Thursday, December 12, 2013

An old woman to remember...

HALLIE EPHRON: Today I'm celebrating the release of the paperback edition of THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN. My favorite reviewer's comment was from Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post who called it the perfect "thriller lite" for readers who "love Gotham and abhor gore."

And can I just say that I'm thrilled that they kept the cover the same as the hardback. Fist pump!

We've been talking about "crones" a bit lately on Jungle Red, and I just want to say that the old woman in my book is anything but.

"Crone" is a scary word, a caricature loaded with negativity. Writing 91-year-old Mina Yetner, the old woman of the novel, I was determined not to make her into that kind of caricature or a joke. I've been fortunate to have several old women in my life who are anti-crone role models. One of them was Freda Touger, my husband's mother, who lived to be 92.

Freda was one of those fortunate people who, though she grew forgetful, did not become feeble-minded. Though she slowed down, she could walk my feet off at the mall. Though she grew less patient, she never became shrill. In fact, she seemed very much the same person a week before she died as she had when I met her twenty-some years earlier.

In short, she aged but she was never turned into a crone -- just an old woman.
To write Mina, I drew a lot on Freda. Like Freda, when Mina was young she worked on one of the top floors of in the Empire State Building. Like Freda, she remembers looking out the 79th floor windows and feeling the building swaying. 

To write in Mina's voice, tried remember that Freda told me she felt like she was exactly the same person at the age of 90 that she'd been at 12. So though she's baffled by computers and cell phones, her voice isn't geriatric or enfeebled. Mina's biggest fear is the same as Freda's -- that she'll become a burden. Worse, that she'll lose her marbles and not realize she's lost them.

Every morning, Freda would open the paper to the obituaries and look for people who were older than she. So that's how I opened the book. Making a list of dead people is something I do.

Mina Yetner sat in her living room, inspecting the death notices in the Daily News. She got through two full columns before she found someone older than herself. Mina blew on her tea, took a sip, and settled into her comfortable wing chair. In the next column, nestled among dearly departed strangers, she found Angela Quintanilla, a neighbor who lived a few blocks away.  
Angela had apparently died two days ago at just seventy-three. After a “courageous battle.” Probably lung cancer. When Mina had last run into Angela in the church parking lot, she'd been puffing away on a cigarette, so bone thin and jittery that it was a miracle she hadn’t shaken right out of her own skin.

Mina leaned forward and pulled from the drawer in her coffee table a pen and the spiral notebook that she'd bought years ago up the street at Sparkles Variety. A week after her Henry died, she'd started recording the names of the people she knew who'd taken their leave, beginning with
her grandmother, who was the first dead person she'd known. Now four pages of the notebook were filled. Most of the names conjured a memory. A face. Sometimes a voice. Sometimes nothing -- those especially upset her. Forgetting and being forgotten terrified Mina almost more than death.
 So here's my question -- please, share the older women in your life who are neither comic caricatures nor crones. 


  1. I loved Mina, who never seemed “old” . . . she reminded me of my grandmother who was strong and independent, who could do anything, who spoke her mind, who was always there. When we were young, my Mom would drive up to her home and we would all spend our Saturday with her; my twin sister and I always spent New Year’s Eve with her and then on New Year’s Day we would take down the Christmas decorations while we watched the Rose Parade on television. When I was in college, I lived with my grandmother for a couple of summers when I had a job just down the street from her house. Sadly, she reached a point in her life where the forgetting became too pervasive and she no longer recognized her family. My mother had that same strength and independence; her life was neither glamorous nor easy, but she made it into something to be treasured. I have fond memories of her taking me [for many years] to dancing lessons. She was fiercely proud of her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. She was smart and savvy and remained active and alert, never slowing down until her health failed. We lost her far too soon. She was a special lady and I miss her every day . . . .

  2. In the nineteen or twenty years I lived in the same house, and through all the visits, holidays, phone calls and vacations the next thirty years of her life, I never once heard my mother raise her voice -- to anyone or anything. None of my friends would leave her presence without commenting on her poise, grace, or kindness. She was an old-fashioned, raised in girls' schools, southern belle from Mississippi. She was also smart as a whip and a bridge champion with international standing. She taught me to speak softly but carry a big stick.

  3. I loved Mina, Hallie. Congratulations on the paperback!
    My aunt Jo, who died at 82, was still dying her hair auburn, still traveling the world with her beloved Dick, still making delicious dinners, and had written several short memoir pieces that were published in a San Francisco anthology. She told me a few years earlier, "I could probably lose a few pounds if I stopped drinking. But what fun would that be?"

    And my Quaker friend Annie, who at 86 tires me out with her schedule. The Monday morning anti-gun vigil. Chaplain in a hospice. Member of several town museums. Active in the affairs of our Friends meeting. Traveling with her beloved Richard. Always ready with a hug and a wink for me. And every Sunday, dressed in beautiful shades of turquoise, seated on the same bench at Meeting for Worship. A true treasure.

  4. Love these stories! what wonderful women, who've made such a difference in our lives!

    You've heard me talk about my mother-in-law. She celebrated 100 years last summer by throwing a huge bash for 50+ family members. She's a pip, that's all I can say...

  5. Thanks Joan, Jack, Edith - lovely memories. And I'm cheering for Edith's Quaker friend Annie.

    Reminded me of a friend, a woman now about 90 -- some (10+?) years ago she was late to our Thanksgiving dinner because she had to be bailed out - she'd been arrested, chaining herself to a fence for a prostitutes' rights demonstration.

  6. I try not to think of "crone" as a bad thing. I like to see a crone as a wise woman. But the word does carry the negativism.

    My mother is my hero. She never explored the world or jumped out of airplanes or invented a world-changing device but she raised the four daughters and that must have been a challenge.

    She survived three years in the US Navy and I know there are stories there that she has never shared. I'd love to know them. LOL

    She went back to work when my youngest sister was in high school and brought many babies into the world. She was an OB nurse but there were many times that the doc never made it in time and the nurses did the job.

    She was the best cook in the world! I never learned that from her. She did teach me to knit, a skill I still use constantly.

    Mum is now 93, still lives alone in senior apartments, and is looking forward to all of her family being together for a wedding in two weeks. She has dementia but it's not horrible yet.

    Her biggest concern is that she can't exercise and has put on weight. I urge her, at 93, to not worry and enjoy herself.

  7. Oh, Hallie, I want to be that woman when I'm 90!!!

  8. I'm reading There Was an Old Woman now, and concur that Mina is the kind of woman I aspire to be. She is a wonderful character, Hallie.

    Tops on my list of admirable old women is my mother, 92 years old and doing everything she can to keep dementia from completely overtaking her.

    She reads the local newspaper every day, even if it takes all day. (And, like Mina, pays a lot of attention to the obits.) She gets up at 5:30 in the morning so she has plenty of time to fix her hair and dress in a color-coordinated outfit. (More often than not, green, as she is proudly Irish.) She keeps framed pictures of her kids, grandkids and great-grands right at hand so that when she forgets a name, she still can see the faces of those she loves.

    Two years ago, when onrushing Alzheimers demanded that she move to an assisted living environment where she knew no one, she did it with grace and courage.

    I am still learning so much from her.

  9. When Jonathan's mother--who died at 94--met me, she was 80-ish.

    She looked me up and down, then said "MY, you're a big one, aren't you?"

  10. Hallie, I loved Mina and loved this book!

    Like Marianne, I really try not to think of "crone" as a bad thing. I like to see a crone as a wise woman, as she's viewed in some cultures.

    I've known and learned from a lot of wise older women and they have enhanced my life in numerous ways. My mother is one of these. At age 87 she's still living independently in an apartment, still cooks and creates and is still quite the charmer.

    On the other hand, I've also met a few women who, I think, tend to use their age as an excuse to just be mean. They say they've earned the right to speak their mind. I say they're just mean. You can, after all, speak your mind at any age - there's just a way to do that and a way not to do that. JUST my humble opinion (of which I have many, in case some of you don't know me well . . . ).

  11. Congratulations, Hallie! This is one Miss Edna and I will share!

  12. Marianne - I can't imagine getting old enough that I don't worry about putting on weight. I"m with your mom.

    Brenda, your mom sounds like another "pip" to borrow the term from Lucy - and I like pip so much better than crone.

    Hank: LAUGHING!!!

  13. Kaye: THANK YOU! And interesting your comment about age as a license to be mean. Yes, I've definitely seen that. Men do it, too. But it's also what happens when the frontal lobes of your brain start to erode: your inner policeman snoozes.

    Thanks, Susan!

  14. My grandmother and great aunt lived with us for all of my childhood. One lived to 94, the other to 91 and both sharp as a tack until the end.
    My grandmother did the crossword every morning, with help from my great aunt.
    My great aunt went blind but amused herself by silently reciting most of Shakespeare's plays.
    And neither ever complained!

  15. Pip is good! Until she hit 90, the most common label she wore was "hot ticket," but pip is probably more apt today.


  16. Hallie, great book -- I think I will reread it -- I loved the characters and the place!
    I am lucky to have several really great older women in my life -- on Tuesday when my writing group met, we celebrated Alda Mae's 85th birthday -- she is so wonderful -- she takes care of her impaired 89 year old brother. They don't have a car, but they walk into Main St. (almost a mile), and she has the best laugh!
    I have two aunts who are in their eighties -- they visit me in the summer, and when we are swimming, it seems as if we are all children splashing about and having fun.
    Thanks for the question -- and I am loving all the posts.

  17. Brenda, laughing! "Hot ticket!" Your mom is a hoot.

    Hallie, you know how much I loved Mina. She reminded me of my own grandmother. I didn't realize how much of her was based on your mother-in-law. What a wonderful character.

    My grandmother was my role model. She lived with us when I was growing up, and I could probably count on one hand the times I heard her raise her voice--and then because she felt someone had been treated unfairly. She had been widowed and raised four children during the Depression, but she never forgot how to play. She was kind, and infinitely curious, and although she did get forgetful, when she died at 86 she was still reading and playing solitaire and had not lost her marbles.

    Another role model--Faye Montgomery, who was our across-the-street neighbor for many years. She must have been in her late 80s when we moved into this house. Widowed. Fiercely independent. Loved to read. She sat at her kitchen window and kept an eye on us. It was the best kind of nosiness. She told us if she'd seen anyone strange around our house or our (then) teenage daughter doing something she thought inappropriate. And when she really needed help with something, she'd call us. We counted it as a privilege.
    She lived to 102.

  18. Hallie, I love Mina! And I love what you said about Freda still feeling 12 years old. I feel the same way. I may be getting wrinkles and I may dye the gray out of my hair, but, man, I'm just as youthful in my thoughts as I always was. I hope it remains that way.

    My mom has dementia now. She's 82. Up to a few years ago she was out ballroom dancing three times a week and meeting her friends and having a good time. She's slowed down a lot, but she still lives at home and reads like a fiend.

  19. Rhys, why am I not surprised?!

    Denise Ann, love that picture of you all swimming!

    Debs, Faye sounds like my kind of neighbor.

    Lisa, still "reads like a fiend" - amazing.

  20. Wow - how lucky we all are to have such fabulous women in our lives. Both in our fictional worlds -- Mina! -- and our "real" worlds.

    Both of my grandmothers were amazing. My Grammy died at 95, and up to the end she insisted on wearing her lace-up, high-heeled black Victoriana boots because of the way they made her feel (despite causing 3 falls down stairs). As for my beloved Grandma, in her 70s she told me 2 things I will always remember: "Never mix your liquor, honey" and "Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there's not a fire in the fireplace."

    I miss them both very much and love this chance to take a moment and remember them!

  21. Hallie, Mina was a wonderful character, and the book was a read that I described in my review as " It is one of those books that the reader, me, had to finish before going to bed, simply because there would be no sleep until the suspense ended." The paperback, I predict, will sell like hotcakes.

    One of the family relationships that I missed out on was that of grandparents. My parents were 44 (mother) and 52 (father) when I was born in 1954, and both sets of grandparents were already deceased. When I married and got to know my husband's grandparents, I keenly felt that lack in my life. I so enjoy being a grandmother myself. Maybe someday my grandchildren will speak kindly of the old "crone" who pushed her love of books onto them every chance she got.

  22. What a timely topic: today is my mother's 89th birthday.

    Age has slowed her some, both physically and mentally, but she is still basically the same person she always was. And her competitive streak is still alive. She was recently hospitalized and had to recuperate at home a few weeks before she could resume her usual activities, including going to the local senior center three days a week for socializing and lunch. The second day she was able to go back, she Wii bowled a 300 game! She was so thrilled!!

    When I was growing up my mom was a homemaker, so I think I underestimated her for a lot of years. But this is a woman who, at 18 and a few months pregnant, got on a train and moved from Louisiana to Ohio to live with a mother-in-law she had never met until my dad came home from the war. And who, almost 30 years later, had to learn how to drive and enter the workforce for the first time when she found herself a young widow with one child still to raise. Even now, she always encourages my siblings and me to go for the gusto, live fully, and have fun. I know we won't have her much longer, but we are going to treasure every day that we do!

  23. See, Hallie, I like crone. I think we have let others define a term I'd like us to reclaim. If you check Kim Hudson's book, The Virgin's Promise, identifies positive and negative elements, just as there are for other archetypes. I proudly claim "crone" for myself and urge other self-realized women to do the same!

  24. My great-grandmother Troy took me in when I was 4, and she was 75. She taught me how to pump water by hand in the middle of a cold New England winter and how to keep from falling into the outhouse pit. She taught me how to cook oatmeal overnight on the back of the stove and how to make toast without a toaster. She played with me. We went fishing down the hill from her camp. She raised a family of Boston police officers and a lawyer. I was only with her for a year before she died, but I got to know her. Maybe because of her I am okay today