Old Age

I recently completed the sixth chapter of my manuscript, The Real Housewives of Academe. “Civil Obedience” deals with activism in the 1950s and 60s and faculty wives who fought for social justice.

One of the people I discuss is Sarah Patton Boyle. She became an early white supporter of civil rights in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.

After spending fifteen years as an active participant in the movement, she retired, got divorced, and moved, at the age of sixty, to Arlington, Virginia, to start her life over.

Below is an excerpt about Boyle from the first draft of my chapter, “Civil Obedience”

In 1983 at the age of 77, Sarah-Patton Boyle published her third book, The Desert Blooms: A personal adventure in growing old creatively. The Desert Blooms is a memoir about a more private and personal chapter of her life.[1] It detailed her journey from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville where she had been a faculty wife for many years to Arlington, Virginia at the age of 60.

Patty had decided to move because much of her life had changed. “My children were far away, intent on finding mates and creating careers. The Southern civil rights revolution of the 1950s, which had riveted my attention and drained my energies for fifteen years, had changed direction and was moving swiftly away from my area of competence and commitment.”[2]

Although Patty was leaving the life she had known and moving by herself to a completely new place, she “lacked the sense to be frightened. … Nothing could be worse than the ordeals I had already weathered, I thought.  Hadn’t I even survived my husband’s announcement that when the last of our children left home, he would too? “[3]

Patty had enjoyed being a housewife and mother while she was doing it but “my unlived life had beckoned often and the thought had occurred to me now and then that nothing held me back but a ball and chain. So now that liberty was thrust unsought upon me, I resolved to focus, not on what I had lost, but on what I would gain.”[4]

Religion was very important to Patty so she looked for a church to belong to in her new city. She found a church that she initially felt comfortable in, forming a relationship with the minister and his wife. The minister sought to change the church and believed that Patty would assist him in this work. “Knowing I had opposed the old guard on civil rights in the 1950s, he thought I would oppose it in this case, too.” Patty was not as on board with changing the church as the minister initially believed. ”His sudden silences, I now know, resulted from doubt that he was right.”

Patty had relied heavily on religion to get her through the difficult years of her involvement with the civil rights movement. “During the black revolution, when I had /battled on the minority side of what was the nation’s hottest issue, a stream of threats and insults had descended on me that only my faith had enabled me to survive. Traditional Christianity had been for me no candy bar but the staff of life.”[6]

Patty’s disappointment in her new church, the minister and his wife led her to feel old in a way that she had never experienced before. “It was now several months since I had recognized that I was old. But shocked as I had been at first, I had not felt old. Now I did. It wasn’t a feeling of accumulated years so much as one of having outlived my power to achieve anything – a feeling of not having any life ahead of me but only behind me, of having passed from anticipation into merely marking time.”[7]

[1] Jennifer Rittenhouse, “Speaking of race : Sarah Patton Boyle and the “T.J. Sellers course for backward southern whites” in Martha Hodes, ed.  Sex, love, race : crossing boundaries in North American history, New York : New York University Press, c1999, p. 493.

[2] Desert, p. 19

[3] Desert, 20

[4] Desert, 22

[5] Desert, 56.

[6] Desert, p, 99-100

[7] Desert, p. 104.

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