In those days, they were called spinsters. I knew them by name. Miss Prescott was a librarian at Columbia University. Miss Cutler was a watercolorist. Miss Jourdan, a novelist and a magazine editor. The ladies lived in the apartment one floor above ours, at 36 Gramercy Park, in New York City. In the afternoons, while my mother taught school, I climbed the back stairs and visited them.
Their apartment was dark: dark paneling, dark furniture, and maroon velveteen on the window seats. Most walls were lined with books. Others were adorned with shields with coats of arms, crossed swords, and ornate tapestries. There was a wastepaper basket made from a rhinoceros’s foot and a little white elephant carved out of ivory. As a child, I found it highly interesting that someone would carve an elephant out of ivory but never commented on it.
Miss Prescott was tall and bony, with a voice that cracked. Miss Cutler seemed composed of pastels. They served me milk and cookies as they took their tea, and taught me canasta, at which they openly cheated. They read to me—Doctor Doolittle,The Wind in the Willows, and Tom Sawyer—pausing to ask me questions, such as why Tom pretended to enjoy whitewashing the fence, and did I think Pooh silly or smart. Toward the end of the afternoon, Miss Jourdan would arrive home from work. She greeted her companions tersely, laid down her briefcase, and looked me over. She was a large woman who breathed heavily and always dressed in black, like Queen Victoria. She preferred to head straight to the concert grand in the living room and play, her huge hands extending nearly two octaves and coming down hard on the keys.
One day she played “The Blue Danube” and “Londonderry Air.” I listened. And when she finished, I sat beside her on the piano bench and played the pieces pretty much as she had done, though with simpler chords and a lighter touch. Miss Cutler and Miss Prescott shrieked with delight at my small accomplishment. Miss Jourdan gave me an abrupt nod of approval.
Near the top of 36 Gramercy Park, between the ladies’ floor and mine, were stone gargoyles that jutted out into the air. The moving men had to carefully work their ropes and pulleys around the gargoyles as they hoisted my family’s new piano through the window. I was sorry that Miss Jourdan was not there to watch the piano arrive, as it was she who had inspired my parents to buy it. That event occurred when I was six, just after Miss Jourdan died.
By then my upstairs visits had begun to wane. But at age four, I spent as much time with the three ladies as I could. I enjoyed watching them go about their grown-up lives—writing letters, gossiping, bickering—as much as the milk and cookies. On Christmas Eve, they would hire a sleek black car to drive them up and down Fifth Avenue, where they would admire the blazing store-window displays. I sat in the back of the car on a little fold-down seat facing them. They made the same tour every year, and every year the city sights struck them with surprise. “Oh look!” they would call to one another and to me. “Isn’t that wonderful?” And it was.
Roger Rosenblatt, 70, is the author of, most recently, the book Making Toast, about his family’s life after his daughter’s death, and the forthcoming Unless It Moves the Human Heart. He lives in Quoque, New York.
2 of 6Brian Cronin
The summer when I was 12 was famous for its heat wave. For several weeks, my family escaped our London suburb to go camping on the grounds of a country manor. My parents had given me a small tent for my birthday and allowed me to pitch it as far from them as possible. When it rained, I loved to zip myself inside with a book and listen to the drumming of raindrops on canvas. Mostly the days were clear and hot, and I ditched my younger sister to hide with a book, up on the thick, gray lower limbs of elm trees, which soared together overhead like a cathedral. I read my way through countless books—some from the library, stiff in their smooth plastic sleeves, others from the moldy campground community room and various rummage sales.
A Shakespeare troupe set up on an outdoor stage at the base of a sloping meadow, and I lay for hours in the long grass, watching them rehearse. A stout Mark Antony struggled to manage a dangling sword below his paunch. Cleopatra lolled and gestured in such extravagancies of emotion that one day she rolled right out of her costume and had to stuff her bosom back into her toga along with the asp.
There were boys that summer—two brothers or cousins around my age—to whom every tree was a great Everest to be conquered. They carried a coiled length of thick, white rope and pocketknives. The rope was used to help haul us into bigger trees. We scrabbled into clefts smooth of any foothold and clung to limbs high enough to see over the fields. I was fearless in my own climbing but dizzy watching my little sister dangle her legs over the drops. I was conscious of a budding crush on one boy; I admired his way with a rope and a pocketknife.
That summer I had scabby legs and untidy brown hair and limbs that were gangly but strong and good for running and balancing. My parents, normally so cautious, allowed me to roam and, in evenings that stayed light for hours, forgot to enforce bedtime. I was oblivious to the expectations and silly cruelties that were about to chip away at my teenage years. I had yet to hear a girl pretend to know less about a subject than a boy. I was unaware that smart-mouthed girls were unpopular. I knew I was tall but as of yet had no idea that I should slouch in a corner while pretty girls danced in platform shoes. I didn’t know Shakespeare was not cool.
Sometimes when I’m out hiking or watching my sons watch Shakespeare (and get the bawdy jokes), something bubbles up inside me: an uncomplicated happiness. A trapdoor opens to that endless summer, and if I concentrate, I catch a fleeting glimpse of myself.
Helen Simonson, 46, is the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Born and raised in England, she now lives in Washington, D.C.
3 of 6Brian Cronin
Imagine a hummingbird, a drab one with a body that suddenly becomes iridescent in sunlight; wings a blur, moving fast in order to stay suspended. In the summer of 1986, the hummingbird was my feeling of anticipation, that exquisite moment before the beginning of something new.
I had just graduated from high school in suburban Houston—a behemoth institution centered around football and cheerleaders. In less than three months, I would be headed to Yale University, in New Haven, a town that sounded like a beautiful promise.
My high school was where my young soul (or at least self-esteem) could have easily shriveled up and died. I wasn’t, shall we say, physically gifted. I wasn’t golden in hair or in temperament. I wasn’t full of cheer. I had a voluptuous brain, though. I used it to devise Janus-like strategies for escape. Externally, I embraced nonconformity. My hair was a black, tangled mop, my clothes came from thrift stores, and my friends reeked of cigarettes. Inside I was a grade-conscious overachiever who had memorized the top-10 universities and the SAT scores that I would need to get into them. The former was my quick-fix refuge. The latter was my long-term salvation.
When the envelope from Yale arrived, my mother got to it first. She waited for me at the front door of our house, identical to so many of the other houses in our subdivision except for the colors of the shutters, and she waved it up and down, like a wing.
Summers in Houston were hot and humid, and there was never anything to do, and that summer was no different. I was different, though. Or I was about to be. If I could go back, I would take a photograph of myself, and then an X-ray. I like to think I would see the small bird, humming inside.
Monique Truong, 42, is the author of Bitter in the Mouth and The Book of Salt. She lives in Brooklyn.
4 of 6Brian Cronin
By any meaningful measure, most of my years have been pretty damn good: healthy, blessed with a loving husband, a beautiful child, loyal friends, and sweet dogs.
But 38 was golden. I had a wonderful job writing a weekly newspaper column, in which I had the freedom to take on virtually any subject. Constantly coming up with something intelligent, original, and/or amusing turned out to be a spiritual challenge of sorts. Because I was always prowling for the next topic, I couldn’t sleepwalk through my days. There was a potential column in everything that crossed my path: headlines, the meals I cooked, TV ads.
The timing for this couldn’t have been better, because my daughter, Emilia, was three years old. I knew she was going to be my one and only child, so my mantra and modus operandi was “Be here now.” I woke up every morning with the knowledge that everything I did had meaning, down to the smallest details of breakfast, bath time, and toe kisses.
Emilia was already her own person. She had definite opinions about what she wanted to wear to preschool, and she brought home funny stories about the other kids. Her orbit was expanding; she changed every week. But I was still her alpha and omega.
She loved her father dearly. Jim would sit patiently as she attempted to make pigtails in his very short hair, and his Donald Duck impersonation was her favorite entertainment, eliciting bright bubbles of laughter. Even so, I was The Mother. When Emilia climbed onto my lap for a bedtime story and snuggle, I knew that she was in Eden—a safe, warm, unconditionally loving place.
But I also knew that my superpowers were on the wane. I think Emilia knew it, too. Her growing arms and legs didn’t fold neatly into the circle of my arms the way they had when she was eight months old or even when she was two. It took longer to settle in, to find a balance, and we had to hold on to each other more tightly. But finally it was perfect.
I cherished those moments even more because I could see that they wouldn’t last.
Anita Diamant, 59, is the author of Day After Night and The Red Tent. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
5 of 6Brian Cronin
I guess it should have made me uneasy. Friends told me it depressed them when they arrived at this milestone. It meant that youth was only a memory and not even one close at hand, and all that was left was a downhill slide into sore joints and sensible shoes, a sugar-free fall into true old age. One day, in heaven’s waiting room, I would stagger between my dimming memories and my dwindling 401(k) and see that the good life, truly, had started to crumble in my 50th year.
But I decided not to panic and to see how it would all shake out. I was a little sad that first day. I had asked for a pineapple upside-down cake, and my wife did not say no, exactly. So all day I waited for the smell to drift from the kitchen, that smell of butter and brown sugar. She makes the best pineapple upside-down cake on this earth but had decided that I needed a pineapple upside-down cake like I needed a squirrel monkey, so the year began with mild disappointment.
I remember mostly an odd peace and a strange, comfortable feeling of surrender as I sat on the porch of our old house in Fairhope, Alabama, not far from Mobile Bay. I watched the bugs fly around the porch light, listened to the mosquitoes hum in the wet-hot July night, and wondered if the big copperhead was still coiled in the corner of the screened-in porch.
“Throw some mothballs in there,” the pest-control man had told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“ ’Cause they don’t like mothballs,” he said.
“So,” I said, “you’re just telling me how to piss him off.” I had tried for days to gouge the snake out, but he just went in deeper. As I sat there that night, I knew, somehow, I would not try again. I limped into the house and went to bed without cake.
A year later, I sat in the same old wicker chair and took inventory of my 50th year. There had been great sadness. The worst thing about this age is that so many people you love have left this earth, and left you behind. Even our dog died. I loved that dog.
But the truth was, I had lived 50 years alongside people and things and places that I loved. I could still see my mother’s face, grip my brothers’ rough hands, hear my boy whip his guitar. I could still feel a fish fight at the end of a line, still turn my pillow to the cool side and hope for one last good dream.
I had always expected the worst, regretted choices, wondered What if ? And now it was too late to rewrite my life, too late to do anything but live it out. Even if I got to live it all again, from the beginning, I would still live it imperfectly, raggedly, shamelessly, in my own skin. It is a hard and bitter thing, a life, but so loathsome to leave and so stupid to regret.
This year there was cake.
“Because you griped about it for 365 days,” my wife said. I guess I could have tried to tell her there are only so many cakes left.
“One piece,” she ordered.
“Sure,” I said.
Just before bedtime, I wondered again about the snake, then decided it still didn’t matter. There is always a snake somewhere.
A young man would have gone to war with a reptile for possession of a few yards of crumbling brick. A 51-year-old man eased quietly into the dark house and, one by one, ate the pineapple rings off his cake.
Rick Bragg, 51, is the author of All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frogtown. He is the Clarence Cason professor of writing at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa.
6 of 6Brian Cronin
At 64, I have a lot that I didn’t have at 24. I’m not talking about the comfort of having finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up and whom I want to marry. Or about the fact that my sons are adults who like to be around their parents but can take care of themselves. Or about finally having the mattress I wish I had been able to afford decades ago. And I certainly don’t mean the wrinkles, the memory glitches, the semi-obsessive interest in other women’s chin lines.
I’m talking at least partly about the time I spend with my granddaughter, who is a preschooler. It’s what people say, and like so many things people always say, true: My relationship with my grandchild has a poignant sweetness, an intensity, that comes from being fully present, a calming thrill that was an unavailable luxury when I was coping with the distractions and the pressures of parenthood. But the other thing that people always say, jokingly, I suppose—how great it is that you can give the grandchildren back at the end of the day—is beside the point.
Because, as it happens, so many things in my daily life have that same poignant sweetness. The red of the maples in autumn, the daffodils and crocuses that appear, so suddenly and shockingly, on my lawn in spring—both those events seem to have a piercing beauty and a preciousness that they simply didn’t have when I was young and immortal and knew that time was endless. Last summer, as I walked back to the house with vegetables just picked from the garden for a meal with friends, I felt joy and gratitude—a sense of having made a long-delayed discovery.
The pleasures of a lengthy marriage—Howie and I have been together for 36 years—sharpen and sweeten with age. The old jokes, the sentences we finish for each other, the middle-of-the-night conversations, all seem more meaningful and funnier, more relaxed and urgent, reflective of all those hours we’ve spent together and of our new awareness of how fragile everything is. Sometimes I can’t imagine how we could have been stupid enough to argue about the things—money, housework, and kids, mainly—that would have sorted themselves out anyway. How young and stupid we were not to have spent those wasted hours feeling thankful, as we do now, that we are (knock on wood) alive and healthy and on the planet together.
Bittersweet, I suppose you could call it—with emphasis on the sweet. When I say that I wish I had known at 24 what I know at 64, I couldn’t mean it more. And yet I realize that such a thing could never have been possible. If that knowledge is what people mean by wisdom, I’ll take it.
Francine Prose, 64, is the author of more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book, My New American Life, will be published in April. She lives in New York City.