Reviewed by Lynn Bonney
“Growing Old: Notes on Aging with Something Like Grace”
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, HarperOne, 2020, $25.99
A couple of chapters into “Growing Old: Notes on Aging with Something Like Grace,” I realized that I was thinking of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as more than an author. She was becoming a friend.
Thomas, who writes at the kitchen table in her New Hampshire home, has given readers a chatty memoir with profoundly honest thoughts on “the aging process,” which, she says, nobody likes and everybody would prefer to avoid. Facing it head-on, she tells us that most books on aging (and dying) are written by younger authors who have observed the process in others, without facing it themselves.
As our years accumulate, she notes, we learn the truth of the saying “Time flies.” Events that seem recent turn out, if one sits down and does the math, to have happened years, even decades, ago. It’s a shock to realize that the time has compressed, making it difficult to discern what happened yesterday and what happened in 1993.
She tests herself, remembering what’s been forgotten, and comes up with a list that many will find familiar. Names are the first to go. We can see in our mind’s eye the person we are talking about, but we can’t recall the name. Or we forget the name of the person we just met.
Next come nouns: Unable to conjure the name of a gadget, we rely on “whatchamacallit.” Who can’t relate to that?
Third on the list is spelling, a skill that will, I imagine, move up on the list as future old folks depend on SpellCheck to take care of pesky things like remembering “I before E” and other fussy rules.
Thomas’ writing is funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but she also offers insights for consumers, such as the process of deciding to purchase hearing aids. Recognizing that loss of hearing can contribute to isolation and dementia, she talks with friends and visits audiologists. Not surprisingly, she has opinions about her experiences, worries about costs and thoughts about the services offered for prices that seem exorbitant to a woman who uses the timer on her electric stove to count her pulse. No need for another piece of equipment when the stove will do.
Along the way, we learn about Thomas’ childhood, her family and her experiences with the San people of the Kalahari. She writes about her husband, who died of ALS, and her parents, her grandparents, her children and grandchildren. The author’s roots go deep in New Hampshire, so it’s not surprising to learn that she is well acquainted with the cemetery where she will, one day, join the family members who have gone before. She has determined what she wants the survivors to do with her body after her death and she lays out the options for readers.
Thomas is a prolific writer, but I think readers are most likely to be familiar with two of her books: “The Hidden Life of Dogs” and “The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture.” She is a careful observer of life and, now, of death. I’m glad I met her.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, not surprisingly, does not have a presence on the web.
Emporia Public Library staff and volunteers write “On the Shelf.”