Meet Sybille, my neighbor this year in England, a remarkable and remarkably beautiful 85 year-old woman. She paints an entirely new picture of all it is possible to accomplish after age 60, and over a glass of wine and across the dinner table recently, exhibited some of the personal artistry involved. I was inspired. And chastened. This woman has made her third third one of her life’s most creative and productive periods. And she’s beyond charming, she’s absolutely lovely.
In stature and shape, Sybille resembles the Queen, down to the handbag carried over her forearm. Her swollen feet are not good; she walks carefully, spilling out of fuzzy slippers in her flat, uses a cane to navigate ours in brightly colored leather flats, and takes the cane and sometimes a walker with her when she ventures out. Her hair is dark gray, curled and almost vamp-y; and her fine features and flawless skin, born in Austria, set off glorious light blue eyes that sparkle every bit as much as they crinkle even though one of them, she says, doesn’t work at all anymore. As a result she no longer uses her computer because it strains her good eye, and she can’t have that; she has work to do. My first lesson: *Adjust. Move on. And keep moving.*
Sybille was married to the head of the department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. After he retired, they moved from London to Oxford to access libraries and public transportation and, she tells me over drinks, canapes and guacamole (a touch of Texas?) in her flat, to write the books they had not had time to write while working. I thought I had misheard her because what she had told me earlier was that she was a volunteer with the museum. It turns out, though, that while Sybille had indeed worked unpaid alongside her husband to rebuild and restore the Museum galleries that were destroyed in World War II bombing raids, she had advanced degrees in archaeology and an expertise in Etruscan art and culture which she continued to hone. Basically, the British Museum got two-for-the-price-of-one -- for decades! But neither that apparent slight nor the cold, bare-bones student garret she used when studying in Rome at age 60 (and 70! and 80!) because it was all she could afford could diminish her passion for the Etruscans. She fell in love with them when she discovered in the course of her undergraduate work in archaeology that the Etruscan men treated their wives better than the Greeks and Romans did -- let them, for example, dine at the table with them. It surprises me, then, with this sensitivity to women’s roles, that she expresses no bitterness whatsoever about those years of unpaid work, as I’m sure I would, well, really, as I have. Obviously she knows the score but decided she had more to do than nurse discrimination’s wounds; she was still the expert, after all, and she had books to write. Lesson Two: *Anger and resentment do not nurture creativity and productivity. * And another: *What’s past is past; no need to let it keep you out of the present.*
Since 1985, Sybille has published 12 of those books she wanted to write (and by esteemed houses, among them the British and Getty Museums and Sotheby’s), including one, *[Etruscan Civilization],* a comprehensive volume which is now widely used in archaeology departments in universities throughout the United States and Great Britain. She talks modestly of her books, but when my husband asks to see them, she jumps from her chair (where, moments before, she had apologized for not being able to get up to pass the food!), gathers them from from her several bookshelves in different rooms and carries them proudly to the couch. She handles them with great affection, reminding me of a mother introducing her beloved children. She says as much: I had no children; this is what I did instead. How unnecessarily gracious; she knows I have four children (and no books). Can I learn to be so generous? She is teaching me -- again.
We ask if there will be more books, and she demurs. Those days are over, she says. However, she has another project that she wants to see to fruition before she dies. That’s what she says: “before I die.” She’s not invoking fear or sympathy. She’s just being realistic and she’s made the optimistic calculation that she has the time and energy to develop a capstone to her career. You might call it a legacy. She travels the world now -- alone and at 85 -- in search of new Etruscan scholars and, the greater challenge, the money to fund a lectureship in Etruscan Studies at Oxford because, obviously much to her dismay, there isn’t one. At 85, she is still going strong, and watching her, I think this is probably precisely because she *is* still going strong. She has a passion and she has a goal. I take notes this time: *You need a passion and you need a goal to get so much out of life at this stage.* As I said, she is an inspiration.
Well-done, Professor Sybille! (I *love* the way she spells her name!)! And thank you.
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