Thursday, March 3, 2016

Alive, Alive Oh!

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As I sit here this morning looking out at the ocean, the mighty Atlantic which changes personalities as the day progresses, I’m feeling so fortunate and reflective. I lavish the Neutrogena sun block on my hands and marvel at the fact of my genealogy staring back at me. The prominent veins, the swelling knuckles that now make a good solid handshake painful, belong to my aunt, my dad, my grandmother Pease, and now to me.
The aging process is a double-edged sword, but I believe it is our responsibility to face with joy each day we are allowed or else we do a terrible disservice to those who, through some awful quirk of fate, have not been lucky enough to have good health or a long life. I was in just the right frame of mind to read Diana Athill’s brief but lovely paean to a good old age.
Alive, Alive Oh!” is the memoir of a woman who has embraced each phase of her life with gusto. A renowned publisher in Great Britain, Athill moved in enviable literary circles during her illustrious fifty-year career. Then, when most of us would hang it up to go sit by the ocean, she wrote her first memoir, “Somewhere Towards the End,” and promptly won the National Book Critics Circle award for it. This second one, coming at the age of ninety-seven, is simply the icing on the cake.
What a pleasure it is to read a reflection that harbors no regrets, no self-flagellation, no blaming of family members for imagined or even real hurts and resentments. In these days of recrimination and hair shirt donning, I reveled in Athill’s ability to own her life’s decisions, which by the standards of her day, were unconventional to say the least. Whether it was to eschew marriage or coupledom for a career, or to try to maintain an unplanned pregnancy at the age of forty-three, this is a woman who did what was right for her without listening to those who may not have had her own best interests in mind.
If the paths she chose did not result in the expected way, she never looked back with "I should have's," or "I wish I'd...." No, Athill simply moved forward as we all must. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that involved her realization that it was time to consider moving to a senior facility. She cared for a loved one long beyond the time she was physically able, and saw friends relying too heavily on generous caregivers. This is a woman who did not want to relinquish her independence but was unselfish enough to take care of it when the time came.
Now, in her late nineties, she has winnowed down her possessions to one room, an act that forced her, a solitary soul, to go out into the halls and the tea room and interact with others. And oh, what she discovers! The other ladies of Highgate share a fascination with learning, have illustrious and deliciously scandalous pasts, and humorous hearts. This unflinching, honest memoir is a pleasure to read. I can't wait to pick up the first one. And, if I'm lucky enough to keep my wits about me, I hope to grow up to be just like her!


Mary Montague Sikes said...

What a beautifully written review! Enjoyed meeting you and Don tonight!

Mary Montague Sikes

Sallyb said...

Oh Mary, It was so lovely to meet you both as well. I could see that your husband is your biggest supporter as Don is mine. I immediately went to your website and will be ordering your latest book for both the story and the painting.

Andrea said...

Once again a recommendation I would never have come across if not for you, Sally! I see my mother in this person's handling of old age. She clearly considered those of us she raised, taking the path that did not burden anyone. She too "discovered" many an interesting person in her facility. Thank you.

Sallyb said...

Hi Andrea! I never would have heard of it either if it wasn't for last week's book review in the NYTimes. I can't wait to read her other one but I have SO many books at home now and have FOUR that I have to read and review for the radio before I leave. Can't wait to see you.