For French speakers. Sorry that no translation can convey Brel poetic talent.
The other day my partner put on the breakfast table the lyrics of Brel’s Les Vieux (you might be interested he said) and I was transported to Brel concert at the Albert Hall in 1966 when I heard this wonderful touching song on old people . I was only 31 at the time and the song made a huge impression on me, my grandmother having lived with us in her old age.
Les vieux ne parlent plus
Ou alors seulement parfois du bout des yeux
Même riches ils sont pauvres, ils n’ont plus d’illusions et n’ont qu’un coeur pour deux
Chez eux ça sent le thym, le propre, la lavande et le verbe d’antan
Que l’on vive à Paris on vit tous en province quand on vit trop longtemps
Est-ce d’avoir trop ri que leur voix se lézarde quand ils parlent d’hier
Et d’avoir trop pleuré que des larmes encore leur perlent aux paupières
Et s’ils tremblent un peu est-ce de voir vieillir la pendule d’argent
Qui ronronne au salon, qui dit oui qui dit non, qui dit: je vous attends
Les vieux ne rêvent plus, leurs livres s’ensommeillent, leurs pianos sont fermés
Le petit chat est mort, le muscat du dimanche ne les fait plus chanter
Les vieux ne bougent plus leurs gestes ont trop de rides
Leur monde est trop petit
Du lit à la fenêtre, puis du lit au fauteuil et puis du lit au lit
Et s’ils sortent encore bras dessus bras dessous tout habillés de raide
C’est pour suivre au soleil
L’enterrement d’un plus vieux, l’enterrement d’une plus laide
Et le temps d’un sanglot, oublier toute une heure la pendule d’argent
Qui ronronne au salon, qui dit oui qui dit non, et puis qui les attend
Les vieux ne meurent pas, ils s’endorment un jour et dorment trop longtemps
Ils se tiennent la main, ils ont peur de se perdre et se perdent pourtant
Et l’autre reste là, le meilleur ou le pire, le doux ou le sévère
Cela n’importe pas, celui des deux qui reste se retrouve en enfer
Vous le verrez peut-être, vous la verrez parfois en pluie et en chagrin
Traverser le présent en s’excusant déjà de n’être pas plus loin
Et fuir devant vous une dernière fois la pendule d’argent
Qui ronronne au salon, qui dit oui qui dit non, qui leur dit: je t’attends
Qui ronronne au salon, qui dit oui qui dit non et puis qui nous attend
Ronni in her post How Old is Old on her excellent blog Time Goes By asks:
When did you (or will you) accept that you are old?
It is in my late 40s that I became aware of how pervasive ageist attitudes are. My hair was turning grey and a very good friend of mine, a contemporary, enquired rather worried : Aren’t you going to dye your hair ? I was shocked as she knew very well my attitude to judging women by their appearances. I was shocked to hear that grey hair means old age and old age is a bad thing to be.
But it is two factors in my working conditions that pushed me to retirement at the age of 60. I was senior technician in an NHS hospital and preparations had started for a huge reorganisation which meant merging two hospitals. I had worked very hard over the years, with the consultant of the department to achieve in our lab an efficient, patient-centred environment. I knew the other lab practices and head. I could not face the upheaval and retired. Our lab was very democratic with a consultant who respected the patients and the technicians – not always the case at the time.
In the last years of work I had become very aware of my age. When a young doctor came to plead for an urgent test that he forgot or neglected to request in good time, he (I do mean male doctors, I cannot say I noticed female Drs. behaving in the same way) scanned the office and made a bee line towards the young female technicians, ignoring me, though knowing full well that the final decision would be mine.
I read about the practice of helping Alzheimer patients by recreating the environment of their youth.
I think nostalgically of the inner courtyard of our house in Aleppo. There around a primus stove, mygrandmother taught the next generation of the women of the family how to cook the preferred dishes.
I remember the well in the dark passage where in the basket at the end of the rope we placed the water melon and bottles of water to cool.
And the dark toilet at the end of the passage, where a sadistic uncle liked to tease us and threaten us with incarceration. And the kitchen off this passage where the dishes had to be cleaned perfectly for fear of the ire of the man of the house.
Also I remember the Lebanese mountains and the smell of pines in the forest. The unbearably blue sea, the walk to the beach with the rolled towel and swimsuit behind my older brother who never talked to me .
My exile to London was voluntary. I explored the country of my French culture. I did not fit in. Tried Manchester where some of our family had settled. The city impressed me for the kindness of the people but the skies were too dull. I tried Israel for its geography so similar to Syria and Lebanon but felt like an inferior being amongst the Europeans.
I finished in London having chosen a kind, reliable and funny partner to live with.
But I think of all the old women whose exile has been involuntary and Le Mal du Pays a constant wound. How to restore to them when needed the atmosphere and environment of their youth???
My friend, long deceased, had told me about the experience of seeing the amazing brightening of colours after her cataract operation and even wrote a poem about it. Now some younger acquaintances mention this effect. But nobody told me that while the silver of my husband’s curls look shiny his face is old with lines and folds and wrinkles. Nobody told me that suddenly all white surfaces in the house look dirty, the curtains need washing, the bathroom tiles show black joins and I did not know that the carpets were so threadbare.
My face in the mirror tells me why people automatically assume that I need help, or ignore me something that surprised me often in the tube or the bus, in public.
I wish I had cataract of the mind. I wish I could not notice the effects of ageing: the struggle to find some words, the losing and finding, the repetition to the same person of some information, the too often referring to the past, the hurt of being dismissed, ignored, or plain disliked.
I will have to look for S.’s poem that I have filed away somewhere as irrelevant to me…
Time Goes By, Ronni Bennett’s blog
Eclipse Day Reveals Some Personal Changes
Monday, 21 August 2017
Thanks Ronni. This post took me from depression to relief. I can embrace the changes I experienced these last few months.
By a curious coincidence it is the total eclipse of the sun that triggered this consciousness raising.
When at the beginning of the year my American nephew started to organise the family reunion for this year’s eclipse, I decided that I would not travel to the States. This reluctance to suffer the discomfort and frustration of air travel surprised and unsettled me. Since my retirement – over 20 years ago – I have travelled across the globe to birdwatch (my connection to nature) and on two occasions to meet some members of my family and experience together total eclipses of the sun. (Hawaii (1991 , Hungary 1999).
In the last few months I have spontaneously given up activities that were previously important to me and felt more and more inadequate. Reading Ronni’s blog I jumped with joy.
I am OK. I am not depressed. I am normal. I just have to readjust my priorities.
I do not have to get up at the crack of dawn and breathe London’s polluted air to attend a conference or a meeting on Ageing or Film studies. No more exhausting train journeys and stays in uncomfortable B and B to hear academics report on their latest research.
I do not have to cook when I do not feel like it or feel guilty when I watch rubbish TV. I do not have to march for hours at an agonising pace to protest the state of the world. No more competing with centenarians who run the marathon. No more compelled to volunteer for good causes if I do not feel like it.
No more trying to share my interests or campaigns.
No more worrying about children, grandchildren. great-grandchild. It is time to reverse the mother/daughter relationship.
Yes Ronni I am also slowing down. I also have no patience for discomfort .
I am letting go and will stop wasting time and patience updating soft and hardware. The existing technology is good enough for me to continue researching, enriching my life and have a social life.
I AM NO LONGER A BRAINWASHED OLD WOMAN AND HOPE TO ADJUST TO THESE CHANGES.
The daughter of a cousin is visiting. A French academic, she briefly lectured in Aleppo before the recent wars and destruction.
She often stayed with her grandparents (my aunt and uncle) in Beirut and Israel and heard them talk about their lives in Aleppo . She is interested in this past.
I was delighted to find a listening ear. I unearthed photos, my school reports and other documents and relived the past for a few days.
My early life in Aleppo that I left at the age of 10 (late 30s/early 40s ), seemed more important to me than later life in Beirut that I left aged 21. It seemed vital that I should transmit my recollections to somebody familiar with this background.
I am left wondering in the days of globalisation how old women experience their uprooting. I am sure that each exile is different depending on the country of origin, the conditions of leaving, the process of acculturation in the new country, the assimilation of the children, the community.
In her last days in a French hospital, my mother in pain would utter a sound approximating to …AKH, AKH. When I visited her, a concerned nurse asked me what she was asking for, not realising that this utterance expressed pain (physical or even psychological) in her native language.
I am wondering if exiled people with dementia are misunderstood by carers of a different cultural background and even language.
I am wondering what the life review of old age feels like if not shared.