This is 53: Gina Frangello Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"I had absolutely no idea that being in one’s late forties or early fifties could mean beginning a new and more authentic life..."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, Blow Your House Down author Gina Frangello responds.- Sari Botton
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
For some years, I thought of myself as about 46 or 47 years old, even as the years kept passing. When I was that age, my entire life changed in almost every way it’s possible for a life to change. I ended a marriage to someone I’d been with for a quarter century; my father who lived in my house died; I was diagnosed with breast cancer during the same week a member of my extended family went missing and was found dead; I had a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy and reconstruction while going through a very difficult divorce; I was catapulted instantly into menopause by the chemo, which also accelerated osteoarthritis in my left hip and left me temporarily disabled; amidst all of that, I was parenting three kids and I also got my first full-time job with benefits and left a host of non-profit and volunteer positions because I needed to financially support my children and, to a lesser degree, my mother who lived downstairs; and I began writing in secret parts of what would later become my debut memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason. I think so, so much happened during that timeframe for me that I felt profoundly stuck in it for some time, even as my life continued to develop and, in many beautiful ways, blossom.
To say that these were the hardest years of my life would be a vast understatement, and yet it’s also true that they were the years I learned the most about my own survival instincts and resilience and capabilities. But I’m going to be honest here—and I don’t think I have ever said this in any public forum before—even as I was “surviving” and even as other gorgeous things were happening to me, as 2017, 2018 rolled around, I always felt a sense of disequilibrium, as though I was living in parallel time frames. It took a long time for that to pass, and there were a number of false starts. Finishing my book felt like it was the closing of old doors, but those doors re-opened unexpectedly at times over the next two years like portals dragging me back. It wasn’t until November of 2020, around the five-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, that something truly began to heal in me in axis-shifting ways. As can happen when healing, I got worse before I got better, emotionally. So much had happened that I’d never really had the chance to sit with my feelings and move through them. So much had happened all at once that things that would normally be a Major Deal sometimes felt like background music (like my cancer, even) amidst other fires burning everywhere. At the five-year point, I hit a wall with no longer being able to live in those dual timeframes anymore. I wanted to be fully in the life I had worked incredibly hard to rebuild for myself and I had lost the will for the sandbags I was carrying on my back up the endless mountain with no peak, as Edward Hirsch talks about in Gabriel. My grief and toxic nostalgia became...far less engaging to me. I found myself living ferociously in the moment, not just now and then, but in a more stable and enduring way. The year 2021 was a transformational one, perhaps the most in my entire life.
For some years, I thought of myself as about 46 or 47 years old, even as the years kept passing…To say that these were the hardest years of my life would be a vast understatement, and yet it’s also true that they were the years I learned the most about my own survival instincts and resilience and capabilities.
I feel my age now, and I mean that in the best possible way. I feel alive in the here and now, and not fragmented and scattered all over my past. It was a long haul, and at times—maybe most of the time—I didn’t believe I would ever get to the other side of it. Maybe I didn’t think I “deserved” to get to the other side of it, which of course is really tied to that question about self-destructive thought patterns, What’s this doing for you? Clearly, I had not been ready to let some things go. It was serving some purpose for me to remain stuck. Whatever purpose it may have been serving, it no longer served. And suddenly that two-year period that I always believed would be the most defining one of my life became...well, just part of my life. It changed me, and it was important in both horrible and ecstatic ways, but it isn’t where I live now or who I am anymore.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I have friends from a lot of different age groups. I don’t feel anything like what 50something looked to me when I was younger, that’s for sure. I still lead a fairly young lifestyle, even compared to some of my peers—I travel a lot, I’m very social, I have a lot of friendships across all genders and am close to a lot of people outside of my immediate family, and I do note that for some people these things are no longer true by a certain age. But they are true for many Gen X-ers, and a lot of my friends are writers and musicians and other artists, and I think...maybe artists age on their own timeline that isn’t quite the mainstream one? At the same time, I’m a cancer survivor; I’ve had a lot of surgeries and health issues and was a caregiver to my parents for many years as they deteriorated and eventually died, and so I feel very much my age or older when I’m around anyone who has never been sick or close to illness or death.
I know very little about pop culture, but that was also true when I was 30, so in that sense I’ve never been quite in step with my peers.
What do you like about being your age?
Now? Kind of everything. I mean, if we aren’t talking about the fact that I don’t think most of us love to watch our skin lose elasticity and so forth—no, I’m not wild about that!—but otherwise, in its own way every decade of my life has felt like the most important decade of my life as I was living it, and that’s definitely been true for my fifties thus far, too. I am more myself than I have been since...maybe ever? I also have lost all interest in some of the judgmental attitudes women are taught to feel about one another when we’re younger, and that I tried very hard not to buy into, but sometimes bought into nonetheless. I just fucking love women now, in my fifties. I have always been a feminist, since childhood, and I have always had a lot of close women friends, but there is something sacred to me now about the company of women that feels transcendent even among women I don’t know very well yet.
Ugh, I don’t mean the women who voted for Trump. I am still a complete judgmental banshee about those women, and I am not sorry.
What is difficult about being your age?
Well, you know, health issues. Less flexibility or mobility in my joints, chronic pain, the low-grade knowledge that every cancer survivor feels that our chronological age may have very little to do with how much longer we’re here. Those things are difficult. But they also aren’t without value.
I feel my age now, and I mean that in the best possible way. I feel alive in the here and now, and not fragmented and scattered all over my past. It was a long haul, and at times—maybe most of the time—I didn’t believe I would ever get to the other side of it.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
Literally everything! I mean...look, I had the most loving mother on the planet. She was the sweetest and most giving woman I’ve ever known, and we adored each other and were best friends. But/and my mother lived her entire life for other people. She had been desexualized by my father by her mid-30s, lived in a neighborhood she didn’t want to be in surrounded by his relatives, centered her entire life around loyalty to him and to elevating me. Neither of my parents had education—my father didn’t finish 8th grade. I was the first of my close friends to marry and to have—in my case, by adoption—children. There’s a line in my debut novel where a 42-year-old man tells his much younger lover that it’s “always interesting to see what will happen to young people” and says of himself, “I’m older and I’ve already been happened to.” I loved being a mom of young kids and I had a lot of rewarding work, but I very much felt already happened to for many years. Then...I was undone, un-happened, re-forged.
I had absolutely no idea that being in one’s late forties or early fifties could mean beginning a new and more authentic life or could mean having sexual awakenings or living more passionately and fully than I had ever permitted myself. Sometimes I feel like a teenager because of all that. Like...I’m learning to sing. I just...started singing one day last summer, and now I’m obsessed with it. I write songs; my husband and I are making a little band together. I co-wrote a pilot on spec, for no apparent reason! I’m doing physical training and trying things like breath work and writing more poetry. I have this sudden love for doing things I have no previous skill or experience in and coming at them with beginner’s mind and no ego, and I realize...I was never that person. I never really tried to do anything unless I was already pretty damn sure I would do it well. I don’t care about any of that anymore! It's wild!
My ex-husband and I used to have a running joke that I had an over-inflated sense of my own dignity, and it was very true for most of my life. I took myself...woah, very seriously! I did not expect that to lessen in my fifties, when people are traditionally supposed to be, like...dignified for real! I don’t feel dignified. I don’t have any interest anymore in being dignified. I want to scream my heart out in a song until my voice growls and I don’t care what anyone thinks.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
One thing aging has given me is the genuine feeling that we are all fluid and we all continue on in various ways beyond ourselves. I’m a pretty hardcore atheist and not very spiritual, but I mean, when I’m with my kids, I see the continuation of everything that mattered to us as a family, every experience we had, the sacrifices my parents made and those that I’m making to help forge security for them in such an unstable world, and I think less about I want, I need, me me me.
And yet that’s paradoxical, because in other ways, if you want, if you need, woah, what are you waiting for, at 53? Because aging takes away from us the sense that we have all the time in the world to make things happen or to do things that we vaguely want to do but aren’t focusing on. You get to a stage of life, based on age or health or both, when you realize you don’t have the luxury to think about time like that anymore. If you want to do something, if you will regret not having done it, the moment is now. Full stop. Go.
In its own way every decade of my life has felt like the most important decade of my life as I was living it, and that’s definitely been true for my fifties thus far, too. I am more myself than I have been since...maybe ever?
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
Well, here I could go on about a lot of different things, but I feel like I’ve touched on many of them, so I’m going to confine myself to saying that it bothers me a lot when people talk about middle-aged women being “invisible.” Invisible to whom, exactly? And then other women, who don’t feel invisible at all or who fear someone might think they do or are, sometimes respond in hyperbolically critical ways of women who are talking about their perceived invisibility, and I get it because I’ve balked at that too. But I think this is really an issue of women not listening to one another and instead listening way too hard to the constant patriarchal static around us. I wrote about this recently, actually, on my column, “Not the Norm,” on Psychology Today. I think getting older has made me believe very firmly that invisibility can seem like a gift to some women, and that this is valid. Women are hyper-visible and fetishized and sexualized in the world when young, and it can be exhausting and if someone is relieved and “done with all that,” I mean, hell yeah, shake off the gaze, be glad it’s gone. But I also believe that invisibility is a myth that’s based in the toxicity of whose gaze and attention is prioritized. I feel—and albeit I just put out a very revealing memoir last year—but I feel literally more visible than I ever have, but in a way of standing in my own skin comfortably and feeling like I understand the ways I want to contribute and that they are within reach to me.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
I finished my PhD this year! That was an amazing milestone, because I’d dropped out of my program twenty years prior and though I didn’t exactly regret it, I also...well, the things I did instead were valuable to me and I wouldn’t change them. But I regretted not seeing through something I had loved and had a knack for, and it was a massive gift, two decades later, to read all those books for my prelims and write papers again and a dissertation and to get to work with two committee members I’d had way back then in the late 1990s, even, and to feel that sense of completion for the sake of the process.
I don’t look forward to being a full empty-nester because my kids are the greatest and funniest people I know and I love their company, but I do look forward to moving to the California desert for a time when my youngest graduates from high school. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I have spent about forty years of my life in Chicago, and although Chicago is a great city, that wasn’t always by choice. I have so many friends here and so much history, but I was also somewhat trapped here by being the only child of parents in poverty who relied on me, or by my kids’ schooling, and other reasons. I have been on a track of living places largely “for” other people since 1991, and that is a long time. To be clear, in both of my marriages, my spouses also moved to Chicago for me and my need to be near my parents, or to offer my kids consistency, so I was not the only person making these sacrifices. But I do look forward to not being tied that firmly to any one place on the globe. I look forward to moving to the desert and getting super weird, as the desert is wont to provoke, but I also look forward to a cheaper, non-urban lifestyle that means my husband and I can take off and travel and live other places whenever we want, which has been a dream of mine for my entire life. At one point, I would have said that waiting until I was 56 to have that would be ridiculous because I thought 56 was some wildly unadventurous, staid, half-dead age where new experiences would no longer matter. I mean, obviously I was a complete idiot. Now I understand that being alive at 56, three years from now, would be an incredible gift, and if I have that gift, there will never be a better time for adventure and discovery.
My grief and toxic nostalgia became...far less engaging to me. I found myself living ferociously in the moment, not just now and then, but in a more stable and enduring way. The year 2021 was a transformational one, perhaps the most in my entire life.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
Oh, this is a hard one. I was 32 when I adopted my daughters and I was very, very happy in the five years or so between that and having my third child. Those were sweet, golden years when my parents’ health had not yet fully failed and my mother was very active with me and the kids, and a lot of my women friends were also having kids, and our children were growing up together and it was incredibly tender. And although my first marriage was a very turbulent one by nature compared to my present marriage, I believe that those were some of the best years of that marriage, and that we were a happy family.
But I wouldn’t go back to that age now, because that was a different life. I didn’t know my children the way I do now. I was married to someone who now hasn’t spoken to me in six or so years. And I was a different person. I was doing the best I could, but I had this idea that I had “gotten out” of poverty and my old, violent neighborhood and made this pretty life for myself and that it was now my job to always be happy and always make everyone else happy and always smile and never admit to having vulnerabilities or problems. I was not always successful at behaving this way, obviously, but it is how I truly believed I should not just behave but also feel. So even in my happiest years, I wouldn’t want to go back to what it was like living inside that woman’s brain and skin. She had boxed herself in very tightly and judged herself very harshly.
When I was 43, I fell absolutely madly, wildly, passionately, intensely in love with my current husband, and I experienced euphoria and intimacy I had honestly believed were just “pretend” things people put in movies and books and songs to make things more interesting, and had never even remotely hoped or longed to happen to me because I didn’t think it was a Thing. I had known love, of course, but not love of that nature, mutually felt. And my mind and heart and body blew wide open, and there are parts of me that would love to experience that transformation again for the first time, almost in the way that you long to go back and reread a book that changed your life for the first time again. But I would not go back to that age for all the money in the world, really, because for all my own intoxicating desire and romance, I was about to do a lot of damage and become a long-term liar, and it’s taken me a long time to heal from that and to inhabit myself comfortably again.
The answer is no...but the answer is also that I’ve had a lot of joy in my life, of very different kinds, and that I was extremely lucky to experience those things while I was in them, even if I don’t want to go back.
Older people’s sexuality is not “adorable,” nor is it “gross.” The majority of people are sexual beings. Some are more or less sexual than others; some are asexual or demi-sexual and lead full and exciting and rewarding lives without that kind of expression. But I reject that this has anything much to do with age.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
When I was in my twenties, I met a lot of women in the Chicago literary scene, from my former mentor Lois Hauselman to writers like Sharon Solwitz, who had this wild hair and ballet body and edited a super cool magazine, and they were all...wow, I mean twenty-five to thirty years older than I was, and I thought they were just the absolute shit. I couldn’t believe that women in their fifties were doing all these awesome things in the lit world, because the 50something women I had grown up around were grandmothers who sat on the front porch in house dresses, and I wanted to be women like Lois and Sharon so badly when I grew up. Now, I’m basically the age they were when I was getting to know them, and of course it’s hilarious to me that I was so shocked they...had lives! Or were curious about art, or were sexy, or liked to have parties and salons.
But on the completely different end of the spectrum, my mother, who never pursued much of what she wanted in life...she was also an incredible aging model because she absolutely always kept love and family at the center of her happiness dial. By the end of her life she had COPD, was in a wheelchair, was in heart failure, had had strokes and seizures and something like eighteen surgeries, but she was somehow happy and at peace and rarely bored. She loved to read. She loved to visit with family and friends. She liked talking to anyone, even strangers. She could watch Seinfeld reruns and that was...you know, it was enough to just be there, laughing at the TV, in the house we all lived in and that she loved.
My mother did not go out thrashing or complaining or miserable. I often thought she didn’t demand enough out of her life, but I also now see a certain wisdom and beauty in the fact that being alive and feeling love—often feeling it with very little expectation that she was supposed to “get” anything out of it, but just the joy of feeling it—was enough. My mother was not without a lot of regrets, but one thing she knew was that feeling genuine love is a transcendent joy, and she never let anyone take that from her.
Damn, you know, I would’ve always said Margaret Atwood too, and of course she’s brilliant...but I think older feminists also need to know when to sit down and listen respectfully and support change, and not push their older views on how younger feminists should feel, especially if one has lived a life of white, cis privilege, and I think she has failed in that regard, and it makes me sad.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
So my right hip doesn’t have full mobility...it’s going to eventually need a full replacement like my left side did...and that means I can’t wear heels even though I’m only 5’1” and I loved heels my whole life, and it means that I have to tailor yoga and pilates moves to the limited range of motion in that hip. And I take aromatase inhibitors because of my history of breast cancer. But I have to say...I think my style is really much like it’s always been, otherwise. I’ve always been very into fashion but never in the sense of “trends.” I’ve had my own internal compass about those things since I was maybe 19, and I still love—and own—many of the same clothes I’ve had for decades. I love clothes. I still like my slightly 1980s eyeliner vibe. I’m still obsessed with lipstick, unless wearing a mask, in which case ugh. I would still wear a maxi dress every day of my life, with flipflops or my ancient Frye cowboy boots, if I didn’t live in the arctic tundra. I still sleep with my curly hair piled in a giant knot on top of my head every night, and sometimes I blow it out straight and other times I just don’t comb it for days and it’s slightly deranged and I dig it. I’m basically, style wise, the same creature I’ve always been...I just use moisturizer now.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I don’t think I’ve made many aging related adjustments that haven’t been dictated by health. But I know that one so-called adjustment that is pushed on women is that it’s unseemly to talk about, or want or have or enjoy or experiment with, or write about sex and desire after a certain age, especially if you’re a mother, and I have never consented to receiving that memo. Like, maybe if you’re 75, suddenly people think it’s “cute” or “quaint” if you’re still getting it on, but I find that super offensive, too. Older people’s sexuality is not “adorable,” nor is it “gross.” The majority of people are sexual beings. Some are more or less sexual than others; some are asexual or demi-sexual and lead full and exciting and rewarding lives without that kind of expression. But I reject that this has anything much to do with age. There may be extremely athletic forms of sex—like say you loved having sex standing up—that your body may age out of eventually, but I believe strongly that the majority of sexuality resides in our brains, not just in specified erogenous zones, and if you feel hot and you experience desire, mind-blowing sex is going to be within your reach for decades past the time our culture tells us we are sexy, especially for women. Because in our culture, surveys will tell us that women reach peak attractiveness somewhere between the ages of 18 and 23, while men reach it between 46 and 50. Um, hello, not only is that absolutely disgusting, but also, men over 50 are still hot, too, if they were before 50. And these youth-fetishy ways of viewing people’s sexuality through a lens of age are also super heteronormative and limiting. In essence, fuck all that.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
My husband and I have the same birthday! I mean, I’ve never been super over the top about birthdays or anything, but that’s pretty cool and fun, so I have no plans to stop celebrating any time soon.