These years Valentine’s Day brings out the worst in me. You know, Cupid and all that. For those of us with menopause a couple of decades behind us, sex is not what it used to be. At a writing conference last winter in Key West, I got into a conversation with an attractive seventy-something woman. After a couple of glasses of chardonnay, she offered unsolicited information about her sex life. “With the man I was last dating,” she said, “I learned to give penile injections.”
“Was it pleasurable?” I asked, not sure whether I meant giving the guy injections or having intercourse.
“Not for me,” she said. I’m sure she meant both.
Eros is for the young. The other night I watched a re-run of Titanic. The scene where Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio steam up a roadster did nothing for my libido. My favorite scene is with eighty-seven year old actress Gloria Stuart. In a flowing white nightgown, with flowing white hair and fabulous red toenails, this make-believe centenarian Titanic survivor stands alone at the prow of the research vessel. She flings a rare diamond necklace into the sea. Now that looked like fun.
The obligatory gifts of Valentine’s Day have always reminded me of the duty you-know-what. For those of us in long-term marriages, the heart-shaped box of chocolates or the heart-shaped necklace hawked on the shopping channel would be both insulting and sad.
For couples in my age group, there is only one romantic gesture left–to die at the same time or at least within a couple of months of one another. It happens more frequently than you might think. Headlines like these are not that uncommon: “Couple of 62 Years Held Hands Until the Very End” or “Couple Married 63 Years Died on the Same Day.”
I call them the “Baucis and Philemon couples.” In case you have forgotten your Ovid, here’s the Wikipedia retelling of the myth:
“In Ovid’s moralizing fable…Baucis and Philemon were an old married couple…the only ones in their town to welcome disguised gods Zeus and Hermes…thus embodying the pious exercise of hospitality… As a reward for their hospitality Zeus turned their cottage into an ornate temple. The couple’s wish to be guardians of the temple was granted. They also asked that when time came for one of them to die, that the other would die as well. Upon their death, the couple were changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden…”
On that same trip to Key West, I got into a conversation in the Fort Myers airport waiting room with an elderly couple from the Midwest. Unsolicited and without chardonnay, they told me they wanted their ashes mixed in the same urn and plowed into the field closest to their Indiana farmhouse. They had worked out the details: which of the adult children would be in charge of the urn until they were both cremated. Embarrassed by their revealing such an intimacy to a stranger, I had to look away. The devoted couple held hands as they spoke.
Devotion is built into the medieval concept of courtly love, but the burden of proof is on the male. The courtier tries to make himself worthy of the object of his affection by doing whatever deeds she might desire. My local newspaper carried this story of chivalry gone wrong:
Elko Daily Free Press, January 21, 2014: “An 88-year-old man who shot his wife in the chest in a Carson City hospital on Sunday told police he was trying to carry out a murder-suicide because the woman was paralyzed and didn’t want to live, authorities said. The man reportedly told police that he had brought two bullets for her and two for himself, but the gun jammed after his first shot.”
Ultimate romantic gesture or the story of an inept spouse who never could do anything right–you decide. I never did find out how it ended for the poor old guy.
There are many powerful memoirs of devoted couples mated for life and the survivor’s intertwining emotions of love and grief. Three books come to mind: Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband; Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, about the loss of his wife; and Mary Oliver, Our World, about the love of her life, photographer Molly Malone Cook.
It turns out long-term marriages are good for us. A recent article in the New York Times, “Study Finds More Reasons to Get and Stay Married,” notes that “social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier…” and that “People have the capacity to increase their happiness levels and avoid falling deep into midlife crisis by finding support in long-term relationships.”
The role for most women in the late stage of married life reverts to a maternal one. We mother ailing husbands and mother old, old parents. It slows the rhythm of our days, gives us something to do, satisfies the habit of mothering. Or is it a woman’s biological destiny to forever nurture someone or something? You decide.
Another reminder from social scientists is that women are much more likely to face their elder years alone, without a partner. The Huffington Post notes that “Because women typically live longer than men–at age 65, a woman can expect to live another 20 years while the typical man will live another 17 years–and tend to marry men who are older than themselves, women are far more likely to be widowed.”
For those of us who have long outlived our reproductive capacity and outlived our spouses, Valentine’s Day is redundant. If we restore Cupid to his ancient Greek name, Eros, it is easier to remember that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of sexual desire and that in ancient Greece, Eros is both the primordial god of procreation celebrated in fertility cults and the god who could inflict a frenzy of desire.
Rather than lament the fact or apologize for this phase of women’s lives, we should be celebrating. I confess that my change in thinking is a result of reading an essay by Ursula LeGuin, “The Space Crone,” in a collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World. The subject of the piece is menopause. Here’s the first paragraph:
“…menopause is probably the least glamorous topic imaginable; and this is interesting, because it is one of the very few topics to which cling some shreds and remnants of taboo. A serious mention of menopause is usually met with uneasy silence; a sneering reference to it is usually met with relieved sniggers. Both the silence and the sniggering are pretty sure indication signs of taboo.”
The essay is a bold argument for a woman to rethink life after the second “Change of Life.” She says the following:
“With the secularization of virginity now complete, so that the once awesome term ‘virgin’ is now a sneer or at best a slightly dated word for a person who hasn’t copulated yet, the opportunity of gaining or regaining the dangerous/sacred condition of being at the Second Change has ceased to be apparent….Virginity is now a mere preamble or waiting room to be got out of as soon as possible…Old age is similarly a waiting room , where you go after life’s over and wait for cancer or a stroke.”
Wow! Right on, I said to myself as I read her piece. LeGuin says there are no rites of passage for women to enter this phase, one she considers our entrance into the fullness of humanity. The crone, LeGuin claims, is the only person “who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition–the essential quality of which is Change…”
Certainly, there are no good names for us in this phase of our lives. I cringe at the word “crone.” “Old Woman,” “Granny,” “Hag,” “Witch,” “Beldame”–they’re no better. Perhaps it is the time to rename ourselves. and to recognize that our post-reproductive lives, which are getting longer all the time, are opportunities for growth, for adventure, for new accomplishments. This may sound like wishful thinking and it is–in the best sense of the word. It’s too depressing to feel condemned to the waiting room of old age and to a vision of a woman’s post-reproductive life as one big anti-climax–pun intended. There are vital septuagenarians and octogenarians out there and I want to be among ‘em. For my part this Valentine’s Day, I’m buying myself a dozen roses and a plane ticket to somewhere I have always wanted to go.