What Will You Be Doing At 72?

Now you are probably thinking . . . age 72 is a long way off, or it’s just around the corner. Either way, it’s a question worth pondering.

In 1700 the average life expectancy was 37. In fact, 40 would be pushing it. Yet, in that very year Mary Granville Pendarves Delany was born and lived to be 88. More impressive is the fact that at age 72 she invented mixed media collage and eventually created “an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Botanica Delanica.”

Image: Courtesy of Good Reads
Image: Courtesy of Good Reads

Poet Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany begins her life work at 72, recreates the “Aha!” moment for Mary Delany early in the book:

One afternoon in 1772 [the recently widowed Mary Delany] noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital . . . connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade . . . and began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.

Then she snipped another and another, beginning the most remarkable work of her entire life.

". . . if a rose had a round watch face" (65)
“. . . if a rose had a round watch face” (65)

Her most famous and popular image is the Damask Rose, appearing on postcards, place-mats, tea towels, and canisters. The main flower includes about 71 pieces of carefully cut papers, covering the gamut of pinks from slivers of red to blush and “under-the-finger-nail pink.”


Nodding thistle, a cousin of the dandelion, with swirling foliage

Operatic Opium Poppy
Operatic Opium Poppy

The theatrical-looking opium poppy is cut from a single green piece of paper. “The whole effect is of a kimono-like gown billowed by a breeze, like the robe of a star soloist falling down from her shoulders” upside down (118).

" . . . lines swoop and swoon with freckled energy" (141)
” . . . lines swoop and swoon with freckled energy” (141)

Mary Delany’s output was phenomenal. In 1777, the year she constructed the passion flower, she cut out her collage/mosaics at the rate of one per day, and between the ages of 77-87 creating one every four days (185).


For the passion flower, Mary Delany cut out 230 petals scissored “like little grass skirts, where the strands of grass are attached to a belt” (169). She made up her colored papers . . .  washing whole sheets of paper in varying hues. In the case of the passion flower, olive, loden, beige ivory for the leaves, and the flower rust, red, purples, deep and pale pinks, lavender. To the pigments she added gum arabic, honey, ox gall to prepare and preserve the papers. All done on a matte black background, always on dramatic black.

Mrs. Delany was born into the aristocracy with a wide circle of friends which included composer George Frederic Handel and the satirist Jonathan Swift. John Wesley even courted her. Yet her posh outer life was checkered with challenge: an arranged teen-age marriage to an aging drunken sot, problems with cash flow, at mid-life the loss of her soul-mate, Patrick Delany, a man who knew her worth, then deaths of close relatives, and finally her own illness.

Yet like her flowers, cut with a blade, not outlined by a brush, Mary Delany blazed a path for herself with a scissors, scalpel, tweezers, and needle. Combined with her imagination and gutsy determination, she made art that endures.

Age is the sum of all we do.

Charles Bulkowski, quoted by Molly Peacock (343)

The root of the word inspiration is “breath.” What activity do you do that inspires you, gives you energy?

Or takes your breath away – maybe even give you a second wind?

What will you be [still] doing at age 72?

The career of flowers differs from ours only in audibleness.

Emily Dickinson, Letters

Our conversation together is just a click away. You know I’ll always chime in!


27 thoughts on “What Will You Be Doing At 72?

  1. Your BLOG’s always inspire me to do and be more than I am, thank you.
    Gardening and cooking/entertaining stir my creative juices that fuel me with energy.


    1. I admire your Dusty Miller and other plants welcoming your walkway path even in January. And entertaining: This Southern Friend still uses linens and fancy silverware (including cute little butter knives) for her Sunday dinner guests. Speaking from personal experience, even Martha Stewart would approve her succulent menus.


  2. They say you learn (or should learn) something new every day. Today I learned about Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, who my hat is seriously off to!

    At 82, my still-living hero is Sister Madonna Buder who still competes in Ironman Competitions. Grueling at any age, she simply amazes me. As a board certified holistic health practitioner, I believe in and practice whole health — body, mind, and spirit. And while the package we reside in (our physical body) isn’t nearly as important as our essence (our spirit/soul) I believe we should be tremendously good stewards of the “temporary housing” we’ve been gifted while we’re here.


    1. We are trading the names of women who thrive today: I learned of Sister Madonna Buder (Ironman at 82!) and you of Mary Delany. You bet I will read all about her on the link you sent. Thanks for spreading the joy.


  3. These are breathtaking artistic renditions. 72 is Anne Rice’s age and she just released a whole new series a a year ago, and continues her writing and touring. She is one of my most favorite authors, and I have had the pleasure to follow her entire writing career. What an inspiration! Thank you for such a lovely post Marian.


    1. I remember seeing a vimeo (maybe on your blog) with Anne Rice suggesting that everyone has a story and everyone can get published. These phrases sound like cliches when I write them, but she so matter-of-factly stated them as truth that of course I believe her. I love when other writers, you included, nudge us to reach for the stars.


  4. I hope I will be even more passionate about and grateful for my life; I want to sing and tell and hear stories forever. I hope to continue growing and learning just like Mary Granville Delaney. Thank you for herstory. “Gracias a la vida…que me ha dado tanto.” Thank you to life who has given me so much.


  5. Fascinating! What a wonderful, informative post, Marian. You tell it so well, and the pictures are excellent. This is my learning moment this evening, and you’ve triggered a need to learn more. That’s the mark of a very good teacher! Thank you.


    1. Great! I’m glad it hit the sweet spot for learning, which of course is a two-way street. I have missed teaching so much but now find that my blog is a wonderful way to continue the teaching/learning cycle. It’s always great to see you on my screen, Marylin. Thank you!


    1. I appreciate your comment, Rebecca. Maybe we can’t replicate Mary Delany’s degree of skill and dexterity, but we can be passionate about our own version of self-expression. And she had no idea . . . !


  6. The creative genius is still alive! It’s amazing the gifts that our Creator has bestowed upon the young and not so young. My experience of cutting out snowflakes and paper people doesn’t quite reach the angelic shears of Mary Delaney.


  7. Right now I feel as if I will still be grading this year’s essays from all my students 😀 But whatever I do, I hope that I impact lives for the better.


    1. Deja vu. How well I remember the piles of essays stretching on ad infinitum. (Heavens–French and Latin in the same posting!) Now they are just a memory.

      You say “I hope that I impact lives for the better.” Of course, you do: You teach with your heart and your head, Traci!


    1. Another memoir topic for you in the making? Or at least another blog post. Brava to her and to you for showcasing her accomplishments. Impressive, Jenn! Thanks for adding this inspiring anecdote.


  8. Exquisite in all ways. Makes me feel less concerned that my first book will come out when I’m 69. Relax and breathe. I have plenty of time–all the time I need. And for inspiration? I write. Thanks, Marian, for the beautiful images and interesting stories.


    1. I am trying to embrace your thought: “I have plenty of time–all the time I need.” You are ahead of the curve, as far as I’m concerned. Since making the cross-over from academic writing to memoir, my “book” is only a blog at this point–and I’m even older than you are. Take heart!


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