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85-Year-Old Writer Toasts Her Life
For Irvin, a vibrant 85, this phrase sums up her attitude toward what she calls "the best stage of my life."
The happiness Irvin is finding in her octogenarian years is the focus of her memoir, "I Hope I Look That Good When I'm That Old: An Older African-American Woman Speaks to All Women in All of America" ( iUniverse, $14.95).
"I was so pleased with where I was (in my life), so I decided I would share it with other people who are not similarly blessed," Irvin says. "I want to share my good fortune."
The book - which includes reflections on relationships, mortality, spirituality and self-image - was inspired by compliments she and her friends in their 70s and 80s (women she dubs her "sister-in-age") had received from their younger friends.
"It was nice to know that they approved of the way I wore my clothes, the way I do my hair, but that was not the only thing - it's the inner that I'm interested in. I'm interested in what is going on in the world, not only black people but for all people," Irvin says.
Recognizing that she and her sister-in-age had many experiences in common, Irvin first considered writing a book that told the stories of an ethnically diverse group of women. But as the research progressed, she realized she was more interested in relating her own journey.
"(The book) has evolved into more than a writing project. It is a thoughtful assessment of my universe, milestone by milestone, past, present and venturing into the future, examining the effects on my feelings and attitudes in youth and older age," Irvin writes.
One milestone was coming to terms with her conflicted relationship with her mother, who had never offered the warmth and love Irvin craved. Growing up in a racially segregated Houston, Irvin believed her dark skin caused her fair-complexes mother's disapproval. But in 1974, a revelation about her parents' marriage changed this perception, allowing her to forgive her mother. It was a move that "continued my climb to self-confidence," Irvin writes.
Indeed, much of the book is about Irvin's growing awareness of her own self-worth. She admits she was in her 60s before she could accept that she was an attractive woman, a key event in her emotional development that was aided by the love and support of her husband, Frank Irvin.
"Luck had a lot to do with it," Irvin says, laughing, of their union, which has lasted 65 years. "We had something within us that led us to make compromises. He was very good at watching the finances, and I was good at watching the time."
Irvin worked in human resources in Oakland Public Schools before retiring in 1982. Only then did she pursue a writing career, a decision encouraged by her daughter, Nell Irvin Painter. A history professor at Princeton University, Painter writes in the foreword of the book that Irvin always was a writer, pointing to the "wonderful letters" she has received from her mother. Irvin is also grateful for the support of her younger friends.
"Some are young enough to be my grandchildren, certainly my children. They take the place of contemporaries who are dying, because I am 85 and I have lost so many friends," she says.
The loss of loved ones, coupled with her heart bypass surgery in 1998, has forced Irvin to face her own mortality. She has found the strength to deal with this sobering reality at the First Church of Religious Science in Oakland, where she found a spiritual base in what she says is the church's positive philosophy.
Despite the personal nature of the book, Irvin stresses the universality of the issues she discusses, making it clear she hopes to reach women of all backgrounds.
"I don't linger on the race. I talk about my experiences as a black person, but that's not the real focus of my book," she says.
Irvin's first book, published in 1992, is "The Unsung Heart of Black America: A Middle Class Church at Mid-century." It is a history of Oakland's Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in the 1950s and '60s, a socially conscious congregation dedicated to improving things such as civil rights, education, health care and housing.
Irvin also has contributed essays on the accomplishments of African-American pioneers to "Notable Black American Women," Books 1 and 2, and "Notable Black American Men."
Irvin is thinking about writing another book, possibly on marriages in the African-American community.
"I have one more book in me," she says.
The Oakland Tribune: Bay Area Living
I Hope I Look That Good When I'm That Old
I read I Hope I Look That Good When Im That Old immediately upon returning to Georgia but didnt get around to responding, except for pointing out that bluebonnets, and not bluebells, were the Texas state flower. I certainly dont want that to appear as my final statement to you, Dona about your book. I apologize for pointing out this small matter, and now I have the chance to respond more thoughtfully.
I was filled with sadness (for you, Dona) and dismay that a lady as graceful and poised as you had suffered so much in your early life. You felt unattractive and unwanted by your mother. You know I read an article many years ago (at least 40) that youngest children, contrary to common opinion, were not always the most endeared in the family. The reason given was that the youngest child is often an unwelcome addition because he/she arrives when the marriage is on the downgrade. I dont remember the source of the article. As you implied, your physical likeness to your father probably didnt help your case with your mother.
My own marriage, which had been hanging by a thread for years, ended around the time of my youngest sons birth. Kelvin wasnt planned, but he was no less dear to me because he was my baby. The most heartbreaking thing he ever said to me when he got older was, I know I was an accident.
That incident at the grocery store when your mother allowed you to be treated like a servant because she was believed to be white must have really been degrading for you. Even taking into consideration the racist climate in America at the time, and in the South in particular, I would have found that hard to forgive. There is no such parallel in my experience. I can, however, imagine how I would feel if a member of my own family contributed to this kind of treatment.
My mother and I had a toxic effect on each other. This doesnt mean that we didnt have our good times as well, but we had a way of bringing out the worst in each other. I got started on the wrong foot with her by being a colicky baby! According to her testimony, I screamed day and night. The first six months of my life I slept six hours out of the twenty-four! My mother was twenty-three when I was born. I was her first and only child. She was inexperienced and nervous, so this set the course of our relationship. She was very impatient. I cried a lot and had temper tantrums as a child due to frustration. I believe I was reacting to her anxiety. To tell the other side of it, I was a spirited, strong-willed and temperamental child. I was also more verbal than she liked. I probably was difficult for her.
My mother was not as austere as you described yours. She had a lot of overt hostility towards me, though. There was never any question that Mother had maternal love for me, but she just did not like me. I think this may be more common that we realize with mothers and daughters. My mother was a put-down artist just as her mother was before her. Thus, we became lifelong sparing partners. I was in my forties before I realized that Mother did to me what her mother and her older sister had done to her. These put-downs continued well into my adulthood. Even when she was suffering from a terminal illness she still tried to pick arguments with me. Then I was too ashamed to continue arguing with her because she was so ill. Mother died on June 20, 1977, six months before her 65th birthday. I was forty-one.
You spoke of your love for your father. Fathers can be semi-absent heroes to their children. In your situation he was the parent who gave you affection. It must have been a blow to you to learn later in your life that he possessed certain character flaws.
I had a preference for my father by the time I was five or six years old. I adored him. Unfortunately, my dad also had some shortcomings of character. Although Daddy was married three times (my mother was his third wife) he even had the reputation of being a womanizer. There was a dark cloud that hung over his head all of his adult years, however. Daddys first marriage took place when he was twenty-one and not ready to make a permanent commitment to any one woman. His young wife was Nola, who was two months shy of her 19th birthday. Nola was already a woman, but Daddy was still a boy. Two children were born to this union, Travis and Neva, my brother and sister respectively. I think that Daddy and Nola separated at least once of twice before he left for good. When he deserted them, Travis was only two, and Neva was six months old.
Daddy was not a good provider in his younger years. He did not pay child support. He never had a good paying job before World War II when be became an aircraft mechanic for the Naval Base in Corpus Christi, Texas. He joined the Army Air Force in the late 20s. I was born in 1936 in an army hospital in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He got out of the military shortly afterwards.
As my dad was approaching his 40s, he started thinking about his first two children, who by that time were in their late teens. Travis was already overseas in the Navy, and Neva, a high school student, was living with his mother in Southern California. In this period he joined the Masonic Lodge and ultimately became a Master Masonic, which I think exposed him to the concept of karma. He began to think about leaving me and my mother so that he could reconnect with his first wife, Nola. He put this plan into action during the summer of 1944 when I was eight years old. He dumped Mother and me on Grandma and Aunt Hazel who were living in San Antonio. When he told me goodbye he said that he would be writing to me. He did write for the rest of his life, which wasnt very long. I think he intended to visit me in California.
Daddys remarriage to Nola never took place because he was waiting for Mother to begin divorce proceedings. In those days a woman looked bad if the man sued her for divorce. Daddy had not been in good health for some time. He was a chain smoker and had chronic bronchitis. He also had ulcers and one of them ruptured when he was working in San Diego. He was hospitalized in March of 1945 and died about three weeks later.
After my Dads departure, my maternal grandma had to co-parent me while my mother worked. Sorry and no account were the ways Grandma described men in general, and to my father in particular. She rarely had a good word to say about him.
I believe I understand what you felt when your brother Ewart died. Even though I didnt grow up with my brother and sister, I felt a profound loss when Neva died five years ago. There was a ten year age difference between us and we grew up in two different homes. Nonetheless, we became the best of friends, starting in my teens. I remember saying to Travis on the way to the grave side ceremony, We arent a trio any more. In other words, the circle had been broken as far as I was concerned. Travis didnt reply to my remark. In fact, he went inside himself the day of Nevas funeral. I eventually contacted my siblings. They were my last link with my dad. Also, an important part of me had been missing until I united with them.
I too, had a Southern Baptist and Methodist background. My family were Southern Baptists. I was saved at age twelve, but I never really wanted to be a Baptist. I argued with a Sunday School teacher in the Baptist church about integration when I was twelve or thirteen. Of course, there was no such thing at that time, but there were people who thought it should be. My comment to her was, After all, we brought slaves over from Africa so they, the colored people
(as I put it, using the term of the day) should have equal rights. Mrs. Randell told me I was wrong and that Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was responsible for this kind of thinking. I deflected at age fourteen and started attending the big downtown Methodist church, but not for that particular reason. I joined it two years later. I felt the Baptists were too narrow minded. At that time they didnt invite other Christians to take communion with them. (I understand that this rule has been changed in recent ties) They would also re-baptize Christians who transferred from other denominations, even when they had already been immersed. They would vote people into the church, i.e., All who are happy to receive so and so, signify by saying aye. I never knew of anyone opposing, but the fact that the option was there galled me. That particular minister was also in the habit of bad mouthingCatholics from the pulpit.
My years at the Travis Park Methodist Church were the happiest of my young life. We are to have a reunion in San Antonio in the summer of 2006. It will have been fifty years since I have seen most of those people. It was also in this group that I met my agnostic husband, but that is another story! I would have remained a Methodist had anyone like Bishop Spong in the Episcopal Church (hes probably an embarrassment to the main streamers) taken a public stand and admitted that the non-Christian churches had equal spiritual validity. This bothered me increasingly in my adult life. I was seeking a religion that was both ecumenical and metaphysical. I found it in the Church of Religious Science just as you, Dona, did.
Now about growing up white or how I came to terms with my own hair. Dona, you may think that only black women are obsessed about good hair and bad hair. This is not so! As a young girl I was astounded to hear that black women wanted straight hair. My reaction was, Are they crazy! Why would anyone choose to have straight hair? One of my many less than polite comments to my mother when I was a teenager was that it was bad enough that I had problems with math (those written riddle problems) and, if I had to be born blonde, why, at least, couldnt my hair have been curly! (I was indirectly blaming her for my bad genes and my less than perfect environment!)
In other words, it was her fault that I wasnt brilliant and beautiful. Mother was never lacking in wit, and she had a good answer for almost everything. Her response to me was, Oh quit your griping, what if you had hair like mine. Mothers hair was thin and baby-fine and utterly straight, the kind you couldnt do much with except for brief periods of time. I agreed that she did have a point, that her hair was indeed bad. Doesnt that sound like a typical snotty teenage girl.
I have always had an abundant amount of hair and although it isnt coarse, it has always had good body. I wanted to be a brunette from the time I was old enough to have an opinion about the matter. My sister, who had a different mother, a brunette mother, had been a blonde when she was small but her hair turned dark as she got older. For years I waited for my hair to turn dark so that I, too, could be brunette. It never happened. It only turned a darker shade of blonde, and eventually light brown at age twenty. That was even worse than being blonde because light brown is such a non-color. An odd thing happened with my hair. Although I had a different mother from Neva and Travis, my hair grayed early as did theirs. Our mutual father had no noticeable gray in his light brown hair when he died at age forty-two. I had to tint mine before I was even twenty-seven. Did I despair? No, I did not. I thought of it as a chance to go brunette from then on into my fifties when I was forced to go to a lighter shade to keep from looking ridiculous.
I have a theory about this phenomenon. I believe that whether or not we turn gray is determined by two different genes. My paternal grandmother, who was a brunette when she was young, turned gray at an early age. The type of gray hair I have looks much like many post-brunettes. It is not that yucky yellow color that has the color of scrambled eggs fried in over-used grease. I now wear my straight, but well bodied white hair with pride. I believe it is a gift from my brunette grandmother.
Now about men and women and aging sex. What you say is largely true. Yours is one of the longer-lasting marriages, so you have much to teach women about this subject. I think that in the advanced years, more men cant perform than can. Here is the real test of love. If a woman has not discovered that love is many-layered earlier in life, she is forced to acknowledge it when she becomes a senior. Sex is not a single act, but involves a range of behaviors. Love is particularly important at this time so that she can show the necessary compassion to the man in her life who is embarrassed about his physical limitations. It is also an advantage for the man and woman to be close in age, particularly as they age. For instance, women generally experience menopause and a drop in libido as mens sexual powers are waning.
This concerns another subject in the book. The incident that you described about your sons spirit being embodied in the little boy who took to you so readily in church really intrigued me. You indicated that the next time you saw the woman who said that he was the boys grandmother, she denied knowing such a child and did not remember the incident. Have you read about parallel lives or parallel universes? I was introduced to this concept in the Seth material. It seems that these parallel realities intersect from time to time. A rational explanation is not always the answer.
Dona, I congratulate and salute you for your courage and your wisdom that was gathered in experiences that I might never know, but can certainly relate to. Thank you for this wonderful contribution.
Fondly, Gwen Meharg.