How to Grow Old

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Marion's ex mother in law's house

I just devoured an advance copy of Ann Patchett’s forthcoming novel, Commonwealth, which deals with the topic of blended family. Though I’m not up on all the details of Patchett’s history, I do know she’s from a family that emerged from divorce and remarriage with a slew of step-siblings. Though a work of fiction, Commonwealth deals with the connections (and aversions) that arise in the kludged-together clan that results from such a situation.

When so many ancillary players are dragged into the drama of two people’s attraction, nobody gets out easily, or at all.

I bring this up on the occasion of my ex-mother-in-law’s 91st birthday, which I attended with two of her grandchildren, one my daughter, the other my ex-step-daughter. The man who ties us all together, my ex-husband, did not attend the festivities due to a resurgence of his historic enmity towards me, which had dissipated over the past eight years but was recently re-activated when he got himself into some career complications in which I should never have gotten involved. But you see, I thought… ah, who cares what I thought. The damage is done.

As in Patchett’s fifty-year plotline, the secondary relationships have outlasted the spark that created them. Joyce Abell continues to introduce me as her daughter-in-law, and she is the closest thing to a mother I have at this point. Furthermore, she is prone to exclaiming delightedly over my cooking, my children, and other accomplishments, and every month she reads this column and sends me a note of praise or at least wonderment.

Since my own mother is gone, you can imagine what this means to me. But her enthusiasm, which does not preclude sharp, honest criticism when she feels it is called for, is not the only reason I love her. In fact, I am part of a crowd of devotees to whom she is a beacon.

For most people, the thought of reaching the age of 91 in decent health, living alone on a farm deep in the countryside sounds like a mixed blessing indeed. Since her husband Richard died in 2002, this is just what Joyce has done. But her solitude, which she deeply enjoys, is balanced by her intense engagement with her community.

Every year in May, the month of her birth, she throws a party at her little A-frame house with its generous back deck in the green foothills of the Blue Ridge. Several dozen people gather, loading her dining room table with a kaleidoscope of high-end potluck dishes, often based on homegrown ingredients. (Joyce herself still grows asparagus.) Because the scenic Rappahannock area is a popular retirement and second-home location for a certain type of Washingtonian, a very good type, active in all sorts of community causes and projects, the guest list draws from an interesting, sophisticated older crowd. Many of them know Joyce through her involvement in a theater company based in an old church, her pet project for decades.

Last fall on the stage of the old church, the then-90-year-old Joyce played the lead in a full-length, two-person play called The Gin Game. The impression made by this feat of memorization paled beside the power of the acting itself, though it was particularly amazing because she is forgetful in daily life. But I guess we knew she could do it, since she killed the people three years earlier with Driving Miss Daisy, played opposite a tall, dreadlocked man named Dontez. Joyce and Dontez made Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman look a little anemic. (Word has it that the director of this play had to instruct Joyce to “act older.”)

The church is also the home of an annual show called No Ordinary Person, which Joyce helped found 18 years ago. Every year she gets four or five local residents to tell twenty-minute stories about their lives, people who have never done anything like this before. She and her friend Sallie Morgan help them along, and somewhat amazingly, they rise to the occasion.

There are a lot of good stories in Rappahannock County, from those Washingtonians I mentioned with their adventures in far-flung places, also from locals with tales of horses and agriculture, and often Joyce herself, who is an excellent writer and has lived through many tragic but fascinating circumstances in her century. Over time, this project has had a real effect on the community, deepening bonds, undoing prejudices, airing secrets, healing wounds. It is surely one of the reasons my daughter heard so many people at the party telling Joyce how she changed their lives. (“I just wish we had met when we were younger,” said a tall, weathered blacksmith, still quite good-looking.)

In addition to theater, Joyce maintains a vigorous interest in current events and politics, one she shares with her son, my ex-husband — their wildly heated yet mostly rancor-free debates surely rage on. She reads the New York Times online and has the Washington Post delivered; her listserv Rappnet fills in the community info. She lost the last of many fine dogs, Bear, not long ago, but two adopted cats eat organic hamburger in her garage. She serves lunch once a week to the local librarian, a man named Dave. For exercise, she dances in her living room.

Joyce is determined to stay on her farm til the very end, and she has thought hard about how to do this. Her success at independence involves not just being competent and confident in doing things for herself, but in knowing what sort of help she needs, and arranging to get it. (On top of everything else, she is 4’9”, if that.) The guy who played opposite her in Miss Daisy is the most recent in a series of helpful tenants installed in a cottage on her property who exchange part of the rent for help around the farm. Recently she has put in a shower in the loft on the second floor of her house, knowing closer assistance will eventually be required.

One of the people who attends this party every year is a gentleman named Cliff Miller, a Virginian with one of the most luscious Gone With The Wind accents you ever heard. He invited me and the girls to come to his house later that night to look at the stars, which would be particularly brilliant out in the middle of nowhere, on a night with no moon.

Oh, I used to love to do that, Joyce said. Lie on my back in the grass and stare at the sky for hours. I used to know all the constellations.

I bet she did.

University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes LoveThe Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit to sign up for her monthly email.

Photo courtesy of the Dark Skies of Rappahannock Project. Visit them on Facebook.

Marion Winik
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  1. Terrific essay. We happen to be dealing with some “kludged-together-clan” issues in my own family these days, from which this lovely piece was a welcome respite.

  2. This is a vivid picture of a vibrant woman. When you consider that only 11 percent of us are destined to make it into our Nineties, I’m glad Joyce is among their number. This is also a target to aim for, having seen her life. I always said I wanted to live to 100. If the final 10 years look like this, I can stay true to the course.

  3. My brother recently decided never to speak to me again and I am going on vacation with my husband and his ex-wife (both of them speak to me). I take my connections where I can find them.

  4. Reminds me of the communities where people live active lives beyond 100. She is active and uses her skills and has ambitions to share in the community. Those communities are agrarian based and people live stress free lives. I value how important it is to be active as I hit 60, I act in films here, take Jazz Dancing and dabble in stand up. Thanks for sharing your incredible relationship with this wonderful women. She has it all figured out and embraces her community.

  5. Let’s be old ladies doing yoga together. Come see me for tacos and a talk about old times. Austin misses you

  6. What a fiesty lady your mother in law is. Great that you stay in touch with her. So enjoy your writing….so signed up for your newsletter….

  7. Marion, you can sure write a sentence. And from that one, another. Thanks for keeping me reading.

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