Roger Barbee: When I am an old woman

Roger Barbee

Roger Barbee

On a recent, cold Sunday morning, I went out to warm the car. Not wanting to sit inside of the building we call the car barn, I backed and turned the car so that I could watch the birds at the newly filled feeders.

Mary Ann had also stocked the suet feeder, and both were busy with hungry birds, as was the fountain. My view was one of cold, snow, and serenity. Short Mountain, dressed in the rawness of winter, loomed in the background.

Sitting in the warming car, I watched the snowbirds at the feeder and a downy woodpecker attacking the suet. Below the feeder several doves fed, moving in their odd head-bobbing manner. But suddenly the scene changed as a small red-tailed hawk glided quickly from one of Kenny’s white pine trees about 50 yards away. It came like an arrow of death — no sound and full of lethal power and intent.

Two weeks ago our friend sat in our Sunday School class, as was her habit. During the lesson I made some remark about grace and salvation. I recall saying that we were required to work for this, and she quickly pointed out what Luther had had to say on the subject of grace and salvation.

Like any good student, she was questioning what the teacher was saying, but in a gentle way. For you see, she was a serious student of her religion, and was a champion of her beloved town of Edinburg, the Edinburg Mill, her family, and her friends. She questioned and challenged, offering her opinion and insight to any discussion, but she was never harsh.

Outspoken and energetic, she could be impatient, but she was always polite. I remember passing her home on a recent fall Saturday morning on my way to Woodstock when I saw her sitting on her front porch. I pulled to the curb to say good morning. She bounded to the curb, telling me how she had risen early, gone to the farmer’s market to purchase some fresh fruit and was at that moment enjoying a bowl of, as she said, “Shenandoah’s finest.”

As was her manner to give advice, she told me as she smiled, “You should try it.”

That memory and more of the few years shared with her reveal so much about her, the Shenandoah County girl who moved away, reared her children and worked beside her husband, but couldn’t wait to return “home.” Like some others, she had gone away, but she never left.

Like all of us, she was someone different to all who knew her, but the same lady who spoke honestly to us all. One comment she repeated to me more than once was, “I don’t understand how I could have raised such conservative children.”

You see, she even questioned herself. But for me she was a bit of fresh air that reminded me of Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning,” which begins with the line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” because that is how I see her: a free spirit that embraced her world with vigor and joy. Like the narrator in the poem, she lived her later life not dictated by social conventions or peer pressure. As the narrator says in the poem, “And I shall learn to spit.”

I never saw her spit, but I bet she could. However, her world and ours changed when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She spent her last week surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and Hospice. But for many of us, her spirit, clothed in purple, is still evident because cancer can’t silence the joy of her living.

Like the birds at the feeder on that cold Sunday morning, neither she nor we saw the lurking danger. And, like that young red-tailed hawk, her cancer came on silent wings, striking quickly.

The poem “Warning” is a tribute to senior women everywhere who no longer have to model for their children, dust the house, cook meals, or follow any social conventions. It alerts everyone that when a woman reaches a certain age, she might just do what she wants after a life of doing what had been expected or had needed to be done. We did not know our friend in her earlier years, but she undoubtedly did much for her children, husband, and family. In her later years when we knew her, she reaped the harvest of her earlier work. And while we don’t know if she knew the poem “Warning,” we watched with delight as she lived it.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at

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