Old age has its advantages

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

I’m taking a break this week from tales of my youthful travels to share a poem I wrote as homework in a Stanford Online class: 10 Pre-Modern Women Poets, taught by Eavan Boland. This week we studied “Saturday: The Smallpox” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Written in 1747 in the voice of Flavia, a young beauty whose face is disfigured by the disease, the poem is a sad satire on the priorities of that era’s fashionable society. Our assignment was to write a poem using the heroic couplet form in which “Saturday: The Smallpox” was written.

Lady Mary, who was herself afflicted with smallpox, was a pioneer in vaccination for this dreaded disease. I find it particularly discouraging that 267 years later, people are still arguing about the value of vaccination against measles, a disease that nearly killed my father when he was a child.

However, my poem isn’t about the ravages of disease, but rather the emphasis on fashion still rampant today. It was a lot of fun to write.

A Grandmother Responds to Flavia

Advancing age has this one recompense,
That I can clothe myself with common sense.
Invisible already to the young,
I’m from the prison of convention sprung,
At last to dress as I have lately dressed,
I don’t wear heels; I’ve never seen the point
Of teetering at risk to ankle joint.
My fingernails are bare of chip-prone paint,
My hair goes where it wills, without restraint.
When grayness first revealed itself, I bought
Some dye, but soon discovered what I thought
Was beauty was instead a bathroom mess,
Despite my brave attempts at carefulness.
For lack of make-up, blame my allergies,
My nose rubbed naked every time I sneeze.
For lack of lipstick, blame Ms Magazine,
Which in the Seventies proclaimed with spleen
That face paint was an INEQUALITY;
If men don’t have to do it, why should we?
So now my silver hair surrounds a face
Where age’s wrinkles have an honored place.
I am content with plainness; jeans and boots
Shall walk me earthward to my simple roots.


8 Responses to “Old age has its advantages”

  • Your poem evokes a couple comments:

    1. April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., so posting your poem is particularly appropriate this month.

    2. I, too, as Marilyn W. mentions, like the line…my jeans and boots Shall walk me earthward to my simple roots.

    2. My mom, who is 91 and lives alone, still gets up every morning and exercises in bed, puts on her makeup, fusses with her thinning hair (a worry to her), and coordinates earrings and beads with each of her outfits–often matching sweats. It’s important for her to be well dressed even on the many days she stays at home alone and works at her computer, sews, writes cards of encouragement to friends, etc. I think I’ll have her read your poem and see how she responds.

  • Alice Richards:

    Lovely Maureen. It speaks of your values since we met in 1968. You have mellowed and have a patina all your lovely self.

  • Marilyn Wills:

    I look forward to sharing this at a friend’s “significant ” birthday luncheon. We both volunteer at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, and I am quite certain she will be particularly delighted with the final line.

  • Beautiful! I certainly find you far from plain, but I understand the sentiment. You’re beautiful, inside and out, as this poem attests. Thank you!

  • Jeanette Boyer:

    You’ve voiced better than I ever could so many of my own sentiments. And what fun you clearly had in writing it.

  • Devreaux Baker:

    Oh this is just splendid Maureen!!!

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