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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1846

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Robert Coles, James Agee professor of social ethics at Harvard University and a child psychiatrist, has published more than thirty books, most concerning his studies of children and young people. Coles’s research and writing, begun in the 1960’s in the Civil Rights movement-era South, is informed with compassion for his subjects and a zeal to understand personal values as reflected in the inner and outer lives of his subjects. In his introduction to Old and on Their Own, Coles writes that visiting older people has been his lifelong habit, one that to him seemed a natural connection to his study of children. Coles’s earlier documentaries of the lives of the elderly are The Last and First Eskimos(1978) and The Old of New Mexico (1989), this latter with photographs by Alex Harris. For Old and on Their Own, Harris and Thomas Roma provide the accompanying photographic study.

For Old and on Their Own, Coles over a two-year period interviewed eleven men and women seventy-five and older living in Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. Coles’s subjects are determined to live out their lives alone in rooms, apartments, and houses, not in nursing homes or with relatives. The essays Coles writes from these interviews make up the first 127 pages of the book. Appended to the essays is a chapter on suggested readings. The final section in the book contains forty black-and- white photographs taken by Harris and Roma in Brooklyn and North Carolina.

Coles’s accounts focus on what living through most of the twentieth century has meant to his interviewees, how that living relates to their common determination to live their lives “alone and on their own,” and what occupies their minds, day after day, after a long life and before a surely imminent death. Coles notes that his most frequent question was, “How is it going today?” In the end, Cole admits, the interviewees usually controlled the content of the interviews.

Coles writes the essays both from what he heard and what he observed, not only about his subjects but also about himself. He includes some direct quotes and some paraphrasing. Coles’s content makes the reader remember how difficult it is to listen to an elderly friend or relative, how often one might close one’s ears to the details of both a long life and a frustrating and painful present. Not every elderly person is a good storyteller, though some are. The reader sometimes feels a need to skim the seemingly mundane and savor the more interesting material.

In addition to his inclusion of some material that tests the reader’s patience, Coles uses a style that makes the reader remember how difficult it is to listen to an elderly friend or relative. Coles regularly puts phrases of his subjects in parentheses and clarifies their words with bracketed explanations. Such techniques interrupt the reading and annoy the reader. In one eight-line segment of a subject’s speech, for example, Coles puts three such physical breaks in the prose: “When there’s no moon we’re all blacked out—even the shadows are gone (for me at least)”; “I listen to the [venetian] blinds”; and “I listen to the doors open and shut down the [apartment] house hall.” Are the frequent parentheses and brackets there because they are Coles’s idiosyncrasy as a writer, or because he wants the reader to remember how difficult listening to the elderly can be, with their lack of specificity, their asides, their shifts in directions? Perhaps he wants the reader to recognize the rewards of overcoming those difficulties and hearing the elderly out, as he does.

The rewards of listening come in each essay. The three excerpts above are from the first essay in the book, “I Talk to the Light, I Hear the Darkness.” The excerpts hint at the depth of revelation that reward Coles’s patient listening and the reader’s patient reading. As usual, Coles does not include much description of the interviewee’s apartment or home setting or physical appearance until this description becomes integral to what the interviewee says or does. It is his subject’s words that interest Coles, the subject’s description of an inner experience that a younger Cole and younger readers have not had and probably do not often attend to when others want to tell them about it.

By listening carefully to a sometimes witty, often impatient Nellie Benoit in this first essay, Coles gains, as he does in each interview, new understandings of history, physiology, psychology, theology, philosophy. Finally, he grasps the meaning of that metaphysical phrase that gives the essay its title: “I Talk to the Light, I Hear the Darkness.” Nellie does know that one can “talk to the light” and “hear the darkness,” because she is alone, day after day, with the sunrise and sunset. The reader feels not pity for Nellie but an envy of the enforced patience that brings such a startling revelation to an immobilized old woman, all on her own. More important, the reader knows that even Nellie would not have known that she does “talk to the light” and “hear the darkness” if Coles had not been there listening. Listened to patiently, she puts into words her extraordinary experience. Coles demonstrates that listening is a process, a process that not only informs the patient listener but also informs the struggling speaker. Nellie’s revelation was inside her waiting to come out. Coles listens to Nellie until she must find the words to describe her experience. A long life with others and a life now lived alone does have something to tell the world. This is what the patient reader of Old and on Their Own discovers on every page.

Coles is also a self-conscious listener, and his asides, with frequent commas, about what is going on inside him, like his parentheses and brackets, interrupt the flow of the telling by the interviewee. When he is with ninety-nine-year-old George, Coles inserts a ten-line self-portrayal. He begins, “I am, of course, quite taken with that delightful apology, but unable to resist, at least then and for an hour thereafter, another slug of the whiskey of words he tenders—until, finally I start preparing to leave.” Coles then notes, “It has begun to snow, and he points that out to me. I turn to look. I don’t quickly turn around; indeed, I rise, walk to the window, look outside, take the measure of the snow, its accumulation, its lightness, enabling the wind to swirl it about madly.” Then comes an observation about George: “George can bear to observe this only so long, and then the first plaintive remark I’ve ever heard him make.” Then, finally, George speaks: “I wish I could leap up as you did, and catch sight of the snow falling on the grass.” Coles explains that in all his talks with George, this is the first time that he has really noticed George’s wheelchair. He explains that talking “causes me to forget, virtually, how the talker is living, how he manages his day-to-day life, my stated purpose in making those home visits to him.” Then Coles sets his goal of making the wheelchair the topic of a subsequent discussion, a discussion that moves in and out of mechanics and memories—and asides, sometimes parenthetical, from Coles.

Perhaps, by this self-reflective content, Cole tells the listener that he or she is not a blank page waiting to be filled with the words of another; the listener is not an objective mind in a rigid body. The listener is a person, always in communication with the speaker in mood, reaction, action as well as in actual dialogue. Only a vital listener really opens the heart of the subject to whom one listens.

The persons, including married couples, interviewed by Coles and photographed by Harris and Roma are so unique that one cannot sum up the content of their lives into common traits except in a very general way. They are all strong. They have endured the difficult days of the Great Depression and World War II. Some have lived through the violent racism of the deep South. Most survive with diminished bodies afflicted by heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, unresponsive parts, dependence on a walker or a wheelchair, on home aides, on visiting nurses, and, occasionally, on visiting relatives and friends. Depression always looms. Loneliness is often a part of their days. Yet they go on, somedays wishing to end the struggle, most days carrying out the struggle. The temptation to self-pity is ever present, but Coles’s subjects resist it, aware of its negative power. They counter their self-pity by finding the positive in the past, usually memories of good times and good friends. One says her life is captured in the film The Best Years of Our Lives, another in Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.” Another who became an alcoholic after her husband’s death finally renews herself by becoming the Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire. She confounds her family and minister first by her drinking and then by signing up for dancing lessons at a Fred Astaire dance studio, not to forget her past, her happiness with her husband, but to remember it. They also counter self-pity by living in and reflecting on the present, sometimes finding gold in what looks to the observer like a barren landscape.

Old and on Their Own is in coffee-table format with glossy pages, large type, and captivating photographs. Is this to make its unattractive subject of lonely old age more attractive? Will most readers exclaim over the photos and skim the essays? Probably not, for Coles’s readers know their author and follow his books. Perhaps for Coles the rich-looking format of the book is an expression of the essence of his findings: the vitality that is hidden under the externals of being old and on one’s own; the gifts that these and all long-lived survivors hold waiting for a patient listener.

Robert Coles consistently publishes studies of life in modern America, seeking in them kernels of moral truth. Because of the ever-increasing number of American citizens over age seventy-five, issues of Social Security and Medicare, nursing homes, and family obligations, are in the forefront among younger citizens who feel responsible for this aging population. Coles always starts with the individual. He visits and listens to those who manage well on their own in spite of their aging and finds a treasure of wisdom about America’s twentieth century for the twenty-first century. His interviewees choose to live as they have learned to live over a long lifetime, not in submission but in survival. Coles presents his subjects’ words; the moral truth is in them. Old and on Their Own will survive too, a testament to moral strength in difficult times.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 15, 1998, p. 379.

The Nation. CCLXVI, April 27, 1998, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, p. 71.

The Washington Post. May 25, 1998, p. B7.