Sex and aging
Illustration: Istvan Banyai
She had her knitting, her napping, her grandkids. She thought she'd outlived the distractions of lust. But then Abigail Thomas (a.k.a. Nana) discovered that some urges never get old.
Live each day as if it were your last, Nana has heard them say, but she says rubbish. Live each day any way you want. Take a nap if you feel like it.

Nana is sitting in her big chair knitting, as her grandmother did before her. What are you thinking, Nana? Nana is wondering whether if you murdered someone with a cast-iron frying pan and then made home fries in it, would all the evidence burn off? Nana wants to write a mystery. The only person she ever wanted to kill she imagined bashing over the head with her frying pan, so it is her heroine's weapon of choice. Perhaps "heroine" is the wrong word.

Nana is making a long blue scarf. She has made many scarves this winter but given none away as yet. She has also made many blankets. She just knits; she doesn't even purl anymore. She likes to knit round and round in circles. She piles all her finished projects in a big box by the front door.

Nana thinks about time differently since she got to be 66. She thinks of each moment as a big La-Z-Boy, or perhaps a hammock, and the only direction is a little back and forth, or side to side. For this Nana needs peace and quiet, and she eschews all outside stimulation. She plays music only when she is driving. Sometimes a wild random thought runs from the back of her mind to the front, and Nana can quick write it down because she almost always has a pen handy.

Nana loves her 12 grandchildren, but they function (as do their parents) on linear time. When they visit, Nana mobilizes. She bakes her cookies: gingersnaps, chocolate chips, cornmeal sugar cookies, and shortbread. She bakes big, chewy chocolate cookies. She gives everyone two at a time. Why not? You only live once, Nana knows. She notices that with small children everything is a beeline to the next thing. No time for lolling about, which is what she does best. She calls herself a writer, but she is stone lazy. Face it, Nana.

Nana appreciates that the advantage of getting old is not wanting to mess around anymore. In order not to want what she doesn't really want, she is careful about the movies she watches, and she plays music only in her car. (I believe we've covered that, but Nana thinks it is key.) When she watches a movie, Nana doesn't want to cry or be moved or enlightened, and she doesn't want to be turned on. There are movies she cannot watch, or cannot watch more than once. She saw the one about Woodstock, and it took her almost two years to get over Viggo Mortensen. She bought the DVD because she loved it so much, but she never opened it. It has sat on her shelf for four years. Nana likes movies with good guys and bad guys and a lot of big guns. She does not want anything stirred up that she can't handle by herself.

When the twins came at Christmas-time, Nana baked cookies and roasted sweet potatoes and chickens and simmered her stews. She loved it when the babies climbed into her lap. After a week of two sets of 2-year-old twins having a really good time, Nana decided it was time to leave the house. "Time to flee" were her exact words to herself. She realized that her gynecologist had died 15 years ago and thought it prudent to find a new one right now this minute and so she did. She made an appointment with a nice woman doctor. "See you later," she said to her family and drove away.

Nana lives quietly. She does not lack for anything. Many of Nana's friends are looking for romantic companionship. Nana wants to live her life, write her stories, knit her scarves, and play with her grandchildren and then have their parents take them away. She does not want a man, and she does not want to want a man.

She thought she was safe at the gynecologist.

The nice doctor examined Nana inside and out and then called her into the office. The doctor sat behind a desk. It was a pleasant room with water trickling over stones in plug-in fountains. The doctor needed to ask a few questions. Nana sat neatly in a hard chair and she nodded.

"Have you had more than one sexual partner?" the doctor asked. Outside, sun was shining on the snow. This was not the question Nana was expecting.

"Yes," said Nana. Land sakes, yes.

"More than five?"

"Quite a few more," said Nana, as modestly as she could. She didn't want to appear to be bragging, so she added, by way of explanation, "It was the '60s."

"Have you ever had a sexually transmitted disease?" was the next question. It seemed a little nosy, but Nana answered truthfully.

"Yes," she said. But now she was remembering how she got it and who she gave it to, and it was Washington Square and she was young and slender and barefoot and it was 1968 all over again.

"Damn," thought Nana.

It turned out that Medicare will pay for certain yearly exams if you have had more than five sexual partners. ("Who knew?" thought Nana.)

But now, instead of being safe and sound and insulated against desire (shudder), Nana was suddenly thinking other kinds of thoughts, having other kinds of memories. She went and bought Guitar Town by Steve Earle instead of listening to her better self, and she even played it indoors because when she got home the kids were out. "Oh, God," thought Nana, "I shouldn't be doing this." After a bit, and despite her new relationship with time, Nana began to experience impatience. One song at a time was taking too long. She began to wonder if there weren't some way she could cram all this music in at once. Oh, hell.

"That's called f******," Nana realized.

So we will leave her there.

Excerpted from Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), a new anthology of essays edited by Barbara Graham.



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