Study Guide

One Whole and Perfect Day Old Age

By Judith Clarke

Old Age

"Well, old people get abandoned every single day! Left on park benches! In railway stations! Without even a label around their neck to tell people who they are!" (3.45)

Hmm… Can you think of another character in this book who wears a label around her neck telling people who she is? Try Lucy, the abandoned teen mom panhandling on the train. It's interesting how a judgment Lily makes about "old people" actually ends up being true for a character her own age.

"How old are you now, Lon? Twenty-one?"

"Twenty-two."

"Twenty-two, eh? When I was your age, I'd been pounding a copper's beat for four bloody years." (7.35-37)

You've probably heard this one from your own grandparents before—it usually takes the form of walking uphill both ways to school in the snow with no shoes. Stan's definitely one of those old dudes who thinks times were way better when he was young, and in this case, he's essentially saying twenty-two-year-olds in "his day" had better work ethic than guys Lonnie's age today.

"Pop had a mum?" It was something Lily could imagine only with the greatest difficulty, because it meant thinking of Pop as a little boy, and that was really hard to do. All she could manage was a shorter Pop, still red-face and piggy-eyed, the kind of little kid who threw stones at girls and other people who weren't exactly like him. (11.10)

Biologically speaking, Pop had to have a mum, but we get where Lily's coming from; Stan's one of those guys who's so serious that it's tough to even imagine him having a childhood, let alone a mom. Still, it puts life in perspective to think that the elderly today once had teenage years and childhoods just like us.

Eighty! The sheer weight of it pressed in on [Lily]: half a century with another thirty years tacked on—almost five times as long as Lily had lived on earth. Perhaps that explained why he was such an old bigot, so backward in his opinions. (11.21)

To be fair, not all elderly people are "backward," but many do find it hard to change with the times. Stan's definitely one of those. It may well be, for example, that his racist attitudes come from being raised in a time when society was less tolerant of difference. This doesn't excuse racism, but it does shed light on why Stan is who he is.

Stan could never find words for the way the world kept changing on him these days, so that, standing on the once-familiar corner of his old beat in the city […] Stan would feel like some kid in a fairy tale, a kid who'd been asleep inside a mountain for a hundred years and then woken in some foreign, unfamiliar land. (21.8)

One thing's for sure: Today's world is really different from the world our grandparents knew. Imagine going to sleep in the 1950s and waking up in the present day and how totally confusing that would be. You'd probably be kind of lost on a lot of things.

He was old and out of touch these days; he didn't know the city as he had years back when he was young and on the force. He didn't know where such a girl might go to get help, proper help, not people who'd push her around. (35.11)

It's interesting how despite of his age and out-of-touch-ness, Stan feels a real kinship with Lucy and wants to help her. We can't explain why for sure, but having been a cop, it's possible that he once felt this compassion for people in trouble before. Now, though, the world around him feels so different that he's not even sure how to help the girl.

Stan looked up and down the street, as if the answer might lie there. He saw old houses, some neat and tidy like 5 Firth Street, some renovated, others merely old. There'd be old people living here, and Stan wished one of them was outside in their front yard so he could wander up and have the sort of natter he often had at bus stops and railway stations with people of his age, about kids and grandkids, what to do… (36.11)

Stan's clearly one of those guys who's more comfortable with people who are just like him than those who are different—his almost disastrous encounter with Rose during the cat incident is enough to show us that. Still, his desire for conversation with other people his age about his children and grandchildren shows that other elderly folks are his comfort zone. The awesome thing about this book is that the story's often about Stan gradually being pushed into new territory that he ends up quite liking.

One of the good things about getting old was how these happy moments from the past returned to you: the scents and sounds and colors, the feel of everything. In the bright green garden May held out her arms. "Let's dance!" she said to Sef, and, slowly, because after all Sef would be seventy-eight her next birthday, slowly but gracefully, back straight, head held high, May began to dance across Stan's lawn. (36.22)

Isn't it kind of cute how in May's mind, Sef has aged right along with her? Having been deprived of growing old with her best friend physically, it says a lot about Sef's importance in May's life that she's continued her friend's life cycle along with her own.

Lily glanced at the rearview mirror and found herself staring straight into their guest's sharp green eyes. "Oh!" she gave a small startled gasp, as Red Riding Hood must have when she caught the wolf in her grandmother's clothing. Not that Mrs. Nightingale looked wolfish exactly—it was just so strange that those green eyes looked so young! Lame duck was definitely the wrong term for her. (40.39)

Just like Stan is kind of judgmental toward kids Lily's age, Lily's clearly not comfortable around older folks. This may be part of why she doesn't like Marigold bringing home people from the day care center to stay with their family. In any event, just as Stan's expectations of both younger folks and people of different races are shattered, Lily realizes that not all elderly people are helpless or batty. Mrs. Nightingale is still very young in spirit, surprising Lily and thwarting her assumptions.

[Lily] peeped around the corner of the shed and saw two old ladies in dressing gowns and slippers dancing slowly around the lawn. It was a sight that would have made Tracy Gilman burst out laughing, and yet Lily thought Nan and Serafina's dancing sort of fitted: fitted the beautiful garden and the perfect lovely day she knew was coming, after all. (42.59)

It's extremely significant that one of the final images we get from in story is May and Serafina dancing, just as they did as children, despite their old age. Perhaps Clarke is trying to say that it's never too late in life for reunions or reconciliation, or that some friendships truly do stand the test of time, even in the midst of absence. Either way, we're glad May's fantasy of being with Sef comes true.