I may have mentioned her before. She is Diana Athill, an Englishwoman who spent her working life editing books by well-known authors, wrote four extremely well-received memoirs in her eighties, and is now 96 1/2. The last of these memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, written in her 89th year, is frank and wise about what it’s like to enter one’s nineties.
Unlike Roger Angell (two posts back), who is still roaring at the injustice of being sidelined by age and the callous disregard of younger generations, Athill — who had a private life probably more uninhibited than Angell’s — calmly describes and accepts what is, and what is soon to come, with considerable remaining joie de vivre.
There are lots of good bits in Somewhere Towards the End, not just for those not too far behind her (like me) but also for those in the middle of life who may be dawdling along and need a gentle kick in the pants to get going with whatever it is. For instance, Chapter 14 is entitled “Regrets” and begins like this:
It seems to me that anyone looking back over eighty-nine years ought to see a landscape pockmarked with regrets. One knows so well, after all, one’s own lacks and lazinesses, omissions, oversights, the innumerable ways in which one falls short of one’s own ideals, to say nothing of standards set by other and better people. All this must have thrown up — indeed it certainly did throw up — a large number of regrettable events, yet they have vanished from my sight. Regrets? I say to myself. What regrets? This invisibility may be partly the result of a preponderance of common sense over imagination: regrets are useless, so forget them. But it does suggest that if a person is consistently lucky beyond her expectations she ends by becoming smug. A disagreeable thought, which I suppose I ought to investigate.
After a passage about her feelings concerning never having had children, she goes on to the two that give her pause: a certain coldness, or selfishness in her own core, “which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler” and not being industrious or brave enough to enlarge the confines of her life.
In almost all ways except age, I am not much like Diana Athill, but I do sit up at how this chapter ends and reflect, “I still have five years before I myself am 89; there’s still some time.” As for the rest of you, who probably have much more time than that, perhaps it will make you sit up and do a bit of thinking, too:
So I do have at least one major regret after all: not my childlessness, but that central selfishness in me, so clearly betrayed by the fact childlessness is not what I regret. And now I remember how my inadequacy regarding small children….caused me to let down my cousin Barbara, whose house I live in, in spite of thinking her then as I think of her now as my best friend, when some forty-odd years ago she started a family. No sooner had she got three children than she and her husband separated, so that she had to raise them single-handed, working at a very demanding full-time job in order to keep them. How she struggled through those years I don’t know, and I think she herself marvels at it in retrospect. But at the time what did I do to help her? Nothing. I shut my eyes to her problems, even saw very little of her, feeling sadly that she had disappeared into this tiresome world of small children — or world of tiresome small children — and she has said since then that she never dreamt of asking me for help, so aware was she of my coldness towards her brood. About that it is not just regret that I feel. It is shame.
One regret brings up another, though it is, thank goodness, less shameful. It’s at never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of my life. I have a niece, a beautiful woman who I shall not name because she wouldn’t like it, who is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom will soon be following his brothers to university, and who has continued throughout her marriage to work as a restorer of paintings. Not long ago she sat at dinner beside a surgeon, and happened to say to him that if she had her time over again she would choose to train in some branch of medicine. He asked her how old she was. Forty-nine, she told him. Well, he said, she still had time to train as a midwife if she wanted to, they accepted trainees up to the age of fifty; whereupon she went home and signed up. The last time I saw her she could proudly report that she had now been in charge of six births all on her own. There had been moments, she said, when she felt “What on earth am I doing here?, but she still couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling that being present at — helping at — the beginning of new life. The most moving thing of all, she said, was when the father cried (there had been fathers present at all six births). When that happened she had to go out of the room to hide the fact that she was crying too. She is a person of the most delicate reserve, so watching her face light up when she spoke about being present at a birth filled me with envy. Having had the courage and initiative suddenly to step out of a familiar and exceptionally agreeable life into something quite different, she has clearly gained something of inestimable value. And I have never done anything similar.
It is not as though I was never impatient at having only one life at my disposal. A great deal of my reading has been done for the pleasure of feeling my way into other lives, and quite a number of my love affairs were undertaken for the same reason (I remember once comparing a sexual relationship with going out in a glass-bottomed boat). But to turn such idle fancies into action demands courage and energy, and those I lacked. Even if I had been able to summon up such qualities, I am sure I would never have moved over into anything as useful as midwifery, but think of the places to which I might have travelled, the languages I might have learnt! Greek, for example: I have quite often thought of how much I would like to speak modern Greek so that I could spend time earning a living there and getting to know the country in a serious way, but I never so much as took an evening class in it. And when I went to Oxford, I indolently chose to read English literature, which I know I was going to read anyway, for pleasure, instead of widening my range by embarking on a scientific subject, such as biology. And never at any time did I seriously try to use my hands (except at embroidery, which I am good at). Think how useful and probably enjoyable it would be to build a bookcase. I really am sorry about that.
So there are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness (I think laziness played a greater part than cowardice in my lack of initiative, though some cowardice there was). They are real, but I can’t claim they torment me, or even that I shall often think about them. And at those two I shall stop…. I am not sure that digging out past guilts is a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.