When I was young and chasing ballerinas, actresses, and tall, dark coffee shop cashiers through the canyons of Manhattan, growing old rarely occurred to me.

When it did, it was a chilling feeling. I remember sharing a brown paper bag lunch one day with a lovely Mount Holyoke English major on the stone fences of Central Park, when a tall, elderly man in proper British tweeds, a wonderful soft hat and cane strolled by.

I remember that he had a terrible cough and looked near death. Long after he passed, Mount Holyoke said, with a mouth half-full of cream cheese on date nut bread, “You know, that was T.S. Eliot, the famous poet.”

No, I didn’t know, and I scolded her for not telling me sooner. I would have loved to have met him. T.S., as all of you English majors know, was one of the world’s great poets, and as British as he seemed, he was born in St. Louis only a streetcar ride from where I was born.

A very, very long ride of course. His was a wealthy neighborhood, and I’m sure they didn’t eat supper at the kitchen table.

I’m not convinced that it was T.S. himself, but it might have been. One of his plays was being produced in New York at that time. The point I’m after here is, he sort of looked like I might at that age, and that chilled me to the bone.

Here I was young and dashing, well-dressed, but skirting the dangerous ledges above penury, and attempting to seduce Ms. Mount Holyoke. Seeing T.S. or whoever it was, made me think about the loss of my youthful good looks, my swagger and future possibilities.

In pursuit of Mount Holyoke, I went and bought a copy of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and tried to memorize a couple of pieces to use over candlelight and cheap wine. I chose “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” probably his most often quoted, and near the bottom, these few lines clutched my heart.

“I grow old … I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. I have heard mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me.”

OMG. I froze in my chair and almost spit out my sherry. I will grow old, I thought. Will I really roll up the bottoms of my trousers like some old fool escaping from a nursing home? I have heard the mermaids singing, all the dancers and waitresses, young actresses, wealthy girls at the long bars on summer nights. They were my mermaids, and it occurred to me that when I grow old and lose my beautiful hair, they will stop singing to me.

This fall, I will become an octogenarian. How long will it be I wonder, before I roll up my pants, walk with a cane on the beach, and how long before some new Mount Holyoke girl in her first year as a nursing home nurse feeds me a mashed up peach from a bowl?

I never connected with Ms. Mount Holyoke. She married a stockbroker, I’m told. I now happily share cream cheese sandwiches on date nut bread with Ms. Trinity College who lingers gracefully behind me in years, and try to remember the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 


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