Wednesday May 16 2007
I met Sylva B., I rarely socialized with 'older people' outside my
family circle. When I wasn’t working, I hung out with friends my own
At least 40 years my senior, Sylva was the silver-haired personnel manager who interviewed me for my first job in reference book publishing in Detroit. I was 25 then, and desperate to get my career off the ground. Applying for an entry level position, I was required to pass a typing test and a two-hour literature exam. I was so nervous during the session that my fingers froze at the keys and I flunked the typing test on the first try.
Sensing how much I wanted that job, Sylva gave me a second chance and I finally relaxed enough to pass the typing test. That was the start of our friendship, just a few years before the term 'mentor' came into vogue.
Sylva and I took the same bus downtown to work every day. Often sitting together, the two of us launched many provocative discussions on books and politics with fellow passengers. Widely traveled, Sylva and her jazz-musician husband had lived in New York City before moving to suburban Detroit, and she loved sharing her memories of the Big Apple.
She was an excellent cook, too, boasting a repertoire of gourmet recipes that even a novice like me could prepare. (She railed against pre-packaged anything.) On Saturday mornings, Sylva and I would shop at her favorite produce markets, where I always discovered something new and exotic. And despite her sophistication, she never made me feel like the naive dreamer I was. Sylva died of cancer just four years after we met. But I learned a lot from her, and still count our friendship as one of my richest. Sylva came to mind while I read Joan Anderson’s A Walk on the Beach, a charming new memoir chronicling the author’s friendship with a remarkable older woman. While it’s deeper than most summer reads, it’s the perfect beach book for women who plan to age with gusto.
Anderson was 51 when she met Joan Erikson, 92, on a foggy beach at Cape Cod. Stuck in a midlife crisis, Anderson had retreated to her family cottage to sort things out and make sense of her 'unfinished self'. Erikson had returned to Cape Cod to care for her ailing husband.
At first, the author wasn’t aware that her spunky new friend was the wife of the famous psychoanalyst Erik Erikson—the man who’d actually coined the term 'identity crisis'. The two women immediately hit it off, sparking a friendship that would ultimately sustain both women through difficult times, including Erik Erikson’s death in a nursing home.
A Walk on the Beach is laced with quotable nuggets of wisdom that Anderson gleaned from her daily strolls with Joan Erikson.
“There’s a plan for everyone if you are open to it and ready to unlearn the rules set up by others,” Erikson advised.
The book also builds a strong case for intergenerational friendship. As Anderson notes, our youth-obsessed culture rarely encourages us to seek insight or advice from our elders. But given the chance, older friends can shed the light of experience on our rocky path to self-discovery.
Anderson inspires us to reach beyond our comfort zones to befriend the elderly—and to mentor younger women who need mature role models.
“Joan Erikson was my mentor—not my mother,” Anderson explains. “Once I became part of her web, it became my duty to pass on what I had learned. For as Joan would say: Share what you know—be generative. Life doesn’t mean a damn if you don’t pass it on—and that’s what makes all the difference.”