Here at the Shedders household we’ve been watching a British short series called Last Tango in Halifax, set in Halifax, Yorkshire. It’s a wonderful series with the kind of characters you can really become fond of – human, committed, rich with foibles. I’ve found myself humming as I zip downstairs each evening to watch an episode and be with these new friends.
To give you a pale overview, the series is about two septuagenarians who, after both having lost their lifelong spouses, rediscover each other on Facebook. Turns out they were teenage sweethearts, and, without spoiling anything, I can tell you that they quickly ignite the old friendship and resolve to spend their remaining days happily together.
It’s a charming theme and the old friends are calm and seasoned, wise in the ways of the world. So what could draw this out over six episodes, with another series in the making? Where could the necessary conflict possibly come from?
Well, put simply, younger people. Family. Spirited teenagers waking up to the real world around them. Flagging, bored, over-stretched mid-life-crisis parents. Celia and Alan, the oldies, are an oasis of wisdom, tranquillity and resourcefulness in the midst of the turmoil resulting from all the calamitous relationships around them. They’ve been there, these oldies, but they’ve moved on from that agitated place. Somehow the itches that need so much scratching when we’re younger, our craving to create drama, have healed in this older generation.
What I am taking away from this mini-series (other than the sheer pleasure of brilliant writing, great plot, fabulous characters and sensational acting) is this: our older years are a time of rich possibility, of astute perception, of goodwill, of a quiet spirit. At the same time that some of our resources are quietly shutting down, much of who we are and can offer the world is steadily growing.
I am supported in this view by much of what I see around me. For example, I belong to a women’s club, called the Growing Friends Garden Club, where the average age is perhaps 75. I wrote about joining the club in Shedders, several years ago:
“… I went along to a meeting that was not quite what I’d expected. For one thing, I was younger than anyone else in the group, to the extent that I wondered if I had enough years to be considered a serious gardener. For another, there was very little talk about gardening and a great deal of discussion about the cafés that would be visited on upcoming outings. I learned the club members met each Wednesday at one of the local restaurants, had a formal monthly meeting, and went on a bus trip once a month….[Over time] I realised there was something real, honest, solid and warm about these women. They had vast amounts to contribute to me… The expression ‘salt of the earth’ was made for them. Maybe I was a salt-of-the-earth woman myself. I put away our differences and started searching for similarities.”
The club has about 35 members, almost all of whom attend the meetings and most of the weekly events. Many of them have known each other for decades. But these women have accepted me into their circle, in spite of a number of differences: I don’t live in Old Bar, for one thing, where most of the women reside; I’m a little short-in-the-tooth; I have the wrong accent and the smell of the city on me; I am overseas for several months each year. I showed up at first because I wanted to learn about gardening, but I stay because of the spirit of these women, their generous friendship, and what I learn from them about ageing with grace.
Let me tell you a small-town story:
Last week week the garden club put on a fundraiser in the local village of Old Bar (pop. 3000+). The president of the club had earlier in the year spent a morning at the local hospital holding the hand of a friend who was receiving chemo. The experience led her to resolve to raise funds for the oncology department, specifically for the purchase of a special purpose-built chair for patients receiving chemo. She brought her intention back to the club, where everyone immediately pulled behind her and took on creating a fundraiser morning tea. Members solicited contributions from almost every local business (breakfast for two, leg of lamb, basket of cosmetics…), and as well donated interesting goods themselves. They wrote announcements for the local papers, got support from local radio stations, drummed up an auditorium full of guests, handed out posters, and put together a lively program.
There were many positive results. It brought the members of the garden club closer together, as such events do. A number of very clever and competent people emerged to take on leadership roles. Many people in the community were introduced to the garden club, ensuring its vibrant future. It introduced people in the community to each other. A dear friend of mine agreed to speak about her own experience with breast cancer, providing context for the event and raising women’s awareness of the importance of early detection. And best of all, the morning tea raised enough money for not one but two new chairs for the oncology department. I’ve been involved in other fundraising events with bigger budgets and more glitz (Montessori parents will remember our massive dinner and auction at the Opera House), but this one took the trophy for quiet, no muss no fuss, she’ll-be-right accomplishment.
I feel very drawn to these older women. I find their gatherings to be companionable events with wide-ranging conversations and very little drama. Like the oldies in Last Tango in Halifax, they have shed much of their ego; they don’t so much care what people think of them and aren’t so invested in looking good; they’re at peace with whatever financial lot they have ended up with. They have a rich sense of humour. They’ve moved in some way into the eye of the hurricane, perhaps never to return to the turmoil of the surrounding storm.
[…Not always, of course. The oldies in Last Tango also show us how they can be as blind-sided as the next homo sapiens by their own imperfections. But the message is that they are able to see quickly that there isn’t time enough for war and the priority is to get back into grace.]
Another older friend showed us “his” orchard the other day. Some three or four years ago, he discovered an abandoned and overgrown cluster of fruit trees on a property a few kilometres from him, and asked the owner if he could take on resurrecting the orchard, on a sort of informal tenure. They shook hands on the agreement and since then my friend has cleared, slashed, mulched and fertilised, not to mention harvested. As well he has supplemented the mangoes, guava and citrus with dozens upon dozens of pomegranates, tiny date palms (from seed) and new citrus. I stood in awe, looking at the work he has put in, the investment in a distant future (which he smilingly acknowledges he may not be part of). There it was again: so little attachment to a result side by side with a determination to seize the moment and do what makes you happy.
I tell you, these older people know how to tango.
Myself, I am driven to be competent, to do many things and get them all right. As I get older that’s becoming more challenging. I’m going to have to find a new mechanism for motivating this ageing vehicle. Like the rest of my Baby Boomer generation, I am wisdom-in-training. But at least it’s easier now to listen than it was ten or twenty or fifty years ago.
I can still drama-queen with the best of them, but I find myself increasingly ready to give up the throne. Perhaps I’ll be ready for the Age of Wisdom when I get there.