The Last Gift of Time, Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun is a little book that some readers may not have the patience to read, but if you do, you will find it enormously enlightening. Heilbrun was a retired Professor of English Literature at Colombia University. She wrote the book twenty-five years ago in 1998 when she was in her seventies.
I recently came across an article about the book written by Judith Timson in the May 2004 issue of Chatelaine magazine. I ripped the page from the magazine nearly twenty years ago with a note, “To Read” and only found it when I was cleaning out my desk last week. That gives you an idea of how often I clean out my desk and you’re free to judge.
Heilbrun was a feminist, a mother of three, and married to another professor. She had firmly defined ideas about life and living. Most notably, she had decided earlier in life that she would commit suicide at age seventy because she naively assumed the best part of life would be over by then. As it turned out, she enjoyed her sixties so much that she changed her mind and this book is one of the outcomes. In fact, she declared her sixties as the best years of her life and I’m inclined to say the same thing about my own life. Sadly, she did eventually commit suicide but that’s not what this book is about and I don’t want to discourage you from reading it.
Each chapter in the book covers a particular aspect of aging and her perspective on how it relates to those of us who have six, seven, or more decades under our belts. Although Heilbrun does not qualify as a baby boomer, boomers will understand her meaning now that we’ve reached that age twenty-five years after her book was published. She is of our parents’ generation.
After a lifetime of being a busy mother, grandmother, professor, and wife, Heilbrun found herself longing for solitude in her sixties. She wanted to finally put the needs of others aside and focus on nurturing her own soul, so she bought a country house, just for herself. She has clear opinions on a wide range of topics, including the misguided assumption that romantic love and sex are preferable to loving friendships later in life. Assuming the mindset of youth as it applies to older love is misleading and her thoughts are refreshing.
She devotes an entire chapter to her enthrallment with email which was still relatively new when the book was published in 1998. I did read the entire chapter but it is not as relevant by today’s standards since email and personal computers are so ubiquitous today.
In one particularly wonderful chapter On Not Wearing Dresses, Heilbrun describes undertaking a major wardrobe transformation at age sixty-two, which is also the last time she wore heels. The change was partially motivated by giving up on trying to stay thin at age fifty-five. Who among us cannot relate?
I understood how she envied men and their freedom to wear comfortable clothing. I clearly recall in the 1970s also being envious of men in my office for being able to wear comfortable, flat shoes with socks—no pantyhose, no stilettos, no girdles (or in today’s language, Spanx or shapewear) and comfy, loose pants. Fortunately, fashion dictates and gender distinctions in clothing have evolved enormously over the last couple of decades and we have so much more freedom in our fashion choices regardless of gender.
Her chapter Listening To The Young(er) reminded me of the importance of not limiting our social circle to our own generation of baby boomers who share our ideas and values. While younger generations may never listen to our advice, The secret of successful and continuing association with the young lies in knowing that they are more valuable as suppliers of intelligence than receiving it. I guess it’s time I sought out some younger friends in case I start thinking like a Republican. It’s too easy to slip into my La-Z-Girl chair with my books and mugs of strong tea without ever challenging my perhaps outdated opinions and broadening my point of view.
My favourite chapter was Living With Men. Heilbrun’s perspectives are entertaining, highly amusing, and even profound. As a feminist, she can in no way be construed as anti-men. In describing her long and relatively happy marriage to her husband, she’s philosophical: He is an old friend whose peculiarities have ceased to be annoying and become even endearing, now that I know nothing will ever change. We get it.
I highlighted and bookmarked so many pages in the book it looks like it’s been attacked. Heilbrun has an astounding vocabulary but I felt no inclination to look up all the words I did not understand, so do not be intimidated. She is an intellectual, and I most certainly am not.
I was unable to find The Last Gift of Time at our local library so I ordered it from Amazon and I’m glad I did. With my own hard copy, I can re-visit it at any time in the future and enjoy all my favourite bits marked in yellow highlighter.
As I was putting the book away, I discovered I already had a copy on my bookshelf that I bought in 2004 and never got around to reading. So now I have two copies. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the subject matter while I was still working and ripped the article out of Chatelaine. This time, I was. This book is more contemplative than entertaining and I can totally understand why some people might not find it as satisfying as I did. Some books are worth keeping even in duplicates.
If you are unable to obtain The Last Gift of Time, Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn Heilbrun at your local library or bookstore, you can have it delivered directly to your door from Amazon by clicking on this link.
(Disclosure: I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.)