Gerda Lerner is 90 years old

Via Echidne, we learn that Gerda Lerner turned 90 yesterday.  See her interesting essay, “Reflections on Aging,” from her 2009 book of essays, Living with History/Making Social Change(The essay on aging can be read in its entirety by following the links on the UNC Press blog.)  (Be sure to see the well-wishers in the comments, which is an all-star list of senior women’s historians–Ruth Rosen, Leslie Schwalm, Estelle Freedman, and others.)  From Lerner’s essay:

[Aging] is part of life, and yet it is more difficult than anything that came before it.  It presents us daily with new challenges and demands.  When one is younger, one goes through various life stages, all of which are culturally recognized and supported.  Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, the stage of nurturing one’s own family and children, maturity in work and social relations–these stages following predictable succession. . . . If we fail to make good choices in one stage, there is always the next stage in which we can do better.  But in old age there is only one next stage and that is death.  Aging is the way to do it, and it poses its own inexorable demands.

In old age we cannot take for granted that we will be able to enjoy the luxury of making good choices; we often have to choose the lesser of two evils.  Our body, which we have always trusted as a reliable, familiar friend, now confronts us with its weaknesses and limitations.  We have to develop a new relationship with it, adapting to its slow decline in capacity and strength.  Pain and physical impairments become our steady companions.  We have to get used to them, respect them and adjust to them, as best we can.  Without pain and impairments nobody would ever be ready to die.

That’s a really fascinating observation.  I’m sure the prospect of imminent death would be much more difficult if one felt terrific through old age.  Death would arrive as an outrage, an insufferable imposition.  I wonder if what Lerner is describing is like the gradual adjustments that pregnant women’s bodies make throughout a pregnancy that help get her prepared for staying home with a mewling infant:  exhaustion and a variety of discomforts (some passing, others accelerating through the pregnancy) mean that most pregnant women are not out partying every night or burning the candle at both ends.  They’re already staying home a lot, sleeping when they can, so that when the infant comes out it’s only a comparably minor adjustment to the slower, quieter pace of life they’re already living.

I also loved her aside in the introduction to the essay in which she writes of having “recently regained my ability to speak and read in German with the competence of a native speaker.”  That’s how you make it to 90, friends:  never turn down an intellectual challenge.

16 thoughts on “Gerda Lerner is 90 years old

  1. Great post! I’m out ahead of some of yun’z (I presume) on this trail but still not ready to listen to ANY of this stuff. How true it is: If you felt like thirty at 102, you’d say, no way, outrage indeed! Maybe, like the Billie Goat Gruff to the Troll, you’d say, I’ve got an older and still feebler sibling just crossing the next bridge. Take hir!! Or something like that, anyway,


  2. I am approaching 40, which seems like a milestone to me, so I’ve been reflecting. Fortunately, at this age, the changes are coming one at a time, so I can adjust to each. And fortunately, the changes of 40 are superficial/appearance-related, rather than the deep physical changes that Lerner describes. But I’m hoping that by meeting the former and shaking hands with them, one by one, I’ll be prepared to greet the latter when they arrive.

    And in addition to intellectual stimulation, I’d add: never stop dancing.


  3. I am about to celebrate an interesting birthday is this month, one I have watched approaching, warily, for seven years.

    My sister is seven years older than I. About seven years ago, I saw her for the first time after a several years of separation due to distance, life stresses, etc. I remember thinking, simultaneously, that she looked great (she’s the beauty in my family), but also that she had aged significantly since the last time I had seen her. She looked middle-aged for the first time to me.

    Now I’m about to reach that same birthday and I guess I, too, look middle aged. I’m trying hard not to care, but I do.


  4. “spiked gauntlets and bone tiaras” That sounds cool–but at some point, it could become Miss Havishamesque, no? (I’m sure it depends on the other wardrobe items and accessories, of course.)

    I know what you mean about 40, Notorious. I noticed a few years ago that both my husband and I stopped thinking about getting out for a run as just a fun or fitness activity, and more as a health maintenance necessity if we plan on continuing to live happily and healthy. For example, he’s started to say things like, “I’d like to get out for a run if that’s OK, so I don’t have a heart attack.” And I’ve started to think to myself, “hey–some people blew out their knees in their 20s, but I’m still running at 41. Cool!”


  5. What an interesting post and comments. My Dad turns 70 this summer, and I turn 40 in a few weeks. It’s great to see him so intellectually and physically active–70 seems not bad at all looking at him. And people keep asking me if I mind turning 40, which seems a very strange question. I always want to say, “well, wouldn’t NOT turning 40 be much worse, since I’d be dead?” We don’t really have the option of moving time in the other direction, and, frankly, I would not want to have to live the ages of 21-27 (that would be grad school!) again!

    Historiann, I think running is a big part of why I don’t mind turning 40. I was a cross country runner through high school, and hated it the whole time, because I was always getting hurt. In my 30s, though, I rediscovered running, learned to train properly, and LOVE it. Though I undoubtedly looked better when I was a teenager, I’m in better physical health now. I’m training for a half marathon, having run several 10K races, and I plan to celebrate the milestone birthday itself with a 10 mile run.


  6. HA-ha-hah! Squadrato, I *love* that expression (“mutton dressed as lamb.”) I’d love to use it more often, but unfortunately, all of my friends are ageless . . . .I’m not saying that at all–just that perhaps past a certain age which of course you’re quite far from still, a bone tiara might say something else than it says on a younger woman.

    ntbw: wow, those are some excellent running chops! It’s cool to rediscover things you hated at younger ages and find that you like them now. (Brussels sprouts, for example, were a total revelation to me once I got to my later 20s.) Good luck with that 10-mile run!


  7. What worries me is our desire to prevent certain things happening by our actions. I know people who did plenty of crossword puzzles, but still got Alzheimers. Who ate healthfuly and exercised, but still got cancer.

    My observation from watching people age is that people are themselves only more so as they get older. So my goal now is to help myself become someone I don’t mind being more so than when I get older!

    Continuing to think – learn – read – walk or run seems like a good idea. So is hanging out with younger people, and actually just hanging out with people…


  8. A friend turned 102 a few weeks ago. She reports that it’s been all down hill since she hit 100. She’s outlived her contemporaries ( including my grandmother), been bilked of her savings by a ne’re do well nephew, been reuinited will better kin just in the nick of time (she still has her teacher’s pension), it’s all quite remarkable.

    I used to hang out with my grandmother, Miss Murray now of 102 years, and their cohort on breaks from school and took a leave from work to live there when more time was required. There was slow, ritual pattern to conversation when all the old gals (husbands dead, them that had ’em) got together. Review of the recent and forecast weather, review of the meds, old and new, review of the town gossip, review of the dwindling choir ranks and collection at church. After a while I realized that this was all a network check. Are we all okay? They discovered a doctor’s error with a prescription that way once, probably saved a life, at least for a while.

    My mother started Italian lessons at the tender age of 69. I love that.


  9. I am in Chicago now, visiting my 89 year old grandmother. It is so strange for me to see the smartest, strongest woman I know be so old. Her body is crap, but she still has one of the sharpest minds. It makes her so angry that she can’t see well enough to read, or stand for longer than a couple of seconds, and it makes me wonder which is worse- your body or your mind going down the tubes first. Her 87 year old brother has Alzheimer’s, but can see and is otherwise healthy. He is still one of the happiest people I have ever met.

    Historiann– roasted brussel sprouts are the best- olive oil, salt, pepper in 400 degree oven for 10 minutes. Nothing is better.


  10. No way! If you cut them in half, then slice through (but not all the way through) with a knife and fan them out, they get crispy and almost caramelized! They are de-lish!

    I’m okay with the red pepper flakes, but I like them crispy, and sauteeing them lead to sogginess.


  11. (I shall have to remember that roasting brussel sprouts is ridiculous. I didn’t know that before. 😀 )

    But to get get back to the topic… I knew one very old person (high 90s) who was sharp, active, not ill in any way, who one day said she was tired. It was time to go. And she went. So I’m not sure it’s always true that disease is necessary to accept death.


  12. Pingback: A conversation with Chauncey DeVega about guns, masculinity, and the white violent crime epidemic; Gerda Lerner’s life and death; and why I’m okay with skipping the AHA (again!) | Historiann

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