Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Willard Spiegelman


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Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead by Willard Spiegelman

Drawing on more than six decades’ worth of lessons from his storied career as a writer and professor, Willard Spiegelman reflects with candid humor and sophistication on growing old. Senior Moments is a series of discrete essays that, when taken together, constitute the life of a man who, despite Western cultural notions of aging as something to be denied, overcome, and resisted, has continued to relish the simplest of pleasures: reading, looking at art, talking, and indulging in occasional fits of nostalgia while also welcoming what inevitably lies ahead.

Senior Moments is a foray into the felicity and follies that age brings; a consideration of how and what one reads or rereads in late adulthood; the eagerness for, and disappointment in, long-awaited reunions, at which the past comes alive in the present. It is guaranteed to stimulate, stir, and restore.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374261221
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,233,735
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From 1984 until 2016, he was also the editor in chief of Southwest Review. He has written many books and essays about English and American poetry. For more than a quarter century he has been a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Read an Excerpt

Senior Moments

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

By Willard Spiegelman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Willard Spiegelman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71299-0



It began, like so much else, with my mother. One of her quick and piercing put-downs of a person — usually a woman — of whom she disapproved was "She's got a mouth on her, that one."

My mother had a mouth on her. She was hardly the only one with such a mouth, on either side of a large extended family, but hers was the first voice I heard, the one that summoned me and then my younger brothers to strict obedience, sent us fleeing or cowering from her irritation or disapproval, and set us on the edge of embarrassment when it expressed clear, usually negative assessments of, and verdicts about, other people in public places. My mother had strong opinions and was never timid about sharing them, at times inopportunely. Annoyance was her basic humor. It was not until I was twenty-five or so that I learned that "aggravation," like "nauseous" and "anxious" (I'll include "gorgeous" just to add a positive note), was not a Yiddish word, but rather, ordinary English. "If I didn't play golf," she once said, "what would I do for aggravation?"

My mother had no internal censor. To think before she spoke never occurred to her. Whatever went through her mind came out of her mouth. She was not a nonstop talker, a babbler, a nervous monologuist; instead, her speech had an explosive force. You never knew what might provoke one of her stealth attacks. She favored two modes: the command and the surprising judgment. Examples of the former: "Billy, sit up straight"; "Richie, you look awful: get a haircut." Many mothers traditionally think of themselves as helpful domestic disciplinarians. Commands come naturally from them, like sunshine or rain.

My mother's opinions were more unanticipated than her orders, in part because she issued these obiter dicta as definitive pronouncements. On Shakespeare: "He's much too talky." About the French horn: "It's not a solo instrument." She was sensitive to the visual arts as well. Of her first trip to Italy: "Everything is old and broken and dirty, but the table settings were impeccable." She made her trek through the museums and galleries: "If I had to see one more Madonna and Child, I thought I would plotz." Encountering the Ghiberti Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery in Florence: "If the Church just sold those doors, they could solve world hunger."

Neighbors and relatives inspired ethical and practical as well as aesthetic judgments. Of an uncle who had dropped us from his will: "The weasel should rot in hell." About a social-climbing woman who lived around the corner and who always thought herself better than her neighbors and her surroundings: "The next time I see her, I won't know who she is before she doesn't know who I am." In her youth, my mother looked like Vivien Leigh, a diminutive dark-haired beauty. Petiteness meant a lot to her; size offended her, as did facial hair on men and showy makeup on women. No makeup was almost as bad as too much. Excess weight she considered close to a sin for both genders. To a niece, home from college: "You're getting fat." To my brother, either before or after serving him a piece of chocolate cake: "You're getting too fat." This was an all-purpose accusatory observation disguised as aesthetic-moral diagnosis. She had her fixations. We could never figure out their cause, but they had a kind of eternal permanence in her life. Like many obsessions, they deepened and hardened as she aged. And she never relented in her efforts to articulate them.

To my longtime boyfriend, whom she had not seen in several years, in a hotel lobby before a family dinner: "Ooh! What happened to you?" (His hair had turned gray.) She never hesitated to remind us that our hair was too long, our clothes inappropriate, our posture too slouchy. If she had ever had a daughter, one of them would have long ago killed the other. Sons were in some ways a disappointment to her but also a considerable relief.

A steward of domestic order, she never stinted with her helpful household hints: "If you keep your kitchen drawers closed, crumbs won't fall in," or "Eat over the sink so I won't have to sweep the floor." Crumbs had no chance in our house. Neither had insects. She did not take kindly to animals. "I don't need a dog," she said. "I have three children." Her aversion to all nonhuman creatures, great and small, was so strong that my mother took what seemed to be considerable, even manic pleasure in drowning ants in our driveway with boiling water. When asked whether she thought they might attack us indoors, she said, "You can never be too careful." Had she known any Jains, she would have felt no sympathy for, no understanding of, their belief in the sanctity of all life. And she certainly would not have been able to hide her disdain.

Unlike Shakespeare's Cordelia, whose voice was "ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman," my mother's was loud, grating, often shrill, and always capable of penetrating the bowels of any department store when she was trying to locate a wayward child. She uttered suggestions and requests in the same tone as reprimands and commands. When I hear a Philadelphia accent, I hear her. She recognized no difference between the Normandy invasion and a trip to the supermarket. She handled everything with peremptory force and at top volume. Going out for our painful weekly Sunday dinner, she more than suggested: "Drink a glass of milk now so we won't have to buy one for you at the restaurant." Waking up my youngest brother, home from college for spring vacation, one Saturday morning at eight: "You can stay in bed, but I need those sheets now." When I once suggested that she seemed to harbor some anger — always directed outward to the world but with no discernible cause — she barked, "I'm entitled to my feelings." Self-reflection never led to moments of hesitation, if only because self-reflection did not have a place in her ways of dealing with the world. Neither did silence. For my mother, a room without a radio or a television turned on was a room that lacked vitality. Noise and life were synonymous.

Before her memorial service, the presiding rabbi went on a fact-finding mission with her sons. "Would you say that your mother had a pleasing, quiet manner?" he asked. I knew I had the opening line for my remarks to friends and family at the funeral chapel. I repeated his question; the audience roared. I struck exactly the right tone; I knew I had said the right thing.

My mother often did not say the right thing. At least her sons thought so. But at the same time, she was never manipulative or guilt inducing. She meant well. Although her openness with strangers — she always talked, to everyone, everywhere, in restaurants and supermarkets — was well intended, it struck her sons as embarrassingly aggressive, even threatening. She performed an early version of what we now call networking. No one was safe. Once we all were lined up at a restaurant. My mother could never stand patiently in silence. She began chatting up the people in front of us. "You're from Cleveland? I have cousins in Cleveland." My brothers and I were rolling our eyes, hoping that perhaps the ground would open up. The family in front not only knew her Ohio first cousins; they lived next door to them. She made the world a smaller place. She always connected with fewer than six degrees of separation.

Conversation — an exchange of ideas and opinions with something like forward motion — did not figure in her repertoire. I had to learn from others how to perform conversational give-and-take. But when I think of how I turned instinctively away from my mother's habits and mannerisms, I have to acknowledge, reluctantly and late, that I also inherited many of them. All children, especially in adolescence, find their parents embarrassing. Most of us outgrow the itchy need to disown these creatures from another planet as we start making our own mistakes and recognizing that we have inherited more than our looks from Mom and Dad. We have become them. We are from the same planet. I always sit up straight. I consider a well-made bed a symbol of both domestic and inner discipline. Nothing, neither fever nor backache, has ever prevented me from making my bed thirty minutes after I have left it. Often when I am alone, I eat over the kitchen sink. The crumbs go right down the drain. I, too, have a mouth on me. Sometimes I speak too quickly, unthinkingly, or sharply. I often talk to strangers, in line or at parties, and establish social contacts. And when I do, I can hear Edith, my mother. After all, we call our native language the mother tongue. I accept the resemblance and I move on.

It was not only my mother who got me talking. It was an entire extended family. I can't remember anyone who was silent, with the exception of my paternal grandfather, an innately soft-spoken, modest man with a commanding wife who ran his life. Several small strokes had deepened his natural reticence by the time I came on the scene. Some of my relatives talked with greater speed and volume than others. I was the only child around. I imitated my elders. I walked, and I talked in sentences, before my first birthday. Enthusiastic and hyperactive, rather than precocious, I listened, and then I imitated. My large family made its impression on me through language. We had no athletes; no one who earned a living by physical labor; no workers, mechanics, or outdoorsmen. A day on the golf course was about as rough-and-tumble as it got. The men were all businessmen and salesmen, of varying degrees of success, or doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. The women did not work outside the house. They were mothers and homebodies, with the exception of my great-aunt Annie, who, widowed young, ran the cigar stand at her Atlantic City residential hotel. She knew tobacco; she also knew which of her gentlemen customers, some of whom became gentlemen callers, preferred which kind of whiskey. The very fact that she worked made her exotic to her great-nephews.

Many of my other relatives had names that now seem caught in amber. Names, like all kinds of fashion, go in and out of style. They change. You might have thought that many American Jews born between 1900 and 1940 belonged — if you saw their first names in print — in a manor house. Their names, but not their voices, were quasi-English. Few of them actually cut a figure from a 1930s black-and-white comedy of manners, whether English or American, when they spoke. They might have dressed like William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, but their voices, their accents, told a different story. The men did not sound like Leslie Howard and Cary Grant, nor the women like Katharine Hepburn, Gladys Cooper, or Billie Burke. Where are those names now: Alfred, Bernice, Clifford, Edith, Evelyn, Gladys, Hortense, Maxwell, Mildred, Myra and Myron, Norma and Norman, Sylvia and Sylvan? They were never plucked from the Old Testament.

All of my great-aunts and great-uncles were but one generation removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Their parents had made the voyage out; my grandparents and their siblings became Americans. The habits and customs of the Old World, all the stuff of family legend, inflected with an American effort to "make it new," filtered into my consciousness like Ovidian myths or Kipling's Just So Stories. Whatever differences separated them, these people were all talkers. Some had accents as memorable as the cigars the men smoked and the perfumes and dusting powders the women wore. My grandmother's older brother Manny married a woman from Boston whom everyone considered hoitytoity. To me, they were both colorful rare birds. They lived in Greenwich Village, where Manny, who sported a beret, played chess in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons. Aunt Gert wore her white hair in a chignon and accessorized with long dangling earrings. Uncle Manny ran a suspenders factory, which switched to belts just in the nick of time, but regardless of their status as manufacturing tradespeople, he and Gert qualified as my family's sophisticated bohemians, a delectable hybrid, both familiar and exotic. They encouraged in me hope for the possibility of escape.

Few of the Philadelphia relatives were like this. Several, like my father's mysteriously named uncle Foots-and-a-Half, and my mother's first cousins Will and Grace (Grace was Aunt Annie's elder daughter), had shady, Runyonesque connections. Reckless danger, or even misdemeanors, had no part in my immediate family, so these outliers cut a peculiarly enticing figure. Modest bootlegging, usually around Passover, was said to have occurred during the 1920s, well before my time. Prohibition did not stop domestic routine. The family justified home brew on the theory that bathtub wine was at least kosher even if bathtub gin was probably not.

We also had gamblers on the periphery of the family, skeptically admired but also held at arm's length by their more bourgeois siblings and cousins. In an age when, out of courtesy, we called all familiar adults "Aunt" and "Uncle" whether they were related or not, Uncle Will and Aunt Grace stood out. They moved around, a lot, not by their own choice. Will and Grace left Philadelphia under a cloud and resettled in Miami Beach in the early 1950s, there to open a bridge and poker club and escort the local widows on gambling cruises to Havana and St. Thomas. The sound of Grace's manicured fingers on the ivory mahjong tiles at poolside ("Three bam!" "Four crack!" delivered in her whiskey baritone voice) possessed an inexplicable sonic splendor, still memorable decades later. Grace, always smoking her unfiltered Camels, spent an hour a day putting on her makeup. She lasted well into her nineties, still wobbling on her high heels to make an entrance at the country club or even the delicatessen. A couple of more distant louche relatives, equally sketchy, played the numbers in Atlantic City. Some got run in for tax evasion. Every family needs a handful of dubious characters to add some romance to suburban reality.

Even more than names, bodies, and smells, I remember sounds. I remember language. Everyone talked about everything — except their inner lives, that is. The family directed all talk outward, to and about the world. Like all lucky children, I must have heard the same family tales and legends — no one really knew or cared if they were true — countless times. "Tell me again," I remember asking my grandmother, "about how your father hid the five younger sisters in the back room after the family scandal." The scandal: Lena, the second daughter, married before Rae, the eldest. Only when Uncle Sam, fresh off the boat, took Rae for his wife did the family feel unashamed enough to let the other girls out into the light. Eudora Welty reminisced about sitting under the piano in Mississippi, listening to the grown-ups talk. She attributed her own storytelling successes to early story listening. I can still hear, through the years, my family chattering: assertively, ironically, simultaneously. Language was the best way to make one's mark. I hardly knew it at the time, but language became my life's leitmotif.

Call it phonophilia: love of sounds, at least certain ones. Phonophobia is its opposite. Whenever I read or hear accounts of life in the traditional WASP, Scandinavian, Calvinist, or similarly repressed household, a family with silence as well as secrets, I sigh with wonder and some envy. All families have secrets, some well hidden, but not all maintain silence as the default mode with regard to everything. There was no silence in my house, or locked doors for that matter, nor was there any in the homes of my grandparents, with whom we bunked — my father, mother, and I — before we got a house of our own. My father had left the army in 1946, when I was less than two years old. For the next two years, we divided our time between his parents' light-filled house near the northern end of Philadelphia's Broad Street and my mother's widowed mother's gloomy tenth-story apartment some blocks away. Whatever temperamental and social differences between the two sides of the family, one thing remained constant: Silence was suspect. It went with sleep.

My father's sister, a young naval bride in 1944, wrote to her parents about the eye- and ear-opening events at a Sunday dinner at the Officers' Club on the base where she and her husband were stationed. My uncle, a tall, handsome lieutenant, sat at one end of the table, to the right of the admiral's wife. My aunt sat at the other end, to the right of the admiral himself, who must have been delighted with this leggy, blond, talented, and vivacious Veronica Lake look-alike. Liveried military servants ladled out the soup, then served salad, then the traditional roasted haunch of animal accompanied by the overcooked vegetables that decades later Julia Child taught Americans to forgo. Sherry preceded the meal, and strawberry shortcake followed it. The servants poured coffee from a silver service. Then the gentlemen retired to one room, the ladies to another.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Talk 3

Dallas 29

Japan 63

Manhattan 77

Books 105

Art 125

Nostalgia 147

Quiet 167

Acknowledgments 191

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