“Sometimes you have to put your realistic glasses on and see who you are.”
Those are the words of Will Muschamp, a college football coach, most recently on the staff of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Doris Grumbach isn’t a devoted sports fan, probably does not follow Georgia football, and may never have heard of Will Muschamp.
But, no one has embraced Muschamp’s suggestion about donning realistic glasses more enthusiastically than Grumbach does in her life and her work. She has never removed those glasses: her view is unflinching and unfiltered by conceit.
At 103 years of age, Grumbach’s productive years are largely behind her — but just barely, as she was still at it into her 90’s.
The “it” in Grumbach’s case was writing. In all, she wrote seven novels, six memoirs, one biography, and a children’s book. That does not count numerous essays or literary criticisms which appeared in some of the most respected publications of their time.
That’s a highly prolific body of work, given she did not devote herself to full time writing until the age of 54. Furthermore, she was almost 70 when she began writing her series of memoirs.
Insightful and resolute are the two words which best describe Grumbach’s approach to her diaries. They were very well received, critically and popularly; the heart of their appeal lies in her unsparingly honest style.
Consider this episode from her first memoir, Coming into the End Zone. Grumbach was changing clothes when she saw herself in a full-length mirror. For years she had avoided doing just that, preferring to ignore the inevitable decline.
But this time, “I look, hard,” she wrote. “I see the pull of gravity…I see the heavy rings that encircle my neck…I notice bones that seem to have thinned and shrunk. Muscles appear to be watered down. The walls of my abdomen, like Jericho, have softened and now press outward. There is nothing lovely about the sight of me…Shall I try to learn to love what I am left with? I wonder. It would be easier to resolve never again to look into a full-length mirror.”
Who, at a certain age, has not had that experience?
Born July 12, 1918 in New York City, Grumbach was part of the generation where gifted students skipped grades in elementary school: she entered high school at the age of 11. Grumbach went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree from Washington Square College of NYU (Phi Beta Kappa) and a Masters in Medieval Literature from Cornell.
Her career resume was distinguished: she taught at several esteemed schools, was a contributing editor for Saturday Review, literary editor at The New Republic, and longtime book critic for NPR’s Morning Edition. She also appeared on PBS, The MacNeil/ Lehrer Report.
In 1990, along with her life companion, Sybil Pike, she moved to Sargentville, Maine. Together, they operated an antiquarian bookstore and lived on a picturesque cove, a peaceful retreat which fueled Grumbach’s reminiscences.
Her novels were groundbreaking, but the memoirs about “the quotidian events” of her life are equally riveting. Grumbach’s purpose in writing the journals was “hoping to find in the recording process a positive value to living so long, some glory to survival, even vainglory if true glory is impossible.”
By turns humorous and curmudgeonly, Grumbach has put together a poignant record of the human struggles of aging and the looming prospect of death. Few have examined the last mile with such illumination or perceptive detail.
With each installment, Grumbach clearly anticipated her demise to be forthcoming — “I am ready to begin the end,” she wrote at the conclusion of her first volume. Little did she know that five more books were yet to come and she would still be alive today.
The New York Times called these memoirs, “a document still too rare in literary history, an account of a woman who has lived by words.”
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Grumbach summed up her worldview: “I think by nature I am a pessimist. I am always certain things are not going to work out well at all. I do have long periods where I despair of the world and its shape. It bears no resemblance to the world I was born into, at least the world I thought I knew when I was young. But I think life is worth living and you have to take the beauty you have even if it’s transient….you have to live in the moment you’ve gotten and be grateful for God’s grace that you have had that time.”