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Life After Fifty? Listen Up Ladies!

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Reviews "In The Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After Fifty." Edited by Emily W. Upham and Linda Gravenson. ATRIA paperback.

I have to admit, this is not my usual book. Generally I'm more comfortable with Sy Hersh or Jane Mayer or Tom Ricks or a history of the Supreme Court.

But this little volume turned up on my living room coffee table and I was drawn to it not by its title - which may be the least descriptive title in the history of book publishing -- but by its subtitle: 32 Women on Life After Fifty.

This is a book about what each of these people has lost and how each has adjusted her life to go on living. I found it a book that's often amusing, always inspiring, and definitely worth reading.

And who are the authors? They are 32 extremely gifted American writers and artists. And they share the further common identity: Baby Boomers. As Emily Upham writes in her foreword, "the baby boomers had arrived at the second half of life...this half would be laden with loss."

She goes on to describe this cohort as "the mapless generation." We "came of age at a fleeting moment in history when all traditional expectations were tossed aside and torn up like confetti. Our womanhood was forged at a time when birth control was easy, abortion was easy, pursuing a career was easy, when there were no rules, no boundaries, no directions other than our own inner ones...As we age and begin to suffer the losses common to all women, our landscape is a very different from that of the women who came before and after us."

The essays in this book were written for this book; there's no boilerplate here. The authors range in age from fifty-five to a hundred and one. They are all "immersed in, or have emerged from, maelstroms of change."

But this book is not only about the more predictable kinds of losses that face us as we age, for example, the loss of spouses and lifelong friends. Among my favorites:

Gail Godwin, who falls into a deep depression after being turned down for a home care insurance policy;

Katherine B. Weissman, who as an archetypal feminist "learned to assert my rights, own my successes, get angry and not apologize so damned much," and is suddenly forced to confront her naked 63-year-old body;

Erica Jong ruminating about death, "The lucky ones die in restaurants after a good dinner. Or die in their sleep in bed during an erotic dream about a lover long since passed to the other side;"

Claire Bloom, reflecting on living a relationship-free life, with the help of Buddha - "I've been free to travel to be with my daughter, to be with my friends, in a way that I wasn't when I was in a relationship."

As co-editor Linda Gravenson writes of these 32 women, "These are the women I'd want in my lifeboat."

Gravenson is also the author of one of the book's moving essays. In it she recollects her totally crazy and confusing childhood-to-adulthood relationship with her debilitatingly dangerous mentally ill mother, and her feelings after this unfortunate creature had passed.

She writes: "My relationship with my mother keeps getting better and better. I can approach her now and take from the family album what I need. I can even return to the mischievous little girl who runs wildly around the garden as her mother holds out a sweater, insisting on protection from the evening chill. I am shrieking with glee as I skip just ahead of her, proud of my speed, and happy to be fooling around with my mom."

One further observation about the dilemmas that face aging women. On many levels, they don't really seem all that different from the dilemmas facing aging men.