Sister Age

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

M. F. K. Fisher has published in a wide range of fields: from cookbooks, novels, and poetry to reflections and a translation of Anthelme Brillat-Savar-in’s The Physiology of Taste (1971). In Sister Age, she undertakes to translate the joys—and pains—of growing old into a collection of short stories. The result is a moving book that conveys a message, but which never lapses into didacticism.

In her foreword, the author explains the title of her collection: Just as Saint Francis “talked of Brother Pain, who was as welcome and well-loved as any visitor in a life filled with birds and beasts and light and dark,” so Fisher celebrates the “inevitable visits of a possibly nagging harpy like Sister Age.” The striking design of the book jacket also defines the stories’ themes. The image, taken from a painting that the author bought in a junk shop, is of an old woman holding a letter while standing next to the bust of a young man. There are also paintings of Cupid strewn on the canvas and some flowers and overhanging leaves. Most of the background, however, is blurred—although described fully in the foreword—because the painting has been largely destroyed by insects. In this way, the painting itself illustrates the effects of the inevitable passage of time. There is a more specific lesson to be learned, however, as Fisher notes. The old woman, haunting in her ugliness, “does not need anything that is not already with her, and the letter of information hangs useless” as “her eyes look with a supreme and confident detachment past all the nonsense of wars, insects, birth and death, love. . . .”

The afterword goes into yet more detail in defining the stories’ themes. One particularly nice quality of the stories—expanded on in the afterword—is that Fisher never lapses into maudlin sentimentality about aging, recognizing that old people can be as vicious as the rest of mankind. For example, some of the long-dead souls in “The Lost, Stayed, Stolen” plainly wish to be evil and reject all attempts to be saved. Thus in the afterword, Fisher notes thatI have formed a strong theory that there is no such thing as “turning into” a Nasty Old Man or an Old Witch. I believe that such people, and of course they are legion, were born nasty and witch-like, and by the time they were about five years old they had hidden their rotten bitchiness and lived fairly decent lives until they no longer had to conform to rules of social behavior, and could revert to their original horrid natures.

She also effectively links aging with being loved and giving love, and she sees this as compensation for the physical ailments imposed by age. Her characters who age well—Pépé in “The Oldest Man,” for example—tend to be surrounded by loving friends and family. Furthermore, believing that age—and even death—should be seen as part of life’s continuum, she has several stories about how the young respond to age: “Moment of Wisdom,” “Another Love Story,” “The Weather Within.”

The first story, “Moment of Wisdom,” sets the tone of the collection. Stylistically, it uses an elaborate metaphor about tears which defines the author’s sensibility: Clearly she is a presence who sees beyond surfaces to inner meanings. She notes that there are two types of tears, those that simply well up in the eyes and those that roll down the cheeks and are “an outward and visible sign of an inward cleansing.” The Puritan-like language (“outward and visible sign”) suggests covenant theology, and this religious echo is no accident: It elevates the events in this sketch to a Joycean epiphany of the spirit. The narrator then goes on to tell of her grandmother who lived with her family. After her death, a Bible salesman comes looking for her; dressed in black and dusty from the heat, he refuses a drink from the young granddaughter and goes on his way “thinking God knows what hopeless thoughts.” After his departure, the girl sheds “tears of new wisdom.” The adult author-narrator ends this story enigmatically, only noting that such tears “are too mysterious to accept with equanimity.” Clearly, these tears come from the soul and seem to show the young girl’s empathy with the “tiny old man” who is “past or beyond” any help the girl can give him. While the endings of many of Fisher’s stories are more straightforward than this, she generally prefers to teach by indirection, assuming that the reader will be able to intuit the themes of her stories.


(The entire section is 1852 words.)

Sister Age Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Christian Science Monitor. June 24, 1983, p. B7.

Library Journal. CVIII, May 15, 1983, p. 1016.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 28, 1983, p. 11.

The New Republic. CCXXIII, April 15, 1983, p. 41.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 29, 1983, p. 10.

Newsweek. CI, June 6, 1983, p. 88.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, April 15, 1983, p. 41.

Time. CXXI, May 16, 1983, p. 82.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Autumn, 1983, p. 129.

West Coast Review of Books. IX, July, 1983, p. 29.