Wilderness Sarchild Takes A Poetic Approach To Aging

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Aging , Local authors , council on aging

Wilderness Sarchild. COURTESY PHOTO

Wilderness Sarchild, who will turn 70 in a few days, has found her own way of coping with aging: Embarking on a new career as a poet and a playwright.

Her book “Old Women Talking” (Passager Books, 2017) begins with the words of an anonymous poet who writes that she doesn’t want people to think of her as “a sweet old lady.” Rather, she wants them to think “What’s she up to now?” The same can be said for Sarchild, who has published 45 poems that are in turn gritty, lyrical, sexy, funny and sad. It is likely that something in the poems will speak to every reader.

Sarchild will sign copies of the book at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 1 to 3 p.m.

Sarchild moved to the Cape in 1974 and, with her first husband, raised two children. She has been married to her second husband, the poet Chuck Madansky, for 37 years. They are both “semi-retired” psychotherapists and live by Rafe Pond in Brewster. They have six grandchildren.

When Sarchild was about to turn 60, she was “freaking out” and went on a three-week silent retreat as an antidote. During the retreat she wrote a poem, “Hags and Crones,” which she gave to her friend Naomi Turner of Chatham, who is about six weeks older than Sarchild. The two were next inspired to interview over 100 women ages 60 to 95, and they used the interviews to co-author a play called “Wrinkles, the Musical.” It took nine years from the play's inception to production last spring at the Cape Cod Theatre Company in Harwich, where it became a hit directed by Nina Schuessler. (“Wrinkles” will return for another month-long run at the theater this May.)

At the same time, although Sarchild had been writing poetry for many years, she began to take it seriously and to study the craft. The result is “Old Women Talking,” which draws together about 15 years of her poems and includes “Hags and Crones,” which formed the spine of “Wrinkles.”

“Old Women Talking” is as much a memoir of Sarchild’s family as it is a rumination on growing old and old age. Hovering in the background is the holocaust. In “Names,” Sarchild writes, “When we visited Auschwitz/and sat by the railroad tracks/chanting names/of the victims/we only had time/for nine hundred./There are six million names.”

And we learn about the old women in Sarchild’s life—her grandmother “Bubby” was a Russian Jew who immigrated to Charleston, W.Va. where, after she was widowed, she raised her three children. She ran a pawn shop overlooking the Kanawha River and made bagels that she sold to other Jews. After she remarried, she learned from a “lost” ad in a Yiddish newspaper that her second husband was a bigamist. What would you do in that situation? Bubby called the police.

“She had to be tough,” Sarchild says. Not only did Bubby singlehandedly raise her children, “she sent all three kids through college at a time when not that many went through college.” She died after collapsing “over mop and pail.”

Sarchild’s mother Sara was a believer in the 1950s ethos that said immigrant backgrounds were to be forgotten. Sarchild drives this point home in an amusing way in “Assimilation 1961.” In that poem, the family eats Morton lemon meringue pies (with no lemon in the ingredients), Swanson TV dinners and Chef Boyardee spaghetti “straight out of a can. Modern all the way.”

When Sara was in her 70s, she developed Alzheimer’s Disease. The poems describing Sara’s final years are searing. Yet the general arc of “Old Women Talking” is not depressing. Rather it is about “empowering people who are aging,” Sarchild says. “It doesn’t skirt issues but also it’s a celebration of old age. Encouraging going into dying with grace.”

It is often said that old people, particularly old women, become “invisible” to society. So Sarchild’s idea of happy aging is to “stay visible, have a voice, be passionate, be very alive.” She explains this in “Why I Cannot Be Silent,” offering 26 reasons why, ending with “Because silence equals death.”

It is important to overcome “internalized ageism,” she adds. For example, if you tell yourself that no one wants to see your wrinkles, you’ll “unconsciously make yourself invisible, walk with your head down, have not much to say.” The opposite of this is “celebrating who we are, even when it’s difficult.” Unlike previous generations of women who often lied about their age, the current generation may tend to be proud of their years and their wrinkles.

This part of Cape Cod, which is demographically older than other parts of the state, is a good place to age not only because there are so many elders here, but because “so many of us are artists and very involved in life,” Sarchild says. She points to the success of “Wrinkles, the Musical” and to putting out a new book in her 70th year as “proof that it’s never too late.”