The title of this anthology edited by Calgary writer Rona Altrows echoes a backhanded compliment that sparked a deep dive into Altrows’s ambivalence about aging and frustration with the gendered pathology of systemic ageism. Altrows reached out to 29 writers identifying as women in their middle to advanced age, a call that resulted in this engaging collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
The best writing wrestles with existential questions of identity in the context of aging. Sharon Butala’s unsentimental, even forensic examination of her evolving reaction to the diagnosis of inevitable vision loss engages the tradition of the personal essay, from Montaigne to Didion. Butala’s clear, nuanced prose artfully carries the drama of a profoundly self-aware writer interrogating her stoic vulnerability amid the growing awareness that aging grinds away one’s sense of exceptionalism: “Now I too—wonderful me!—could go legally blind like anyone else.”
In the “Elders” section, writers explore the pain and rewards of aging children caring for aging parents. Roberta Rees’s moving essay “Upriver” ripples out from her mother’s extraordinary life as a survivor of brutal childhood rape to assay “what it means to be a woman looking—being looked at, doing the looking, looking out, looking after, living long enough to see children grow up, to wear time in our bodies, our faces, our minds.”
Writers not only closely observe their worlds but also watch themselves watching. Laurie MacFayden’s found poem “you will be amazed,” satirizes the internet’s consumerist offers of youthfulness, including kitchen face masks doubling as party dips. There is the feisty brio of educated, healthy older white women refusing narratives of inevitable decline. JoAnn McCaig parodies self-help nostrums, offering herself her own advice to deal with the pain of hemorrhoids (reminiscent of another pain in the ass—her ex-husband). Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s “She” universalizes the productive surge of older women freed from the scrutiny of the male gaze: “Not only does she have a room of her own, she has become her own room.” Aritha van Herk embraces the creative, even archetypal, superpower of invisibility that comes with women aging: “In disappearing… I am less present but more powerful.” Joyce Harries’s poetic rant “One More Word” gets the last word: “yes, I’m still here…/ embrace the day.”
A short review can offer only glimpses of this collection. I will say the quality of writing is uneven. And while Altrows disavows any claim to cover all experiences of aging, I was surprised to find only one dramatization of a long-term, sustaining female friendship in Madelaine Shaw-Wong’s story “Lily’s Funeral.” On balance there is much to be savoured here. Buy the book.
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.