One of the major side-effects of a publishing industry fixated on young writers, especially with fiction, is that we don’t get a lot of significant works that address aging fully and properly with all its attendant concerns, challenges, joys, and journeys. When we do get fiction with older protagonists who aren’t merely stereotypical curmudgeons or eccentrics, much of the storytelling involves them flashing back to their younger selves — as is the case with, say, Penelope Lively‘s Moon Tiger (Grove Press, 1997), Paul Harding‘s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009) and Pablo Villalobos‘s I’ll Sell You a Dog (And Other Stories, 2016)
Of course, there are also occasional works that portray older characters mostly in their present-day lives, showing us not only how life experiences have shaped the characters’ worldviews but also how older people are often undervalued, ignored, overlooked, or at odds with society. The most notable novels of this kind include plenty of tension, conflict, drama, and plot in the intimate relationships of their older protagonists. Some examples: Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), Kent Haruf‘s Our Souls at Night (Vintage ,2015) and Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (Macmillan, 1977).
According to the tradition established by Socrates and Plato, the old are viewed as wise and philosophical. According to the tradition handed down by Aristotle, the old remain self-absorbed, caring only about enfeeblement or the past. Both of these antithetical lines of thought typecast seniors as unsexed: they are alleged to have transcended desire or sadly to have lost it. This terrible and terribly influential belief that Eros hates old age seems to be intensified by a lens of ageism that presents people beyond their prime as fearful, garrulous, foolish, solipsistic, or doddering; as useless, isolated, or exploitable—characteristics that crowd out the idea of older people as loving or longing for love. From 5th-century Athens onward, authors have cursed “abhorrent old age, powerless, unsociable, friendless, in which all the worst evils cohabit.
This socio-cultural bias against older people and their emotional needs is often more accentuated against women. Past midlife, many women start to feel invisible — their bodies, sexuality, and minds are devalued even more. In contrast, older men tend to become, in many ways, elders within their communities and societies. All of this is even more pervasive in patriarchal cultures where widowed or divorced men can remarry no matter their ages but the same is not tolerated from women of any age.
This month, let’s look at five short stories that feature older women protagonists finding potential later-life loves in all kinds of interesting ways. Their authors — Elizabeth Taylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Lucia Berlin, Amy Bloom, and Yiyun Li — cover a wide range of issues and themes in these stories and the women protagonists are, for the most part, strong-minded and reaching for the love (or lust) relationships they want despite what people around them say or do. We certainly need more such later-life love stories, especially stories with more diverse and unconventional relationships from all around the world.
“The Letter-Writers”, by Elizabeth Taylor (The New Yorker)
No, this is not the Hollywood actress but an under-rated British writer. In recent decades, however, several prominent writers have taken up her cause, as Paul Theroux has done here on The New Yorker‘s Fiction podcast.
Published in 1958, the story features a long-distance relationship with handwritten letters and is based on Taylor’s epistolary relationship with Robert Liddell, a writer and critic based in Greece, while she was still married. Here, Emily is a 40-year-old spinster and writer living in an English village, corresponding with an English writer, Edmund, in Italy. During the course of their ten-year epistolary relationship, she even travels to Rome, goes past his house, but doesn’t dare to actually visit him. When he comes to her village, he does visit her.
It’s all rather stressful for her, due to her self-consciousness about her physical appearance and a few other incidents. After he leaves, she realizes she has fallen in love with him. In the end, she’s more comfortable with the intellectual and emotional intimacy afforded by their long-distance letter-writing versus the physical proximity of this one harrowing meeting and she happily settles back into her correspondence with him.
What’s most striking here is how Taylor describes the meeting and allows us to experience every moment of Emily’s awkwardness and pain, evoking universal recognition and empathy. It may sound, to our sensibilities today, like a sad, unromantic ending but, as we go through the story, we see how much his letters and the world she creates and shares in hers mean to Emily. Taylor also includes a touching, even wrenching, love-filled moment between the couple just as he leaves her. Sometimes, such unrequited and unconsummated moments are potent enough to carry one through a lifetime.
At 11 o’clock, Emily went down to the village to fetch the lobsters. The heat unsteadied the air. Light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires. And the flag on the church tower, spreading out in a small breeze then dropping, wavered against the sky as if it were flapping under water. She wore an old cotton frock and meant to change it at the last moment when the food was all ready and the table laid. Over her bare arms, the warm air flowed. Her skirt seemed to divide as she walked, pressed in a hollow between her legs like drapery on a statue. The sun seemed to touch her bones, her spine, her shoulder blades, her skull. In her thoughts, she walked nakedly, picking her way over dry-as-dust cow dung along the lane.
“My Man, Bovanne“, by Toni Cade Bambara (from Gorilla, My Love, Random House, 1972)
The first thing that’s striking about any Bambara story is her use of spoken language with all its musicality, rhythm, slang, emotion, color, texture, and resonance. This alone is such a feat of writing that it is easy to lose sight of all the other wonderful things she does with a story.
Hazel, the narrator, is an older woman dancing at a party with the titular man she’s clearly got her eye on. Her grown children disapprove of her brazenness, her dress, her hair, her everything — and they’re rather vocal with her about it. Arguing with them, she carries on defiantly with Bovanne. But the sharp words of the children she has raised do land their wounds. Bambara skillfully weaves Hazel’s interior monologue seamlessly with the exterior dialogue such that the swift interplay of each reaction and counter-response neatly depicts the generational and sexual politics that women of Hazel’s age still have to deal with (often from those closest to them.) And the last line of this story is just pitch-perfect.
So that’s how come I asked My Man Bovanne to dance. He ain’t my man mind you, just a nice old gent from the block that we all know cause he fixes things and the kids all like him. Or used to fore Black Power got hold their minds and mess em around till they can’t be civil to ole folks. So we at this benefit for my niece’s cousin who’s runnin for somethin with this Black party somethin or other behind her. And I press up close to dance with Bovanne who blind and I’m hummin and he hummin, chest to chest like talkin. Not jammin my breasts into the man. Wasn’t bout tits. Was bout vibrations. And he dug it and asked me what color dress I had on and how my hair was fixed and how I was doin without a man, not nosy but nice-like and who was at this affair and was the canapes dainty-stingy or healthy enough to get hold of proper. Comfy and cheery is what I’m tryin to get across. Touch talkin like the heel of the hand on the tambourine or on a drum.
“B.F. and Me”, by Lucia Berlin (Narrative Magazine)
The protagonist (and narrator) of this story shares her writer’s initials though not her actual age. Still, Berlin gets the voice and attitude of this feisty 70-year-old just right.
L.B. has a dirty, old handyman, B.F., show up to do her bathroom tiling work. Somehow, they slip easily into a comfortable banter that is both dryly funny and honest-to-goodness real at the same time. Berlin doesn’t shy away from showing us all the effects that aging has had on these two and how they’re coping. This is important because, in some ways, it is also what draws them to each other.
This understated story could have been cloyingly sweet if Berlin hadn’t given L.B. a tart demeanor and a keenly observant mind. Both of these latter traits hint at a long lifetime of experiences that have shaped a singular worldview that only a woman of L.B.’s age can possess. Indeed, the confident, matter-of-fact way that L.B. makes her move at the end is heartwarming.
Now I have a really nice voice. I’m a strong woman, mean even, but everyone thinks I’m really gentle because of my voice. I sound young even though I’m seventy years old. Guys at the Pottery Barn flirt with me. “Hey, I’ll bet you’re really gonna enjoy lying on this rug.” Stuff like that.
I’ve been trying to get somebody to lay tiles in my bathroom. People who put ads in the paper for odd jobs, painting, etc., they don’t really want to work. They are all pretty booked up right now or a machine answers with Metallica in the background and they don’t return your call. After six tries B.F. was the only one who said he’d come over. He answered the phone, Yeah, this is B.F., so I said, Hey, this is L.B. And he laughed, real slow.
“Only You”, by Amy Bloom (The Independent)
This is such a moving story because it shows us how later-life love can be about a certain kind of willing acceptance and sweet surrender that is usually not possible before a certain age or before certain life experiences.
Marie, the married protagonist, is in love with her hairdresser, Alvin. They become close friends and eventually go on an out-of-town trip together. Alvin is pretty much everything Marie could ask for — funny, caring, attentive, loving, and more. So, after three wonderful days together, when she asks him what he would like, she is more than ready to give him absolutely anything. Yes, even the entirely unexpected thing that he quietly asks of her. It is, as they both whisper to each other at the very end, “Beautiful.”
Bloom’s best short stories have, as she has famously said, “… the depth of a novel, the breadth of a poem, and as you come to the last few paragraphs, the experience of surprise.” This one is true to that credo as well. It is also a story that succeeds in making us suspend any judgement we might have, in real life, against a cheating wife, a blind husband, and an unconventional lover. As we experience this relationship unfolding slowly to reach its unexpected climax, we can only feel the same pleasure as Marie and Alvin do in the many shapes and contours that love in later life often takes.
Marie, who is not a very sexual person, who cannot forgive her body or its middle-aged alterations, gets almost all her needs met at The Cut Above, Alvin Myerson’s beauty salon. When Alvin opened the shop, some friends told him to change his name to Andre or even to Alain. He couldn’t be bothered and put his licence, with ALVIN ROY MYERSON printed in large type, in the very front of the salon. ‘I traffic in illusion,’ he said, ‘not in lies.’ Marie, who cherishes her sons and loves and resents her husband, likes Alvin. She thinks they have something in common.
“A Sheltered Woman”, by Yiyun Li (The New Yorker)
This story won the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. It’s about many things, as all of Yiyun Li’s short stories tend to be, not least of which is how single and lonely Auntie Mei encounters a widower, Paul, who is interested in her at a time in her life when she has all but put aside notions of any kind of intimate relationship with anyone. She’s clear-eyed, jaded even, and immediately finds reasons to dislike Paul and his overtures. Her long, painful past is constantly with her, getting in her way. As is her present, where she works for a self-centered rich young woman whose husband is absent and negligent, to say the least.
Li does an interesting thing by juxtaposing the young couple with the older one. The young couple is more into playing games with each other despite the serious effect it has on their family life and their new baby. The older couple is well past games and speak more plainly with each other about relationship matters. Yet, neither seems to be headed to a happy ending, relationship-wise at least.
Not all later-life love opportunities turn into relationships. In Auntie Mei’s case, both her employer and Paul instigate situations that stir up her past memories and make her even more resolved to keep herself emotionally sheltered and protected in the austere life she has cultivated for herself in in America. Sometimes, that is both the least and the most that can be done.
Auntie Mei had worked as a live-in nanny for newborns and their mothers for eleven years. As a rule, she moved out of the family’s house the day a baby turned a month old, unless—though this rarely happened—she was between jobs, which was never more than a few days. Many families would have been glad to pay her extra for another week, or another month; some even offered a longer term, but Auntie Mei always declined: she worked as a first-month nanny, whose duties, toward both the mother and the infant, were different from those of a regular nanny.
In popular culture today, although we get the odd TV show or movie with older couples now and then, they don’t always portray the full gamut of emotions and experiences of their characters. Literature, therefore, remains a primary way to explore and depict the many complexities and intensities that later-life love can involve. Ageist attitudes in our societies, however, not only color our personal and cultural expectations of older adults but also cause self-imposed limitations among older people themselves (as shown in Yiyun Li’s story.)
And, yet, as Isaac Bashevis Singer had once said:
The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience.
Here’s hoping that more fiction writers will explore this under-represented art of mature, well-aged, and experienced loving in their storytelling without resorting to the usual tropes and stereotypes. While the selected stories above focus on older couples coming together, we also need more stories of such relationships surviving and thriving in a social system that nurtures, respects, and enables them to do so.