[National Review Online, May 9, 2003]
Got big plans for Mother’s Day? Candy and flowers, hugs and kisses? Maybe snapping some heartwarming photos of Grandma with the multiple generations of progeny gathered all around?
Boy, are you out of it. Didn’t you know that playing with grandchildren is something women do just to keep themselves from thinking about how they’ve wasted their lives?
That was the message celebrated in the New York Times last Sunday. On the front of the "Styles" section was an interview with a retired schoolteacher named Jane Juska. Juska has produced a book based on some unusual research. A few years ago she placed an ad in the personals column of the New York Review of Books stating that, before her upcoming 67th birthday, she wanted to "have a lot of sex with a man I like." She invited readers to submit evidence of their likeability, and as the responses came in, she sorted them into piles of "yes," "no," and "maybe." Juska says that since then she’s had sex with men aged from 84 to 32.
No, this wasn’t in the National Enquirer, headlined "That’s Why the Grandma is a Tramp." This story got prominent, admiring placement in the New York Times because of its philosophical underpinnings. (Though perhaps, after the preceding paragraph, you don’t want to think about "underpinnings" for awhile.) Juska firmly believes that her adventuring makes other women jealous. She says they ask themselves, "What have I done with my life?" She says these women "Don’t want to go back and look at it. That’s why they’re so nuts about their grandchildren. It keeps the focus off them."
Only inhabitants of the stratospheric reaches of trendy intellectualism can believe that women play with their grandchildren in a desperate attempt to kill the bitterness they feel over not having multiple sex partners at age 70. Only very sophisticated people could fall for such a self-evidently stupid idea. Only self-congratulatingly bohemian people could have such contempt for normal, healthy family life. It’s an index of how much else is missing, how much has gone wrong, in their lives.
And that’s the saddest part of the story. Juska has had a lot go wrong over the years. She was divorced and had a rocky relationship with her only child, who dropped out of school and ran away from home. She gained seventy pounds and drank heavily. (These problems are blamed on her "Puritanical small-town Ohio childhood." Oh, those vile Ohioans!) When Juska retired her life seemed empty, even though she was singing in a chorale and volunteering at Planned Parenthood. When she went home at night she was alone.
Juska didn’t expect this ad to lead to anything good. She says, startlingly, "I expected to be murdered, or made sad at the very least." A long history of self-destructive acts had found a new expression. She is still alone most nights, because her playmates are all over the country and not in her back yard, tinkering with the lawn mower. They are emphatically not bound to her by chains of a lifetime of sleeping and rising together, doing the dishes together, watching movies and making love and arguing together. There is really no substitute for that lifetime of daily experience; a few minutes in the sack with an octogenarian stranger can hardly be said to compete.
But she does have a book contract and an admiring spread in the New York Times, and a new celebrity as a crusader in the fight to turn the meaning of women’s lives into all sex, all the time, without the dignity or wisdom or security of age. There may be rewards to this pointed rejection of what women throughout history have found sweet and fulfilling. But I bet they’ll never set aside a day in May to celebrate it.