Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties
Beyond the obvious reversal of a typical coming-of-age story found in the popular young adult (YA) genre, Madeleine May Kunin’s Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties is a memoir full of those aha moments that the young could not have yet experienced, but would be wise to seek out.
What will draw readers to the book is not just that Ms. Kunin had a very accomplished career as a three-time governor, the first woman to be elected to such in Vermont, US ambassador and US deputy secretary of education, celebrated author and lecturer, all while raising four children, but that she is old. Eighty-one years old to be precise. Kunin makes it very clear that in spite of the challenges of physical decline, the mind can still be alert and ambitious to savor what life may still offer, and that is encouraging. As she says in her Foreword, it is “. . . surveying my lengthy past and examining my foreshortened future.”
Kunin sprinkles her short book (only 200 pages) with her complimentary poetry, showing us the boldness of old age and the freedom it releases (like buying a bright red car at 80), how shedding material things brings relief from their burden (like relegating designer gowns worn only once at state functions to others), how a tender love story is not reserved only for the young (after her long marriage and divorce and finding love again). We see these glimpses into old age through poems entitled, “No longer,” “Can there be more to say,” “I loved you when you did the dishes,” and “A love poem,” among many others. Kunin is our guide to growing old graciously.
She is the immigrant daughter whose mother’s courage and resilience shaped her when all she wanted was to be part of a real American family, but without a father. She is the sister to an upstaging older brother whose death she mourns. She is the feminist growing up in an age of stereotypes of what women, doctor’s wives like herself, mothers should be doing, and then boldly going in the opposite direction, in spite of her shy character.
She quotes Gloria Steinem, “We have become the men we wanted to marry,” as a subtle depiction of herself. One can envision a smirk on her face, but hers is a quiet, dignified boldness, that of a well-bred, well-educated woman who approaches her remaining years of life with the same dignity that defined her well-lived life.
Kunin dedicates her book to her late, much older second husband, though she does not dwell upon his death, only rejoicing in the brief years they had together. We are lucky to have such insight from this author in her highly readable and relatable book. It leaves one to ponder what other pearls of insight could be gotten from this accomplished old woman. From her we garner lessons such as cherishing the moments we have left, letting go of things, of vanity, of grudges, and smiling. Smiling like her photo that adorns the book cover, displaying the proud wrinkles of her time and life.