As We Are Now

As We Are Now

by May Sarton

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Bestselling author “May Sarton has never been better than she is in this beautiful, harrowing novel about being old, unwanted, yet refusing to give up” (The Boston Globe).

After seventy-six-year-old Caro Spencer suffers a heart attack, her family sends her to a private retirement home to wait out the rest of her days. Her memory growing fuzzy, Caro decides to keep a journal to document the daily goings-on—her feelings of confinement and boredom; her distrust of the home’s owner, Harriet Hatfield, and her daughter, Rose; her pity for the more incapacitated residents; her resentment of her brother, John, for leaving her alone. The journal entries describe not only her frustrations, but also small moments of beauty—found in a welcome visit from her minister, or in watching a bird in the garden. But as she writes, Caro grows increasingly sensitive to the casual atrocities of retirement-home life. Even as she acknowledges her mind is beginning to fail, she is determined to fight back against the injustices foisted upon the home’s occupants.

This ebook features an extended biography of May Sarton.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497646315
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/22/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 147,407
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

May Sarton (1912–1995) was born on May 3 in Wondelgem, Belgium, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her first volume of poetry, Encounters in April, was published in 1937 and her first novel, The Single Hound, in 1938. Her novels A Shower of Summer DaysThe Birth of a Grandfather, and Faithful Are the Wounds, as well as her poetry collection In Time Like Air, all received nominations for the National Book Award.

An accomplished memoirist, Sarton came out as a lesbian in her 1965 book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Her memoir Journal of a Solitude (1973) was an account of her experiences as a female artist. Sarton spent her later years in York, Maine, living and writing by the sea. In her last memoir, Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992), she shares her own personal thoughts on getting older. Her final poetry collection, Coming into Eighty, was published in 1994. Sarton died on July 16, 1995, in York, Maine.

May Sarton (1912–1995) was born on May 3 in Wondelgem, Belgium, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her first volume of poetry, Encounters in April, was published in 1937 and her first novel, The Single Hound, in 1938. Her novels A Shower of Summer Days, The Birth of a Grandfather, and Faithful Are the Wounds, as well as her poetry collection In Time Like Air, all received nominations for the National Book Award.

An accomplished memoirist, Sarton came out as a lesbian in her 1965 book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Her memoir Journal of a Solitude (1973) was an account of her experiences as a female artist. Sarton spent her later years in York, Maine, living and writing by the sea. In her last memoir, Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (1992), she shares her own personal thoughts on getting older. Her final poetry collection, Coming into Eighty, was published in 1994. Sarton died on July 16, 1995, in York, Maine.

Read an Excerpt

As We Are Now

A Novel

By May Sarton


Copyright © 1973 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4631-5


I am not mad, only old. I make this statement to give me courage. To give you an idea what I mean by courage, suffice it to say that it has taken two weeks for me to obtain this notebook and a pen. I am in a concentration camp for the old, a place where people dump their parents or relatives exactly as though it were an ash can.

My brother, John, brought me here two weeks ago. Of course I knew from the beginning that living with him would never work. I had to close my own house after the heart attack (the stairs were too much for me). John is four years older than I am and married a much younger woman after Elizabeth, his first wife, died. Ginny never liked me. I make her feel inferior and I cannot help it. John is a reader and always has been. So am I. John is interested in politics. So am I. Ginny's only interests appear to be malicious gossip, bridge, and trying out new recipes. Unfortunately she is not a born cook. I find the above paragraph extremely boring and it has been a very great effort to set it down. No one wants to look hard at disagreeable things. I am not alone in that.

I am forcing myself to get everything clear in my mind by writing it down so I know where I am at. There is no reality now except what I can sustain inside me. My memory is failing. I have to hang on to every scrap of information I have to keep my sanity, and it is for that purpose that I am keeping a journal. Then if I forget things later, I can always go back and read them here.

I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am.

I do not blame John. That is the first thing. In his way he is fighting to keep whole, as I am, and Ginny was making life intolerable for both of us. Far better to dump me here than lose me in a quicksand of jealousy and hatred. He had to make a choice. The only thing I do not know is why he has not come to see me. Perhaps he is ill. Perhaps they have gone away. It does seem queer.

Also, although it is clear in my mind that I had to go somewhere, it is not clear why the place chosen should seem a place of punishment. But I must not dwell on this if possible. Sometimes old people imagine that everyone is against them. They have delusions of persecution. I must not fall into that trap.

It is better to smile at the image of that big white Cadillac turning off macadam onto a rough dirt road, the rain—of course it had to be raining, and not just a quiet rain, but a real downpour that would make almost anyone consider building an ark! I wondered whether Ginny had taken a wrong turning. When we stopped at a small red farmhouse that looked as though it had been gradually sinking into the mud for years, I thought it must be to ask directions. There was no sign, only two elms—the nursing home is called "Twin Elms." Five enormous geese stretched out their necks and hissed at us when we got out of the car. I noticed there was a barn over to the right. In the rain, the whole place seemed enclosed in darkness.

"Well," John said, "here we are, Caro." His voice had become unnaturally cheerful in the way voices do when addressing children or the feeble-minded.

There were two doors, but the front door opened into a sea of mud and was evidently not used. Ginny had parked close to the side door. We pushed our way in without ringing because of the downpour. Even in those few minutes I got soaking wet. There was no hall. We found ourselves in a large room with four or five beds in it. There was no light on. It took a moment before I realized that beside each bed an old man sat on a straight chair. One had his head in his hands. A younger man, whose legs were bandaged and who was half lying and half sitting in a sort of medical rocker, tried to speak but half choked. He was clearly out of his mind. However, he smiled, the only person in that room who did or who could.

Ginny called out loudly, "Here we are! Is there anyone home?"

Then an enormous woman filled the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron.

"Oh ... well," she said, as if she had been taken by surprise. "My daughter is just making up Miss Spencer's room. But I guess you can go in now." She laughed. "We're up tight these days, no place to ask you to sit down."

I had had so many shocks by then that I felt quite numb and only wanted to be left alone as soon as possible. My heart started up and I was afraid I might faint. But it was a comfort to find that I had a room of my own, just big enough for a bed, an armchair, and a bureau. The bed was parallel to the window, and the window looked out, much to my astonishment, on a long field with tall trees at the end and, beyond them, gentle hills.

"Look at the view," Ginny said. "Isn't it marvelous?"

"What is that woman's name?" I asked in a whisper. I had the feeling already that even a whisper would be heard.

"Mrs. Hatfield—Harriet Hatfield. She is a trained nurse." (That is what Ginny said, but of course she must have known that Mrs. Hatfield's only experience had been as an aide in the State Hospital for two years.) "She and her daughter work very hard to keep things going here."

There was dust under the bureau and an old piece of Kleenex.

John disappeared for a time. They brought me a cup of tea and a cheap biscuit, which I didn't eat. They offered to help me unpack my two suitcases, but I managed to make it clear that I am not infirm. I set the photographs of my mother and father and one of me with John when I was fourteen and he was in college on the bureau, and three things I treasure: a Japanese bronze turtle, a small Swedish glass vase, and the Oxford Book of English Verse. I found my little pillow and lay down on the bed then. After a while I recited the Lord's Prayer three times. I do not believe this prayer is heard by the Person to whom it is addressed, but I find it comforting, like a rune, something to hold onto.

When John and Ginny left, he said, "We'll be seeing you."

After a while I slept. The rain drummed on the roof. I felt that for a time I must be absolutely passive, float from moment to moment and from hour to hour, shut out feeling and thought. They were both too dangerous. And I feared the weeping. Lately, since the hospital, I have cried a lot, and that may be one reason John felt I must go. Tears are an offense and make other people not so much suffer as feel attacked and irritable. When the inner world overflows in this way, it forces something entirely private out into the open where it does not belong, not at my age anyway. Only children are permitted tears, so in a way perhaps my being sent here is a punishment. Oh dear, I must not think about that now. Everything is dangerous that is not passive. I am learning to accept.

Harriet Hatfield woke me, not ungently, and pretty soon her daughter, Rose, came in with my supper on a tray. At least I do not have to eat with the others and watch them spill their soup. I can lie here and look out at the hills. Supper was cornflakes with milk and a banana that first evening. I enjoyed it far more than one of Ginny's "gourmet" concoctions. But then I could not sleep. I had to get accustomed to the noises, queer little creaks, the groans and snores in the big room where the men are. It seemed a terribly long night. When I went to the bathroom I bumped into a chair in the hall and bruised my leg. Perhaps John will bring me a flashlight when he comes. I will ask for note paper and stamps, a daily newspaper, and maybe a bottle of Scotch. It would be a help to have a small drink measured out each evening before supper.

That thought was a comfort when I wrote it several days ago. Now I know that good things like that are not going to happen. Old age, they say, is a gradual giving up. But it is strange when it all happens at once. That is a real test of character, a kind of solitary confinement. Whatever I have now is in my own mind.

Lately I have thought often of Doug, a former student of mine, who was put in solitary for two years by the Russians. When he came back he talked and talked about it and I listened. I thought I was helping him by listening. I never imagined that one day all he told me would be helping me. One thing he did was make a study of spiders, and later of mice. He remembered all the people he had known in school and tried to imagine exactly what had happened to them since, which amounted to making up novels in his head. He did mathematical problems. But he was under forty when this happened to him, and I, Caro Spencer, am over seventy —seventy-six. Time gets muddled up and what I lack, I fear, is the capacity to stick with a routine, to discipline myself—my mind goes wandering off. I see this all around me—when the TV is on, the old men stare at it in a daze. They do not pay attention for more than a few minutes, even to a ball game. I must try to pay attention to something for at least an hour every day. This last remark struck me as humorous and I laughed aloud after I had read it again. What difference does it make what I do or do not do? (No, that is the devil speaking. Do not listen to the devil.)

My first study became the two women who have me in their dominion. I observed them as if they were mice or spiders. It is better to think of them as beings remote from the human, as another species that flourishes on the despair and impotence of the weak. They are both grossly fat. When they make the beds and their enormous breasts jiggle, the old men leer and wink at each other. Harriet has a lover, an intense wizened little man ten years younger than she who smokes horrible cigars in the kitchen and rarely speaks. There are three children, Rose's, who come to play in the yard while she is here—she sleeps somewhere else. They chase the geese and climb trees and it is nice to have them around although they scream and fight a great deal—all girls. I would prefer boys.

Harriet is a dishonest woman so it is hard to pin her down. She puts on a terrific act when relatives come, coos over some old man whom she has treated roughly when changing his diapers a few moments before. She is full of false compassion at all times. "Imagine," I have heard her say, "we take them in, poor things." (We are talked about always as "them," as if we were abandoned animals thrown out of a car.) "Their families bring them here and sometimes never come back at all!" And the relatives look properly shocked and praise her for taking in these waifs and strays. But it is next to impossible for anyone "outside" to bear this atmosphere of decay for long, I have noticed. People come in, full of good cheer, bringing a carton of cigarettes or a magazine, but after about five minutes they begin to fade out, look hunted, have nothing to say after the first few exchanges about the weather and how their father or aunt is feeling. Paralysis sets in and suddenly they are compelled to flee.

I wonder whether a person who has complete power over others does not always become wicked. I try to separate what Harriet has become from what she may have been ten years ago. Her face is now that of a greedy and sullen pig—small blue eyes, a mean little mouth. It is true that both she and Rose are overworked. It seems as though they were always changing beds, washing someone, or bringing in trays. They too are no doubt affected by the atmosphere, tired most of the time, dealing with crotchety old people who are (let's face it) most of them not lovable. I gather that the old men are chiefly on welfare.

It is terrible to have to admit that even here one does not change one's class. I am a snob. I went to college, taught school for forty years, come of gentle people. Most of the others here worked with their hands. Deprived of work, they have no resources at all. Two of the old men play cards for hours at a time. One reads the only newspaper very slowly for most of the morning. I have no peer, no one I can talk to. Harriet and Rose address me always as "Miss Spencer" with heavy irony. I am afraid to admit it even to myself but I feel sure that I was resented from the start as "superior."

The idea is that we are all one big family in a cozy old farmhouse, that this is to be truly a "home." Oh dear me! But we are free to wander about. Sometimes I am invited into the kitchen, the one really nice room in the house, with its good smells of cooking, its warmth and bright colors (red and white checked curtains, a new blue linoleum floor, and a big new stove and frigidaire). I sit for a half hour with the family and am given a cup of tea.

"How are you feeling this morning, dear?" Harriet may ask, but she never waits to hear my answer. With me she is subservient in a nasty way, never rude, but she has, of course, many ways to humiliate me. Thank Heavens I can wash myself and am not bedridden! My body is still my own, not to be degraded by those coarse, hard hands. For how long? At present I have a bath every day—rarely hot, but at least then I can lock the door and have total privacy for a quarter of an hour. The bath is my confessional. I can weep there and no one will see me.

Otherwise there is a house law that doors must not be closed. The two women are always in and out of every room, and one never knows when they are listening. Sometimes I go in and visit with the only other inmate who has a private room. Standish Flint is a retired farmer, American Gothic face, a noble man, but he is extremely deaf now and rarely gets out of bed. Since I have to shout to be heard, we converse more with signs and smiles, with ironic smiles, and sudden guffaws on his part. He whispers, "I never thought it would end like this," then looks hunted for fear "they" will be listening. I understand from Harriet that his wife is living but seriously ill, bedridden, being taken care of by a daughter. So that explains why no one comes to visit him—no one, anyway, in the two weeks I have been here.

Like me he cannot be beaten down yet. He is still his own man. So he is tortured in mean little ways—made to wait too long for the bedpan. Very often he refuses to eat what they bring him (he is on a dull diet of soft foods) and turns his head away. I sometimes think he is trying to starve himself to death. Every one of us still in his right mind must have fantasies of escape, and death is the only practical one. I have indulged in these fantasies myself—but I am still waiting for what will happen next. I want to see my brother. (He can't stay away forever.) There are things I have to do inside myself before I can die. And I have the belief that we make our deaths, that we ripen toward death, and only when the fruit is ripe may it drop. I still believe in life as a process and would not wish to end the process by an unnatural means. Old-fashioned of me, I suppose. Then I suspect that suicide is a kind of murder, an act of rage. I want to keep my soul from that sort of corroding impurity. My soul? What do I mean when I use that word?

Something deep down, true, detached from impurities, the instrument we have been given for making distinctions between right and wrong, true and false—the intrinsic being that is still alive even when memory goes. I treasure my soul as something given into my keeping, something that I must keep intact—more, keep in a state of growth and awareness whatever the odds. For whom? For what? That is the mystery. Only when we can conceive of it as belonging to some larger unity, some communion that includes stars and frogs and trees, does it seem valid to "treasure" it at all. I sometimes feel I am melting into the lovely landscape outside my window. Am floated. For an hour I do nothing else but rest in it. Afterwards I feel nourished. I am one with those gentle old hills.


Excerpted from As We Are Now by May Sarton. Copyright © 1973 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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