Michael Epstein | BookMarks: Madelaine May Kunin: Wise words about aging
In her new memoir, "Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties" (Green Writers Press, 2018), Madeleine May Kunin writes with passion, curiosity, intelligence, and beauty about her amazement that she has become old. But what an old lady she is!
Beginning with the cover photo, a full-on head shot of a beautiful and aging 84-year-old woman, Kunin addresses the reader with unflinching honesty and plain talk — no plastic surgery, no touched up photographs, no avoiding the hard questions and issues, no denial; just honest, intense, and often funny inquiry in concise and beautiful writing.
This memoir's primary focus, in Kunin's words, is to "fulfill a need for self-definition and a wish to make sense of what is happening to me." Unlike the traditional memoir, it only glancingly touches on the objective facts of Kunin's life: her childhood voyage with her single mother and older brother from Switzerland to the U.S. seeking sanctuary from Hitler's Europe; her three terms as Vermont's governor; her 37 years as a wife and mother of four until her divorce; the ten years on her own and her second marriage to John Hennessey, to whom the book is dedicated; her time as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and her exploration of her Jewish roots in Europe. The story of those life events is not the primary focus as it was in her prior memoirs. Rather, Kunin explores the land of the aging, the new world in which the body begins to fail, and the mind deals with "short term memory loss creeping up on me like a hungry vine."
Kunin brings a sharp eye and a wonderful facility with words to this exploration. In chapters on love, sexual attraction, depression, bodily changes (I love her intact vanity when she says "I have gained weight (not too much)"), and the hardware of aging (canes, walkers, and wheelchairs), she observes her own aging process as well as those she experiences every day as her husband, ten years older, previews the future challenges. When they first meet, Hennessey, an accomplished PhD in organizational dynamics, former Tuck Business School dean, and provost at University of Vermont, says he can "give her ten good years," and he does so; however, as she writes this book, he enters the final stages of his life, and the coming tsunami, as she refers to it, is only too clear. Hennessey's death at 94 shortly after she completed the book is a sobering coda to the memoir.
Kunin has led a fascinating and accomplished life filled with political astuteness, moral courage, and leadership, and she is a superb observer and writer. Her images are arresting as in her description of the shrunken future she faces which she compares to a "sweater steeped in hot water. It feels tight." Later she says, "We pretend that we will live forever. The final stretch of life that lies before us is a gift we know will expire." She also brings humor to bear as when she adds to a story of buying new, brightly red chairs the observation that "we didn't inquire about the warranties." It is the tension between Kunin's engagement and love of her life and her realistic knowledge that it is drawing to a close that gives this book its poignant beauty.
And speaking of beauty, who knew that this former governor and ambassador could write such wonderful poetry? Each of the 16 chapters is preceded by a brief poem with images and language that deserve to be quoted. Two that particularly spoke to me were "Eighty Four Years" and "No Longer." In the former, she writes:
Eighty four years.
My birthday, big
as a stop sign
The number blinks
and calls me
forward: this is
who you are.
I stop at the curb,
waiting for the
light to change,
to let me move on
like I always did
when I was forty-four
In "No Longer," each of the stanzas begins with that refrain, citing things that aging now prevents her from doing. In what could have been a sad, maudlin, or tragic work, she instead finishes the poem with a beautiful and optimistic message:
I want the days to saunter,
like a leisurely
museum stroller who stops
now and then to gaze;
and get closer to the canvas
to see the brush strokes,
and then steps back
for the long view,
before moving on.
And this is what Kunin has done. She has invited us to saunter with her through the museum of her life, full of beautiful paintings and sculpture. She's given us the gift of "getting closer" to see the details as well as "stepping back" to see the big picture and the long view, knowing that "long" has become a relative term.
She is not one to feel self-pity, and her view of aging with its intense self-examination and self-awareness is one that should inspire and energize all of us who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to enter our 80s with a sound mind and sound-enough body. This is a book that warrants reading by all generations — those aging and those faced with helping their aging parents and friends along the way.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He would be pleased to share his work and hear from you at www.epsteinreads.com
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