As I approached my sixtieth birthday, I began to notice that in the books I included on the syllabus for my popular course “Contemporary Fiction by Women,” none of the protagonists were anywhere near my age. Instead, women my age were secondary characters, mothers or grandmothers, usually included only because of their importance to the central character, a marriageable daughter or even a young girl. The older woman might be described in considerable detail, but only from the outside, through a younger person’s perspective. I was troubled by the stereotypes that seemed to categorize her as either wicked witch or fairy godmother.
I began to search for fiction by women in which the author gets inside the head of an older woman. The first stories I discovered were either what I came to call “deathbed bookends” (because the protagonist is introduced on her deathbed but the heart of the story is an unrequited love from her youth) or were very sad books in which the aged protagonist is suffering as an unwanted feature in her children’s home or wasting away in a residence for the elderly. Common to every story I discovered about an older woman was loss—either loss of a husband through death or divorce, or loss of a female partner, or significant physical or mental loss. The stories were so depressing that I could not imagine teaching an entire course on them. Eventually, I discovered stories in which the protagonist not only survived such loss but discovered new ways to live and frequently learned from her loss and was able to thrive in her sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties. I began collecting these stories as beads on a secular rosary to revisit as I continued to age.
But early in my project, in 2004, I experienced a loss of my own: a traumatic brain injury caused by a car accident that left no marks on my body but severely damaged my brain as it crashed around in my skull from the severity of the impact.
Eventually, I relearned the skills of reading and writing, in addition to more basic daily tasks, and when I was able to return to my earlier research, I came to it as a woman of a certain age who had personal experience of defying expectations and flourishing after losses.
The result is my forthcoming book, The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction (She Writes Press, September 8), in which I introduce readers to a curated collection of 30 stories chosen from the many I collected over the years. Since sending off the finished manuscript, I have discovered a flowering of stories representing a more extensive selection of writers than were available at the time I was searching and writing, which is why I have created an author blog.
This spring I taught my final Mills College course, “Coming to Age,” as a collaboration with the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, in which young and old women met to discuss several texts chosen from those in my book. The short story that created the most vibrant discussion was Toni Cade Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne,” and the novel that generated the most interest was Cathleen Schine’s They Do Not Mean To, But They Do. I include brief excerpts of my book’s discussion of both these stories in the following paragraphs.
Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “My Man Bovanne” initially appeared in Black World in October 1971 under the misleading (or suggestive) title “Mama Hazel Takes to Her Bed.” The story is narrated by Miss Hazel, a widowed matriarch in her sixties and mother of three adult children who are embarrassed by her sensual behavior with an elderly man at a fundraising event. I include this story in this chapter because of Bambara’s portrayal of the contrast between the way the adult children see their mother and the way she sees herself. They see her as Mom and Bovanne as the old blind man who used to repair their broken toys. They are appalled at the mere suggestion of sexiness, especially from their mother. Although the setting is the 1970s, the failure of children to see their parents as sexual could occur in any community in any era.
Neither Miss Hazel nor the reader has any idea why the young people have invited their elders to the event. Nor do Miss Hazel and her friends know, until after the scolding by her children, that there is an unspoken agenda that requires the appearance of a unified community. She learns that she and several other elders in the neighborhood, including Bovanne, have been invited “all on account of we grass roots.” At the gathering, Miss Hazel notices that the young people ignore their elders except to greet them hurriedly. They rush by the blind man, saying, “My man Bovanne,” without stopping to get him a drink or a sandwich, or even to explain what is going on. She feels sorry for him and pulls him up to dance, and they weave their way among the tables set up throughout the room. Miss Hazel reaches for Bovanne because she empathizes with him and dislikes how the younger folks are marginalizing him by falsely calling him “My man” without even stopping to chat with him. We don’t know whether or not the dancing would have been the extent of Miss Hazel’s involvement with Bovanne if her children had not pulled her away from him. c
The young people had been hoping that Miss Hazel would behave in a certain way that would advance their agenda, which is ultimately to raise money for a free breakfast program for neighborhood children and to gain donated space in the local church. The young people see their elders primarily as resources, and certainly not as adults with complex needs and emotions, so it shocks them to see their mother not only as a separate adult but also as an adult with sexual desires. The newly politicized “children” are sentimental on the one hand about grassroots, tradition, and the elders, but at the same time are also deeply ashamed of Miss Hazel’s appearance in her wigs and her head rag. They want her to look respectable, to wear her hair in a natural fashion, and to avoid standing out in the crowd. Disgusted by her skimpy low-necked dress, they unwittingly fall into ageist stereotypes that make them embarrassed by their mother’s presentation of herself as seductive.
Bambara portrays both generations with humor and affection, not blaming Miss Hazel’s children—Elo, Task, and Joe Lee—for their embarrassment, while also revealing Miss Hazel’s sensitivity—her hurt feelings, her sadness, and her defiance in disregarding their attempts to use her as a pawn in their political strategy rather than see her as herself.
Cathleen Schine’s 2016 novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, opens with the Philip Larkin epigraph “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” Yet by the novel’s end we agree with the protagonist, Joy Bergman’s, clever rephrasing of Larkin, “They fuck you up, your son and daughter. They may not mean to, but they do.” Eighty-six-year-old Joy flouts the well-meaning expectations of her adult children by insisting on caring for her beloved husband single-handedly at home as he slips into dementia and then, after his funeral, pursuing her relationship with one of his friends, against their objections. She loves her family deeply yet rejects their good intentions, instead following her own fiercely held sense of herself and living on her own terms. She shows how even in the face of loss and conflict, it is possible to flourish in old age.
Feisty, opinionated, and set in her ways, Joy is admirable. She has been the breadwinner of the family for decades since her charming but impractical husband, Aaron, lost the company he inherited. She loves her New York neighborhood with its cacophony of voices, its take-out places, the familiar doorman, and the nearby park. Her children and grandchildren adore her, and she has lifelong friendships. She strives to avoid being viewed as eccentric yet freely carries three shopping bags filled with food, drink, and whatever else she imagines she may need whenever she leaves the apartment. Although the novel includes scenes without Joy—focusing on her adult children too, Molly and her wife, Freddie, in California, and Daniel and his wife and two daughters in New Jersey—the matriarch is the heart of the narrative. Flashbacks provide an account of Aaron and Joy’s life together, and the novel moves beyond Aaron’s death into Joy’s renewed friendship with her widowed college sweetheart, Karl.
We learn that Joy is both loved and unloved for the same reasons, and that she has shared an enviable closeness with her husband. She is disconcerting, intimate and remote, talkative and “yet she heard everything you said or thought you might say.” Although she is wise, deep, and intuitive, and a person to whom people confide their darkest secrets, she is also scatterbrained and easily distractible. Her husband was sentimental, unreliable, brimming with love and charm, and a man who made people feel they did not have to work too hard because good things were coming from somewhere. Their two children had always been able to recognize the differences between their parents, although “they were as one.” They’re described as holding hands when they walked down the street and feeding each other tidbits, like lovebirds, which embarrassed their children and yet reassured them. But such descriptions are of a distant past, and much of the novel portrays a present time in which Aaron is rapidly sinking into dementia and Joy is laboriously caring for him.
The novel provides an intimate portrayal of Joy tending to Aaron as he deteriorates. Though she pushes herself beyond her mental and physical capacity, she refuses to put Aaron in “a place” because he would be miserable and even more disoriented. Schine’s detailed account of their interactions—Joy’s deep love for Aaron, the excruciating pain of slowly losing him, the delight when he sings to her or holds her hand—are juxtaposed with his irritable responses to her frequent practical reminders, such as to tilt the wheels of his walker to negotiate a curb. She has always been the practical one in their marriage, and she continues to be a source of both comfort and annoyance.
This essay was originally posted on August 23, 2020.
Ruth O. Saxton is a Professor Emerita of English, co-founder of the Women’s Studies program, and founder of the Rhetoric and Composition program at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she has been recognized for exemplary teaching. Her scholarly works include The Girl, Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women; Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (with Eileen Barrett); and Woolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold (with Jean Tobin). The Book of Old Ladies (She Writes Press, 2020) explores the aging female protagonist in contemporary fiction.