[photo from 2014 Appledore Book Festival website]
Irma Kurtz, journalist, author and agony aunt
b. 3 September 1935
Age Inside: 37
My age inside is 37. I was always a late starter. I thought about things for a long time and always found what I wanted to do quite late in life. I had my 37th birthday about six weeks before my son was born.
I’d always known I wasn’t cut out for marriage, because for my generation of women, if you got married, you were the passenger, and I’m not a passenger. But I also knew I had to have a child. Curiosity has been a driving emotion for me. The main emotion throughout my pregnancy was curiosity: Who would this person be? I had no curiosity about who I’d be or what it would be like to have a baby, I wondered, who would this new being be? It seemed so fascinating.
Though obviously, I was always in love. I was in love with my son’s father but knew I couldn’t live with him. He was a painter. You can’t live with an artist.
By the time I was 37, I had come to the end of childish things. I’d been an adventurous, travelling, busy journalist. I went to Viet Nam because I’d never seen a war. I’d lived in Paris and on a boat and on a little island nobody had ever heard of – one boat out a week, back in the Sixties – called Ibiza.
I’d had a very adventurous life and a long youth and around about 37 I entered maturity. For me, maturity is nice. It felt right. It wasn’t just the fact that I was pregnant. I was pregnant because maturity had begun. Life had brought me to the point – when I was 36, actually, since the baby was born when I was 37 – that I just knew what I was going to do.
When you’re childish, or young, you just get on with it. It’s only now, when asked, ‘who’s my inner woman,’ that I know she is 37. I didn’t know where I’d find her. So at 10, 15, or 20, I’d have said this is a silly question. When I was ten I didn’t want to be 15. But if you’d asked when I was thirty what age I felt within myself, I’d have said I’m not there yet.
My great ambition was to walk the world and see every inch of it. I did the best I could. It was possible because I didn’t get married, but oh, I believed in love. I really thought I’d meet the love of my life. There’s another reason why I remember 37, because around that time I shrugged and said , ‘I guess not, but I’m glad I looked.’
I threw in the sponge on romance about then. Not cynically. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve come to the end of something, and the beginning of something else.’ Now, I think that point comes later, because we are living longer, because youth lasts so much longer than it did before. Also, I think it’s easier to give up what you’ve enjoyed doing, than to stop when you haven’t had a good time, to stop disappointed in the endeavour. I had a great time looking for Mr Wonderful. I failed to find him but I wouldn’t trade a moment of my journey. It was fun and I learned a lot.
I didn’t stop when I was 37, it stopped me. I still had lovers, but I didn’t do it the same way and I no longer had the idea of a great, glowing romance.
I don’t look in the mirror that often but when I do, I see my mother. Just for a moment. We don’t actually look that much alike, but I’m looking more like her as I get older, whereas when I was young I looked like my father.
You didn’t ask my mother her age. She was a disappointed, gifted woman born in the Midwest to a Jew in a town run by the Ku Klux Klan! She was a little girl in hiding: her father died when she was eight. She was not a happy baby. My mother was always the child looking for comfort. A gifted child, without hope.
My father was born old. He was the first of eight children and didn’t go to university until he was 31, because he had to put the others through school. He went to dental school – he shouldn’t have been a dentist but it was one of the things a good Jewish boy could be if he had no money to go to medical school. He drove taxis around New York, he did everything he could until all the others were grown up, and then he was allowed. So he was born, whether he liked it or not, a middle aged man. Even the way he looked at his brothers, I remember, was like a much older person.
As a girl, I was an agony aunt in training. I’d run back and forth between my parents when they weren’t speaking. When you get old enough to look back and understand, you’re only sorry that you were too young to understand. That’s another reason that 37 is an appealing age, because I had started to understand.
I stopped being angry. I stood back a bit and thought, ‘Wait a minute – we blame them for everything, but when you look at it, their unhappiness!’ This wasn’t abusive parenting, these people were not happy. And I had a happy childhood in many ways. There were wonderful games and mother had a terrific imagination and told us stories that were great. And my father could sing and I always picture him stamping up and down the hills during sleigh rides. There was a lot of love.
The world now, especially for women, allows us choices. The plethora of choices is creating a problem of its own. Everybody thinks choices are freedom, and certainly they’re wonderful, but they’re not freedom because for every path you take, there’s one you don’t take.
For me, at 37, raising a child on my own financially, I was too busy to know anything. Wow did I have to use energy – I had no idea I had so much. So this feeling is known in hindsight because at that moment I didn’t really know anything beyond the fact that I was at a turning point, not only because I had a child, but that I was now going to be a writer, seated at my typewriter to support him.
When you have a child you move out of the centre of you own life. You move just a step to the side. I remember moving. In a way, my life was suddenly divided. I was no longer me; it was us.