More on politics & society from The Atlantic Monthly.

See an index of This Month in The Atlantic's History.

From the archives:

"A Visionary Poet at Ninety" (June 1996)
What's all this about poets in their youth beginning in "gladness" but ending in "despondency and madness"? William Wordsworth, meet Stanley Kunitz. By David Barber

"Midlife Myths" (May 1993)
Far from being the slough of despond it is considered, middle age may be the very best time of life, researchers say—the "it" we work toward. By Winnifred Gallagher

"Better With Age" (September 1991)
At eighty-four, Benny Carter is at the height of his musical powers. By Francis Davis

The Atlantic Monthly | November 1971
Disarmed at Middle Age

by Antonia Chayes
hen I was young, middle-aged men, balding and paunchy, wore faces dangerously flushed as they aimed their nine-iron shots at the green. The women always seemed to wear stockings and corsets, their flesh constantly threatening to escape and embarrass them. Their faces were powdered and rouged and their graying hair uniformly thin, curled, and short. Both men and women lacked the serenity of our grandparents, the really old. Middle-aged people rarely sat still, but their movements showed neither grace nor ease. In some ways they appeared ludicrous—encrusted with proprieties, rituals, fussy little habits, and illogical sensibilities. Yet they had dignity and authority, and their disapproval carried awesome weight.

I was often wilted by the middle-aged spinster who taught me English—"Good writing is learning what to leave in the inkwell, which is most of what you have written." I remember the curdling stares of disapproval as I cycled past the Methodist church on the way to the beach on a Sunday morning. On Sundays all the dignity and encrustation were set off by silly flowery-fruited hats gingerly placed on top of permed hair. Silly as the women looked to me, the hard looks were very upsetting.

I remember too the accusing glances I received on the beach when I ventured out in a scanty two-piece bathing suit and a silver ankle bracelet. My mother told me never to wear the ankle bracelet again, and I didn't. People used words like "cheap" and "pure," and the words were often in condemnation of what I wanted to do or be or wear. Middle-aged people ruled the world and our lives—which amounted to the same thing.

I promised myself that when I grew older—even forty—I would still wear jeans and giggle and never wear my hair in sausage curls or put on aqua rhinestone harlequin glasses. And I never have, but I don't rule the world.

There were low, low youth fares to Europe this summer, and those spoiled children whose toys and peeled crayons we had picked up years ago went abroad. They left behind ashtrays for us to empty, and broken belts, odd socks, and little wilted heaps of underwear to pick up and wash.

I spent three days at the exercise class pushing out the small of my back so it lay flat on the floor. I'm more agile than I was at twenty because I know my body is starting to age and I treasure the ability to move with ease and command. I took it for granted then. I thought that the pigeon look of all those middle-aged ladies was part of the armor they assumed to boss us around. I haven't gained much weight and I haven't gained much dignity. I drift on the edge of the ocean playing crab, up and back with the waves. I never use a bathing cap because I love to feel the cold water on my scalp and up high at the nape of my neck.

Our daughter said she finished school only to please us, and then left home to live in a commune where a Jesus-autocrat with no teeth and a hillbilly accent told her to wash dishes and mind the little children. She was always a good baby-sitter, but she did the dishes only under duress at home, and left the ghost of her midnight snack for us to face at breakfast. We had no withering looks or words like "cheap" and "pure" to use. We told her not to go, and then gave reasons. But we had no power. We tried to talk to her about our values—about how literature and music nurture us and give solace. We talked of retrospective exhibits—Matisse last year in Paris and Cézanne in Boston ... the impact of the lifework of rare creative genius. But the words "taste" and "values," though not awesome in themselves, are greeted by the young with the same unexpressed scorn as we greeted the expressions used to dominate and control us.

We are very young in our middle age. Maybe I do have as many lines as my mother did at my age, but I dress and move differently. Yet my face looks very stern to me. There is a sort of dignity there, an honest sadness that must command respect. It is born of hurt and not understanding, of loving without reserve and trying to please. My cheeks and eyes look hollow.

I was trained to think things through, but all the explanations sound alike and don't improve with repetition. To me the young have love and hostility in equal measure; idealism and self-centeredness. They are all they say they are, and the opposite more often. They have enormous insight about society and other people and almost none about themselves. And they are very arrogant.

We are caught in the middle. That is another dimension of middle age. My mother makes demands and scolds my inattentiveness. Her whims and hurt feelings are only accentuated by her age, not really changed from those that I remember. The shadow of her power to command still looms large, but it is love and respect, not fear, that causes me to respond.

I find that love is expressed through fear of dependency in our young, and the rejection is very searing. It sometimes comes across as hatred, though I understand it is themselves they fear and even hate. We are the victims of our own too-serious effort to understand and be understood. We have no substitute for the armor of paunch and pipe, golf games, hats, girdles, and oxfords. The young wear the cross of the Jesus-cult on milky bosoms, eat organic oats, toss their long hair, hitchhike, and swear. All of this protects them and makes them feel like brothers and sisters. We are very naked, and isolated one from another. We were brought up on pious exhortations, and some of us took them very seriously. I was scolded and told of the starving Armenians if I left food on my plate. It haunted me for years.

We are probably failures in every phase of our extraordinary liberalism. We diminished the one third of a nation to under 20 percent, but it has taken far too long. And the fear is not gone yet. We raised the expectations of all the young by urging them to seek a college education, yet many of our own children don't want it. Of those who were promised it and want it, some find the money isn't there. And if they got into college and out, they found no key to the kingdom there.

The cult of reason, too, has glaring inconsistencies. Government officials and married people lie about important things. Still, some of us accepted the values and truths until we mastered the strongest value of them all—reason. Then with rationality our tool, we questioned without tiring, dissecting all the givens with precision and overwhelming guilt. How many hours did we talk about God and the waning of religion in our lives?

Some of us are slow to trust, slower to accept, but love at last and deeply. We're not afraid of touch. The need to strike an instant intimacy seems gauche and sad.

We deflated pomposities and affectations of middle age but find ourselves disarmed. I know I'm not alone. I hear stories worse than ours, and can pick out parents at parties whose children have wounded and disappointed them. Their eyes are hollow too, and some of them drink too much.

My values, strangely, have deepened, not fled. I came by them with enormous effort. They may not have served me well enough, but all the alternatives seem worse—pretentious, silly, or unrealistic.

Some days I feel angry, tired, and depressed. I wonder what kind of middle age the young will have. Will the armor of macrobiotics, meditation, and beads give way to other symbolic protections? What kind of rote controls will they impose? I can't see the long straight hair and scrubbed faces creased and powdered, topped with plastic cherries and wisps of veil. Perhaps they will become the Putney gentleman farmers, whose chaos came under control by the chicken's clock and the calendar of the lamb.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 1971 by Antonia Chayes. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1971; Disarmed at Middle Age; Volume 228, No. 5; page 194.