The National Catholic Review
Last summer New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about a book he picked up in a New Hampshire bookstore: "The Autobiography of an Elderly Woman." The elderly woman describes what she calls living in a different dimension where her sons no longer seek her advice but rather carefully shield her from the perplexities of social living. Brooks comments, "The book is a lament from a person put on a shelf, bound by convention and by the smothering concern of others not to exert any power on the world, even while seeing more clearly than ever the way power can and cannot be exerted." (As it turns out the book was not actually written by the elderly woman but by her 37 year old daughter, a journalist who valued non-conventional life styles.) Brooks wondered if today’s elders who are richer, more active and more engaged than their cohorts of a century ago feel they are living in a different dimension, and if it is one of their own choosing. Readers responded. Letters tended to stress the importance of Medicare and Social Security for today’s elders. Some lamented separation from young people, including their children, that occurs when one moves to a retirement community, for example. Only one writer hinted at the saving grace of creativity. He spoke of going back to school after retirement to earn a second B.A. in music. "I found myself totally accepted by my young fellow students and even came to consider myself an honorary member of Generation X". Now he sings in chorale groups, writes letters to newspapers, and experiences connection to the larger world. I read all this while summering in Vermont, close to the Grandma Moses museum. Now, there is a woman who exerted power on the world. Anna Mary Robertson was born on a farm during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and at age 12 was hired out for domestic work. That was the end of her formal education. She continued to work on various farms until her marriage at age 27 to Thomas Moses. They eventually owned their own farm where they raised their five surviving children. (They had ten.) Moses was 67 when her husband died, and she continued to care for the farm on her own, enjoying embroidery and quilt making. She began stitching what she called worsted pictures achieving subtle tonal effects much as the French Impressionist painters had done. She used to give away this fabric art. In a few years when she was well into her seventies, her arthritis made it too difficult to hold a needle, and so she substituted a paint brush creating the unique form of folk art that makes her instantly recognizable. The recognition did not come easily, however. An art collector tried to get her a show in a New York gallery but was turned down when the organizers learned she was 78. (Ageism has been around a long time.) Finally in 1939 a few of her paintings were included in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, but it was an exhibit at Gimbels Dept. Store (the long-time rival of Macy’s) that really launched her career. At the opening she gave a straightforward public address about creativity which included not only painting and sewing but the making of jams and jellies! The journalistic world was charmed. Moses painted for over twenty years, learning and changing until the day she died at age 101. What is especially notable about her life in terms of the Brooks article is that she honored what might be called "the creative itch" in all its various forms. In her autobiography she wrote: "If I didn’t start painting I would have raised chickens. I could still do it now. I would never sit back in a rocking chair, waiting for someone to help me. I have often said, before I would call for help from outsiders, I would rent a room in the city some place and give pancake suppers." Now that’s living in a different dimension, and I submit it’s open to everyone. Dolores Leckey