When I met with Arlinda McIntosh, age 60; Anne Perryman, age 77; and Doreen Wohl, age 85, part of me expected to walk away filled with all sorts of groundbreaking advice — the kind only people wise with years can dole out. My takeaways, though, were surprisingly straightforward: Be kind. Engage with your community. Communicate. Travel. The messages themselves were ones I’d heard before, but the wisdom? Sage nonetheless.
Decades worth of experience mean that from these women, simple words hold extra weight. The women waxed reflective with me on what they’re nostalgic about — some of the best times of their lives, and some difficult ones, too. In the end, these interviews turned out to be less about gathering advice and more about collecting stories. Below are just a few of those: the highs and lows that molded Arlinda, Anne and Doreen into the women they are today — women whose words will echo in my mind, and hopefully yours, too.
Arlinda McIntosh, 60
Arlinda spends her time mentoring others with the lessons she’s learned as designer and founder of eco-conscious skirt company Sofistafunk. Here, she reflects on the challenges of her life as a single parent and how she was never taught to fail.
I one hundred percent do not want to be young again. I want to be Arlinda at 60 with my gray hair. I wanted to be 60 since I was, like, 20. My friend and I used to sit around and say, “Wow, one day we’re going to be old. What are you going to do? I’m going to get a rocking chair!” I don’t worry about the things I worried about in my twenties and thirties and forties. I relax. I’m comfortable with myself.
As you age, things change, but you know that’s going to happen. I was never taught shame. I was never taught to not love my hair or love my body. I cherish the fact that my mom let me be free in my way of thinking and my way of dress. Today, I wear makeup to go with my clothes because it’s cute — I don’t wear makeup to hide anything. I have plenty of scars because I like to climb trees, even now, but I’m not going to try to cover that up. I don’t have to have a flat stomach; my skirt is cute.
I was talking to my older sister recently, and we laughed about what we survived when we were younger. We grew up in New Jersey in what I now know was called a cold-water flat, a building that has no running hot water. I had never realized. I used to take my finger and write on the ice inside of the window of our house, and I knew we had a heater in the living room — but I didn’t know anything different. I said to my sister, “Wait a minute, we had no heat?” And she said, “No, that’s why there was a heater in the room and our blanket was so heavy!” My mom had made a quilt, and when you were under this quilt, you weren’t moving at night — it was like lead.
My mom was a minister in church. When I wasn’t at church, most of the time I was playing in the dirt with leaves and bugs. I’d find rocks and imagine where they came from. I wasn’t into fashion as a little girl; I was into nature and exploring.
I learned how to sew when I was about 12. I remember going to school in 5th grade, and every girl in the classroom had on a yellow sweater, a white shirt and a little plaid skirt. It wasn’t a school where we had to wear uniforms; it was just that everyone shopped at the same store. I came home and told my mom, and she took me to the fabric store. I got a piece of pink denim, made a skirt out of it and wore it to school. I was so excited that the following day, I took our kitchen curtains down and made my first gathering skirt. I liked it and felt satisfied, but I didn’t really think more about sewing, except for making a couple things throughout my teenage years.
I got married at 19 and we had three children. One day when I was in my early twenties, I came home for lunch to surprise my husband and he was gone. I knew that was it, and that I needed to figure something out. I had to pay rent in two weeks and my paycheck wasn’t enough. So I called up my close girlfriend and she said to me, “Why don’t you make me and our other friends some clothes?” That seemed crazy to me. I’d never made clothes for someone else; I didn’t know how to do that. But I decided to try. I went to the salvage store with just about $20 and bought denim. With it, I made five jumper dresses. I invited my friends over and they each paid $25 for the dresses. Then I took that money and bought more fabric. I asked if my friends would bring other people the next week. They did, and I gave them each some dollar-store pearls for bringing someone, which I still do now. I made my rent. Still, I didn’t see it as a business; it was just a way to support myself.
To me, failure seemed absurd because I had never been taught failure. I remember lying in my bed crying and thinking, I just can’t do this. But then I thought, how does one give up? If I kept lying there, that meant I wouldn’t make any money, and that meant we would all have to move. I had children to think about.
Raising my children on my own as a single parent was difficult. We didn’t have a washing machine or money for the laundromat, so my kids learned that when they got into the bathtub, they had to wash their socks and underwear while they were in there. Sometimes the kids ate and I didn’t, but I never said that I was hungry. My dad used to bring me a 50-pound bag of white potatoes on the first of the month. I couldn’t stand those white potatoes for a long time, but I learned how to make a white potato every kind of way — I could make a pie with white potatoes. There were no movies or anything like that, but it forced us to use our imagination. I taught my children, “Why go to a movie when we can tell each other a story?” We would sit and tell a story together. I’d start, and we’d take turns adding parts to keep it going until it was time for bed.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I turned my skirts into a full business, Sofistafunk. My gathering skirts are zero-waste. When I cut the skirt, I have about a two-inch by seven-inch piece of fabric left over; the piece I cut away becomes the pocket. As a nation, I feel that we’re very wasteful. I see how much garbage we throw away, and one day it dawned on me — when I throw this away, where is it going? A landfill that’s turning into a mountain. I can’t change the world, but I could change me. So my mission was to design a skirt that would use all of a piece of fabric without leaving scraps behind.
Now I’m passionate about mentoring other small business owners. I have a lot of information, and I think that giving it out for free is one of the best things I can do. I may not have money to give someone, but what I know could be valuable to them. Paying it forward is everything. People say life is short, but life isn’t that short for a lot of people — life is unpredictable. We have to be kind.
Anne Perryman, 77
Anne left her rural town to become a journalist in New York City and around the world. Rather than looking back, she says she’s constantly working on new projects and staying politically active to protest “the asshole in the White House” (even if that means an arrest or two).
I was raised in a small town — fewer than 1,000 people — in a farming community in Michigan, the second oldest of seven children in my family. There was no whining in our house. It was just, “Figure it out.” My parents gave us an example of hard work. They expected us to do well in school. They also gave us safety. We did not grow up with any sense of fear. We didn’t lock our door. We left the keys in the car in the driveway. I grew up fearless, so I became a fearless person.
When I was about 10, I was responsible for getting my younger cousin to school so that my aunt could go to work. While I waited for him to wake up, I would turn on the television and watch Jack Paar’s morning show. I was just this little girl in this little town, but I’d see the program coming from New York City. I thought, Oh my God, these people are so clever and funny and unlike anyone I’ve ever met. I had an early idea that New York was a place I’d like to be.
When I went to high school, my English teacher said that I was a good writer. I worked on the school newspaper, and I thought, You know, I’d like to be a writer in New York. That was my fantasy as a 16-year-old. But back in the late ’50s, there were only two typical choices for women who went to college: You would become a nurse or a teacher. I didn’t want to be a nurse or teacher; I wanted to be a journalist.
I went to Michigan State University and majored in journalism. Then I got married to my high school boyfriend, which was a really stupid thing to do. Back then, people didn’t live with each other first. I finished college a year before he did — I graduated fast — and we had an idea to get jobs in Germany, make some money, buy a motorcycle and travel across North Africa and around through the Middle East. I had an aunt who lived in Cairo, so we would stay with her.
We did it. In 1963, Germany was prospering and all these people were flooding in from Arab countries and Turkey. I was the only American at my job. I made a friend from Jerusalem, who said, “When you go to Jerusalem, you have to go see my family.”
We got a motorcycle and we left on New Year’s Day to go to North Africa. It was freezing, but we had this idea that we were going to keep warm with plastic bags on our feet and all this stuff. We were such fools. When we got to Libya, they said we had to go to Benghazi to get paperwork, so we hitchhiked there, got the paperwork and came back, but they had messed up the motorcycle. So at the border of Libya, with no transportation, that was the beginning of our hitchhiking adventure all the way across the country. We eventually made it to Egypt and stayed in Cairo with my aunt for a while. Then we went to Jerusalem to see my friend’s family, who took care of us and invited us to stay for another month. The love they gave us was just so terrific. Then we went to Yugoslavia, Turkey and back to Germany. After a year of travel, we came back because my husband had a year to finish at Michigan State, and I got my first newspaper job at the Lansing State Journal. We were growing in different directions. The next job I got was at United Press International in Atlanta during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. I just left. We didn’t get divorced for a while, but I said, “I’m going to take this job.”
At UPI, I wanted a foreign assignment. I had this bug that I wanted to travel more. I was told, “Oh, women don’t get foreign assignments … you’d have to work here for at least 10 years before you’d even be considered for that.” So I quit and I came to New York. I decided to do freelance. I got an apartment in the West Village, a fourth floor walk-up, for which I paid $45 a month. There was a bathtub in the kitchen.
I spent six years doing freelance work, including two years in Asia during the Vietnam War. I really thought I had arrived as a journalist. I did some serious stuff — stuff about toxic fish and all kinds of important stories. But nobody bought it. At the same time, I wrote a story about my experience in a public bath in Tokyo. Everybody bought that story. That was a light bulb over my head. So I started to write stories about my experiences and what surprised me. That was my bread and butter. I also wrote a big story about Air America — the CIA airline active in Southeast Asia — that I sold to Playboy. Eventually, I came back to New York and thought, I need to get a nine-to-five job.
I saw in a New York Times ad that a professional quarterly was looking for a writer and editor. It was a big accounting firm; the hiring manager had worked for UPI, and I got the job. I still did freelance work on the side. I was told to cover a play in New York called Short Eyes that prisoners had created. I met this guy involved who was working for a foundation that helped the formerly incarcerated transition back into society. We fell in love. That was January of 1974, and we got married in August of 1974. We had a daughter a year later and moved into this very apartment. My whole life changed.
I worked as a Director of Public Information at Bank Street College of Education for nine years and then as a Director of College Relations and Publications at Lehman College in the Bronx for 15 years. I also produced a nationally-circulated newsletter called Work & Family Life with my colleague Susan Ginsberg for over three decades before she passed away this year.
I’m a fanatical political person. In 2008 when [Barack] Obama was running for president the first time, I thought, I have to do something. I went to Detroit and registered voters on the street. I went back in 2012 to work for the campaign again. I wore out a pair of boots working for Obama right up until election day. I also did a lot of work for Hillary [Clinton] in 2016. I was part of a group called Executive Women for Hillary. Since then, I’ve just been protesting this asshole in the White House now. Give me strength. I went to the Women’s March and the Climate March. I’ve been arrested twice, once in Albany sitting in the governor’s office as part of a “real rent reform” campaign. We’re trying to get universal rent protections for all of New York and trying to roll back the preferential rent stuff.
I want to stay productive and stay political. I don’t have any desire to sit on the beach and not do anything. For fun, I go to museums and see ballet and music. If you live in New York, you’ve got to get the culture. What’s the point of living here with all the hassles if you don’t enjoy the culture?
I have the smallest wardrobe you could possibly imagine because I know what I feel comfortable in. I am a low-maintenance dresser and traveler. When I see people with huge suitcases, I think, Why? I’ve never checked a bag on an airplane. My two years in Asia I traveled with a small bag, a little portable typewriter and a camera.
One of the things I feel so lucky about in life is that I never really cared much about what people thought of me. Growing up in a little town, I knew I didn’t belong there. I’m inner-directed — that’s a psychological term someone told me about. I don’t look back. I’m always working on something for the future. I wanted to be a writer in New York and I wanted to travel. This is my 50th year here. My dreams came true.
Doreen Wohl, 85
Doreen says putting off retirement until age 80 and traveling every six months have kept her young, and she’s nostalgic for time spent with her family.
I grew up in England. Both my parents were teachers. My father went on to become headmaster of a school for children who were in need of care and protection. I was six years old when World War II began. The area my parents lived in was east of London, and the German planes were coming over that area, so we were evacuated. We went off early to a Quaker boarding school in the countryside. Some of the towns around us got bombed, so depending on what was happening in the war, we would either go home or we’d go to our grandparents’.
I took a year between high school and university, and then I earned my economics and sociology degree in London. In my family, there was total support for me going to university. My sister didn’t go, even though she got better grades than me in school. But she wasn’t as adventurous. She became a secretary — she didn’t really like working. I was interested in exploring the world. People said, “How can you just go out there and travel?” I never felt nervous about doing it. I was just intrigued. I came over to the U.S. in 1954, when I was 22, to spend a year working with migrant farm workers through the American Friend Service, the service branch of the Quaker Society of Friends. We worked with the crew that had come up from the south to pick beans in Pennsylvania. I worked with the Council of Churches from North Dakota and Michigan, and then in the Texas cotton harvest. I met my husband, Bernie, when I finished working in Texas.
Bernie and I got married in England when I was close to 24 years old. That was the usual age for women to get married at the time. Although, both my mother (born in 1898) and grandmother (born in 1864) didn’t get married until they were 30.
We lived out in Brooklyn. Bernie had his master’s degree in social work and was a co-director of a community center there. Then we went to Columbus, Ohio, to work in a settlement house — a type of housing in low-income areas that provides educational opportunities and activities. There are still several settlements in New York. After 12 years in Columbus, we took a sabbatical year in England. I loved living in Columbus, but shortly after we came back from England, I said, “I don’t want to live here the rest of my life.” My husband got a job offer at Goddard Riverside Community Center, one of the settlement houses and multifaceted community programs here in New York.
In New York, I became the director of Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Northwest Bronx and stayed there for about five years before going to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, an emergency food program. I worked there from age 60 until age 80, when I retired. At first the program was just handing out food in bags without any real focus on types of food and whether it was food people wanted to eat — it was a lot of macaroni and cheese. I put forward ideas for reorganizing it, and they were very supportive. They said, “You’ve been hired to direct, so go ahead.” They didn’t question my ideas.
We did some things that a number of the church people did not approve of. We transformed the program into a customer co-operative and set it up like a store where people were able to do their own shopping. We put forth the concept of a nutritionally-balanced shopping cart, so people were able to shop for fruits and vegetables and grains and protein. Nobody was paying any money, but it was set up so that they could select their own food. We also had a social service office, so we not only provided food but met with people about other support they may be eligible for and put them in contact with other organizations.
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger is staffed by volunteers, some of whom put in hours five days a week. There are lots of stereotypes about low-wage workers that just aren’t true at all. Low-income people do an enormous amount of community work and they’re never recognized. These people are concerned about their neighbors and they’re the backbone of their families. I’ve tried to do what I can to give recognition — even just celebrations of birthdays, getting theater tickets for people and having a volunteer recognition day with monetary awards.
I’ve always enjoyed the work I’ve done. I think that’s an absolute gift. I never had to do what many low-income people and immigrants have to do. I never worked in a chicken slaughterhouse or a factory or a coal mine — that’s a privilege. I’ve been fortunate with my health.
I think staying working until age 80 kept me young. I feel like I’ve aged since I’ve retired. I’m nostalgic for the time of being a young family with kids. I was about 26 when my son was born and 28 when my daughter was born. I went back to work when my daughter was two.
Outside of my work, I’ve also been interested in art. Back in school, I did some sculpturing. I enjoy museums — I go to Met Breuer quite a lot. The renovation has taken it back to the original building, and I think it’s wonderful. I enjoy the Guggenheim and the Met and the Whitney. My personal style is folky. Jewelry tells a tale. I must admit earrings are my weakness. I pick them up on my travels and at craft festivals and flea markets.
I like to travel to Europe. I visit friends in England and France, and I try to go about every six months. Of course, there are other parts of the world I’d still like to see, but I should have done that when I was 60 or 70. My feet now aren’t in such good shape. When I travel, I go to be with people. Life is really about people communicating with each other. I could easily spend a day at home and not talk. But when I spend a day with people, I come back feeling healthier. Older people are a resource in communities that’s probably not tapped into enough. We need to communicate and stay involved.
Photos by Emily Malan.