Mind the Gap

age differenceHe thought the six years between his age and his wife’s would be nothing to worry about. Then he turned 65.

When my wife and I were married 31 years ago, I gave little or no thought to the difference in our ages. I was 34, she was 28. Six years. No big deal. I had beef bouillon cubes in my bachelor’s pantry that were older than that.

I wasn’t really 34 anyway – not unless you wanted to actually count the years forward from the day of my birth. In every other respect – my questionable career track, spotty sense of responsibility, lagging social maturity, failure to send thank-you notes, even my retreat into a “Bullwinkle” voice during times of stress – I was comfortably still in my callow mid-20s, if not considerably younger.

For years, this “slow to grow” tendency had been a conspicuous part of my make-up. My first serious girlfriend had been gravely disappointed to find that her new beau, purportedly 19, was in many important respects more like a precocious but quite frightened 11-year-old, and one not nearly as cute as Tom Hanks was in Big. A bit later, I still recall the day when, at age 25, I was seated with friends in a Boston restaurant and was struck with the realization that I was now old enough, mature enough, truly interested enough, to get the most out of a college education. Unfortunately, I had graduated three years earlier with little distinction and many regrets. And it wasn’t until I was 28 or 29 that I at last began to enjoy the many pleasures of adult interaction, of conversation rather than banter, of dining with wine, and of relationships that no longer took a back seat to meaningless midseason baseball games.

But by 1984, as a newly married man, I thought “slow to grow” would serve me remarkably well. It would render the gap between my age and my wife’s irrelevant. For further encouragement, I needed only to look at the 14 years that had stretched out between my own mother and father – he a gentleman of late Victorian refinements, she a Sinatra-adoring bobbysoxer, who together had managed 57 years of high-road happiness. I had no doubt that my bride and I could build a similar bridge of love and mutual understanding between us.

Of course, there were certain cultural gaps that had to be attended to right away. For one thing, my wife and I were demonstrably from different generations. Someone born in 1950, as I was, could not escape the feeling that someone born in 1956, as she was, had simply missed out on so much, good and bad, that had informed the mid-20th century. “You have no idea what a grim slap in the face Sputnik was for all of us,” I remember saying to her at one point. “And you were far too young to know the heartache, the actual pain in the chest, of seeing the NBC peacock unfurl its feathers in black and white.”

She of course took a different view. “I picture you sitting in your college dorm room, hair down to here, listening to Black Sabbath at top volume, hoisting a box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, and I just want to rush in with a handful of wipes and intervene,” she said to me more than once. More than a hundred times, actually.

So we made peace. I granted her the apparently very real pleasures of The Brady Bunch and “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” she gave me my Kukla, Fran & Ollie and disturbing Conelrad flashbacks, and we crested the ensuing years together, through the upbringing of three children and the rise and fall of cats and dogs, college bills, car accidents, cash-flow crises and ill advised permanents. Smooth sailing all the way – or at least smooth enough.

And then 65 happened. It’s not like it was a surprise, of course. Anyone who knew how to count could see it coming. The thing is, only a year earlier, 64 had been so warm and fuzzy, what with everyone calling up and singing, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” and making good-natured “One more year till Medicare” comments. But 65 was decidedly different. Sharper. Harsher. Less friendly. It was as if I’d stepped from a giddy, skylarking altitude up to one where the breathing was actually difficult and a little painful. There are no bouncy McCartney songs about turning 65. The Medicare card came in the mail. My wife remained in her 50s. The gap, like a long dormant movie creature, began to stir.

Its most evident manifestation came in the course of our daily routines. While my wife continued to commute to her job every day and work very hard (oh, and supply medical benefits), I had left my day-to-day job for the endless vagaries of a freelance writer’s existence. At breakfast every morning, she was dressed for work while I was barely dressed, and her “What are you doing today?” felt as sharp as a poke in the eye with a piece of toast. I felt so insubstantial, so retired and out to pasture, or at least headed toward the pasture gate. But I was 65! I was entitled, wasn’t I? I wanted to say, “Just wait six years and see how you feel about things,” but I didn’t. Then one morning I tried what seemed to me a more persuasive approach. “Back in 1972, when I was already in the workforce full-time,” I said, pausing meaningfully, “you were still a sophomore in high school, making gum-wrapper chains.” The connection I’d hoped to make there was not at all successful. My words hung briefly in a shaft of morning sunlight and then fell and shattered noisily on the kitchen floor as my wife, choosing not to comment, got up to leave for work.

The worrisome gap now arises in other ways as well. I am, for instance, increasingly conscious of “keeping up” when we go out hiking or dancing or even when we stay in and try to re-create the will-o’-the-wisp mood of a Cialis commercial. I don’t say anything, of course, it’s not a big deal, but close observation might reveal the beginnings of a grim set to my jaw that hasn’t always been there. I’ve noticed minor but actively gapping differences, too, in sleep patterns, food preferences and restrictions and health complaints. In a possibly related matter, our arguments don’t seem to have the power and conviction they once had.

These are all things to be chewed over in the course of what Kipling termed marriage’s “long conversation.” Where necessary, of course, any serious differences will be dealt with and overcome, while unserious ones will be chuckled away as in the end of a “Honeymooners” episode. Even so, I will be very happy, delighted even, when my dear wife turns 60 this spring. I will be 66 only days after, it’s true, but at least we’ll be playing once again in the same ballpark decade-wise. We’ll be in our sixties together. Here’s hoping the gap begins to recede again at that point, at least until I hit 70 and she’ll be wanting needing and feeding at dear old 64.

17 thoughts on “Mind the Gap

  1. Love it. One thing resonates with me. My best friend is three years younger than I am and she has resented my retirement from day one. I say ” when you get to be my age you can retire too. I was in the work force before you, and I have earned my retirement.” Don’t give me those looks when I talk about how wonderful my life is now.

      • I even had a friend say you shouldn’t be working after 65 because you are taking someone elses job away! But really Sam is eight years older than I am and I constantly am reminded of trying to be as Marine like in my aging! HAHA! Talk about your description: “gnawing discomfort and shadows across the lawn!”

  2. Charley- have you been reading my diary??

    Trailing you by a scant, two years, I felt a slight knot grow in my viscera as I read your piece. My lovely wife has seven years less mileage on her odometer than I, putting her and me squarely into two different decades of life.

    In two years, one month and a handful of hours, (should I not expire in the meantime), the postman will deliver MY Medicaid card and… my wife and I will still be straddling disparate decades of life. While that thought actually occurred to me in advance of having read your essay, I had not given much thought to some of the finer details that you shared. I have to thank you for giving the reassurance that; A.) The time frame in question can, in fact, be navigated and survived (You did, after all, live long enough to have been able to write about it in the past tense), and B.), Should neither of us “assume room-temperature” in the interim, she and I will once again, albeit briefly, be sharing life in our sixties. The sexagenarian descriptor seems, at least phonetically speaking, would seem to have something to do with a hyperactive libido. Maybe the sixties isn’t going to be all bad.

  3. I’m glad you found “reassurance” in the post. It was really meant to be more about gnawing discomfort, dread and the shadows lengthening across the lawn.

  4. The 9 years between the mrs. and me would seem insurmountable but she was devouring the Beatles music when she was still in diapers (just yesterday she was correcting my choice of chords for “Its Only Love”- “I think that’s a G augmented.”) and has an even greater love for Gershwin, Berlin, and songs before them. So, despite the fact that I will shuffle off before she does, at least our musical sensibilities are on a level playing field. Great article.

  5. Lovely piece! Eight years between me and mine, but the fact that we grew up on two different continents (he in Europe, me in the U.S.) trumps the age gap and introduces a whole raft of weird differences, including his ability to identify the national flags of the world, his intimate familiarity with ABBA lyrics, and his preference for parking with two wheels on the sidewalk. That said, I’ll check back with you a year from now when I’ll be turning the corner into the cold shadow of sixty.

  6. Somehow I’m comforted that you’re still going back to the well for the same inspiration that brought us “The Neurotic’s Handbook”, and it hasn’t gone dry.
    If it’s any comfort, I’m still getting the “what’s on your agenda? ” question often enough, and I’m still working full-time at 64, retirement still only a concept.

  7. Thanks for sharing Charley, and for also linking me to your website where I can enjoy other Monaganomous witticisms without buying another book (it just now occurred to me what the “free” in freelance means).
    Since I’m a few months ahead of you, I feel obligated to warn you of more dangerous shoals lurking in the mist ahead. Last week my doctor prescribed Hydroxyzine to take when my skin condition flares up. I went to the pharmacy to pick it up, showed my ID, and the pharmacist said “I’m sorry, you are too old to take this.”
    I remember in high school we all had fake driver’s licenses to show we were older — mine was from Rhode Island because they didn’t have a photo. Might be time to track down another fake ID so I can get the Hydroxyzine, which has now become my highly desirable, but unattainable sixpack of beer.

    • My pen name is “Tuesday Afternoon” but I had to respond to your comment on Charley’s post because it has been a very long long time. Tis moi, Barbara Monagan Knox. I loved your comment; that is pretty hilarious. it will be nice to be connected again thanks Stray Voltage.

      • Hi Barbara!
        Does everyone see this? I think of you often, as the only picture I have of W from the early days is of W, me, my sister Ranny and you on the couch in my Harvard Square apartment. That picture is in my office and has been published in many places. I’ll send it if you don’t have it. Hope all is well. Tell me about your family.
        Best wishes

          • The “shower curtain” (courtesy of Cost Plus) was the least of the decorating innovations. The coffee table was two sections from a sawed down tree I found, the easy chair was two snow tires and a pillow, and the couch (you maybe didn’t know this) only had three legs, and one brick. You lived there one summer, so I’m sure it will come back to you.
            We’ve now completely left the topics of Stray Voltage (it really is where everything else ends up!) or anything even remotely related to Charley so you are welcome to respond at thomastriley@gmail.com.

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