise a little brief authority were older than we, and we approached the dragons of our kitchen with a deprecating eye. But now the majority has moved behind us; most people, even some really quite distinguished people, are younger than we. No longer can we pretend that our lack of distinction is due to immaturity. No longer can we privately assure ourselves that some day we, too, shall do something, and that it is only the becoming modesty of youth which prevents our doing it at once.

One thing, willy-nilly, we have done, — or rather nature has done it for us. She is like von Moltke. ‘Without haste, without rest,’ is her motto, and knowing our tendency to dally, she quietly takes matters into her own hands. Suddenly, unconscious of the effort, we awake one morning and find ourselves old. If we can only succeed in being old enough, we shall also be famous, like old Parr, who never did anything, so far as I am aware, but live to the age of one hundred and forty-five.

In order properly to appreciate our present privileges, let us consider the days of old and the years that are past. It was in the time before motors, and we rode backwards in the carriage. We did not like to ride backwards. In traveling, we were always allotted the upper berths. There was no question about it. We could n’t expect our venerable aunt, or our delicate cousin, or our dignified grandmother to swing up into an upper berth, could we? And in those days they cost just as much as lower ones and we paid our own traveling expenses. How expert we grew at swinging up and swinging down! Naturally the best rooms at the hotels went to the elder members of the party. In coaching, our place was always between the two fattest! ‘O Isabella is thin! she can sit there!’

And what did we ask in return for these many unnoticed renunciations? Only the privilege of getting up at five to go trout-fishing, or the delight of riding all morning cross-saddle to eat a crumby luncheon in a buggy forest at noon. We wondered what the others meant when they said that the beds were not comfortable, and we marveled why the whole machinery of heaven and earth should be out of gear unless, at certain occult and punctually recurring hours, they had a cup of tea. And why was it necessary to make us unhappy if they did n’t have a cup of tea?

Young people are supposed to be mannerly, at least they were in my day, but old people may be as rude as they please, and no one reproves them. If they do not like a thing, they promptly announce the fact. The privilege of self-expression they share with the very young. Which reminds me, I detest puddings. Henceforth I shall decline to eat them, even in the house of my friends. Mine is the prerogative no longer to dissemble, for hypocrisy is abhorrent to the members of the favored class to which I now belong. They are like a dear and honored servitor of mine who used, on occasion, to go about her duties with the countenance of a thunderstorm. ‘Elizabeth,’ said I, once, reprovingly, ‘you should not look so cross.’ ‘But Miss Isabella,’ she remarked with reason, ‘if you don’t look cross when you are cross, how is any one to know you are cross?’

Speaking of thunderstorms, I am afraid of them. I have always been afraid since the days when I used to hide under the nursery table when I felt one coming. But was I allowed to stay under the table? Certainly not. All these years have I maintained a righteous and excruciating self-control. But old ladies are afraid and unashamed. I have heard of one who used to get into the middle of a featherbed. I shall not insist on the featherbed, but I shall close the shutters and turn on the lights and be as cowardly as I please.

The two ends of life, infancy and age, are indulged in their little fancies. For a baby, we get up in the night to heat bottles, and there are certain elderly clergymen whose womenkind always arise at four in the morning to make coffee for them. That is not being addicted to stimulants. But the middle span of life is like a cantilever bridge: if it can bear its own weight it is expected to bear anything that can possibly be put upon it. ‘Old age deferred’ has no attractions for me. I decline to be middle-aged. I much prefer to be old.

Youth is haunted by misgivings, by hesitancies, by a persistent idea that, if only we dislike a thing enough, there must be some merit in our disliking it. Not so untrammeled age. From now on, I practice the philosophy of Montesquieu and pursue the general good by doing that which I like best. Absolutely and unequivocally, that which I like best. For there is no longer any doubt about it: I have arrived. I do not have to announce the fact. Others realize it. My friends’ daughters give me the most comfortable chair. They surround me with charming, thoughtful, delicate little attentions. Mine is the best seat in the motor, mine the host’s arm at the feast, mine the casting vote in any little discussion.

O rare Old Age! How hast thou been maligned! O blessed land of privilege! True paradise for the disciples of Nietzsche, where at last we dare appear as selfish as we are!