all of the selves we Have ever been
When is old?
Crossing the dry creek bed we take long strides from rock to rock. Some of the stones are large and flat and easily accommodate the thick soles
of our hiking shoes. Other stones are narrow or pointed leaving our legs to wobble briefly as we balance before reaching out for the next stone.
Here we are, three adventurous 60-something gals in good health and good shape sharing an exquisitely beautiful nature preserve, and who pops into my head? Nurse Ratched. And what is she saying? “Have you had any recent falls?”
Her persistent voice buzzes around my head like a swarm of blood-sucking mosquitoes. I swat at these thoughts. Inside I am yelling: “Get away from me!”
With all of the routine inquiries about falling that occur after we cross the 60 line, it would appear that aging is a downhill journey, and one steep and slippery slope at that.
When I go for a medical appointment, I know the question is coming. Even so, I don’t like being asked if I have had any falls. Intellectually, I understand why the nurse has to ask, but the question annoys me nonetheless. I bristle at the suggestion that I am anything but sure-footed and sturdy. The inquiry seems to imply that I am too old to move with vigor and vitality, that frailty is to be expected, and I am just one tiptoe away from becoming bedridden.
“We don’t forget how to feel young.” – Barbara Pagano
But as I cross the dry creek bed I nearly fall from laughing. My mind goes to that silly place where I spend a lot of my time, that place where I am eternally young, the place where I am most myself and most at home. I summon up my FU-attitude and begin to make a plan for my next medical exam, a plan to stand up to the question of falling down: “Falls? Oh, yes, I have fallen! Many times. I have fallen in love, fallen in line with adventurous peers, fallen about in uncontrolled laughter, fallen back on good friends, and fallen into good fortune.”
And should I have to admit to being unsteady on my feet, I plan to deliver a truly great Walter Mitty explanation that defies the dreary stereotype of growing older. With luck and effort, maybe it will also be true. With each stepping stone, I come up with a new explanation for my imaginary future fall:
Things were going well when we left base camp, but you know how it is
on Mt. Everest—the weather can change without warning.
My parachute failed.
I was roller skating across country when a tornado touched down in my path. I thought I could outrun it.
The view from the tree top was spectacular, but I thought the Rainforest guide was saying, “Grab the wine!” What he really said was “Grab the vine.”
The headline said, “Sex after 60.” I thought they were describing the speed limit.
I will supply the details and polish my story in rehab--if it comes to that.
If you are forced to justify a swift, unexpected transition to an unwanted horizontal position, feel free to use one of the above explanations. All I ask is this: tell the nurse that you were with me.
If we’re going down, let’s be fabulous.
Break a leg!
"You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved,” Meg said in a startled way, “I guess I never thought of that. I guess I just took it for granted.” – A Wrinkle in Time
We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time we would all be together in this common joy, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, great-nieces, and great-nephews. It was a reunion engineered by Cousin Marcia. “Just cuz," she said.
We came from far and near toting car seats into the home where once we had been carried as babies ourselves. Familiar voices slipped out of the house and onto the front porch as soon as the door swung open. Inside, the table overflowed with favorite foods that smelled of home, prepared from cherished family recipes passed down for generations. With every seat in the room already taken, our bottoms rested on the upholstered arms of chairs even as our own arms clung to the shoulders of people we had loved for a lifetime. Out on the basketball court, just beyond the kitchen door, Cousin Tom lifted petite second-cousin Elizabeth onto his shoulders so she could dunk a basketball.
In this home, we first cousins were simultaneously young and old—children and grown-ups. If the walls could talk, they would remember each of us. Somewhere in this precious place, our childhood shadows were stuffed into drawers awaiting our returns.
Here, now, our children sat on the same porch steps, ran down the same long driveway, slammed the same doors, marveled at the same tiny bathroom under the stairs. As my own children were being stirred into this love cocktail, my eyes surveyed the property that had once been a fantasy island: the built in-swimming pool, a pasture where a horse had grazed, a play house, a basketball hoop, a tennis court. The ghost of a sleepy Lassie dog rested on the warm asphalt taking it all in too. Inside the house, books lined the living room shelves and a piano occupied the space in front of the window. This place had been our personal Magic Kingdom where every childhood interest had been encouraged.
“…the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach
she could touch it with her bare hands.” – A Wrinkle in Time
Through the archway I saw into the family room where my mother sat illuminated by sunlight and memory. The brilliant and beloved youngest of my grandmother’s many children, mom had a rare moment to be the center of attention. A new generation became her enraptured audience hanging on to her every word.
This home belonged to our adored Uncle John and his wife, Aunt Janet. Kind and unshakeable, generous, and a lover of gadgets and emerging technology, if he bought one new item, Uncle John bought nine—one for himself and one for each of his sisters and his brother. Aunt Janet never complained. The latest miracle invention revealed on this Cousin Reunion Day was the hot air popcorn popper. Even as the sun began to set, fluffy, fresh popped kernels rose from the machine’s spout, but even magical popcorn could not make the day last forever. We loaded our cars in preparation for our departures, each of us believing that there would be more popcorn on a future day, that this was the first of many cousin reunions to come. We strapped ourselves and our children inside the vehicles that would rocket us to our homes in distant galaxies and far from this star where all of our lives began.
As we pulled away, Cousin Tom stood in the driveway holding a sign: “Does anyone have to tinkle?” We left laughing at this reminder of Aunt Gen’s frequent and famous last words, a necessary question in an extended family where as many as 21 nieces and nephews might be traveling in a single pack.
Of course, we had all tinkled! It was a life lesson not eliminated but retained, a lesson written in a family language for words too impolite to shout in public, a tutorial on self-care, being prepared, and showing consideration for others.
As the procession of cars inched down the driveway, we looked back at this place that had been our sun. We each had journeyed through space and time on many a quest. Sometimes we returned to celebrate, other times, we returned to console. And then the demands of life grew along with our families. We never reconvened for another cousin reunion. Now, I ask myself, “Where did the years go?”
It was all just a tinkle in time.
You might say we’re hair-brained.
I blame it on Ali McGraw. During our teen years my friend Kay and I wanted to look like Ali. Mostly, we wanted her long, thick, straight hair. It was difficult to tame our fine, wavy locks. The hairy romance turned into a horror story starring Dippity-Do and sleepless nights with our heads covered in hard plastic curlers the size of orange juice cans. As the years went by, we continued to be out of step with the latest hair styles, but that didn’t stop us from trying. We slowly shifted from Love Story to the Hair Wars Trilogy: stress, menopause, and aging. Dippity-Do didn’t do it for us, and our hair disappeared faster than Jedi morals. At last I could claim thinness, but it was the wrong part of me.
With the invention of the internet, Kay and I trolled like a couple of conspiracy theorists looking for ways to overturn natural selection. We both consulted dermatologists. We spent small fortunes on shampoos, chemical potions, powdery fibers, and essential oils. Nothing worked. At some point, we began to weigh the hope of voluminous heads of hair against the health risks of so many potions. We moved on to the more benign products: concealing haircuts, hairpieces, wigs, and a variety of caps.
We made frequent vows to “not worry about it,” to live in a Zen-like state of mind, to be brave and magnificent in our self-acceptance. That usually lasted until one of us heard about a new product or strategy. With the internet offering a cure a minute, our bravery and magnificence became as straggly as our graying locks.
Most recently, Kay called me with a new discovery: “apply raw eggs to your hair—it’s some kind of high protein diet for your head.” My friend continued with the internet advice: “Don’t get the shower water too hot or it will cook the egg making it difficult to remove from the hair.”
We discussed our reservations. Kay shared her fear that she would not be able to get the egg out of her hair and would awaken one morning to find mice nibbling on her head. Kay has a mouse phobia. In addition to growing more hair, her life’s work includes a daily inspection of her property for signs of mouse activity. The quality Kay desires most in a man is an exterminator’s license. And yet, she remained invested in this strategy. Ever-supportive, I said: “You go first.”
I checked in with Kay a week later. It was a hot summer day. “How’d it go with the eggs?”
“Well, it was hard to get them out. I went for a walk, and my hair puffed up like a soufflé. When a car door slammed, I ended up with egg all over my face. I am trying to salvage my sunglasses.”
There should have been a lesson in that, but I left the conversation with the idea that maybe I could tweak the recipe and achieve a better outcome. No longer one to say dye, I cannot seem to put the idea to rest. If you hear that I am being pursued by a fox, assume it’s not an extremely handsome young man.
“How old are you?” the substitute teacher asked.
“Eight and three-quarters,” I said, as I stretched myself to my maximum height and wished that she would have asked me the question in one week when I would be eight and seven-eighths. I was already a whiz at this higher math.
“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother frequently advised.
And now, here I am, long past eight and three-quarters but still feeling like that earnest girl wishing to be more, to measure up.
Recently, I looked at a picture of myself on a friend’s smartphone. It was not a smart thing to do. What I saw was a face sliding off a skull. I had to squint to make out a few details to confirm it was me. Yes, there was that dark spot on my left cheek, just like my mother’s, but the rest looked like a bad disguise. I hadn’t realized that in cognito was my new life stage.
I have not authorized a picture of myself since my senior portrait in high school. There were some wedding photos, but that was staged, and I was in costume and make-up. Typically, I don’t study myself from the outside. I am usually obsessing about what’s going on inside. But with this latest photo-update, I was forced to acknowledge how others see the outside of me. A recent example involved a young man arriving at my door in response to a work order I had submitted. He came to replace a broken light. He tells me, “Another old lady in the building has a similar problem.” My inner eight and three-quarters self said: I’ll race you to the tool shed, repairKID. I’ll be there before you put down your phone.
Later, I stopped at the convenience store where a teenage cashier patted my hand and called me sweetheart. I smiled, but in my mind I was challenging her to a blood pressure and cholesterol check.
At the grocery store, a middle age man bagged my groceries and asked me if I needed him to carry the groceries to my car. “No, thank you,” I said politely. But I will carry you to yours.
A neighbor described a serious family problem. She had been consulting the teenage dog walker and seemed surprised by how much I knew on the subject even though I’ve been a professional in the field for almost 40 years. My head is not full of lava. My head is not full of lava. My head is not full of lava…
Like a stroke victim locked inside herself, I wanted to scream at the world, “I’m still in here.” And like the eight and three-quarters girl I once was, I wanted to shout, “There is more to me than meets the eye. I am capable. Give me a chance.”
I moaned about all of this to my old friend, Kay, who is holding up pretty well. Kay wears sunglasses so that she won’t go blind from looking on the bright side. After droning on, I mentioned a friend who was shaken up at her annual Medicare wellness exam. She had been asked to remember three objects, but when she was asked to name the objects later, my friend had forgotten one of them. She panicked and ruminated about it for weeks. Was she losing her mind?
“So now I am facing my first wellness exam,” I said to Kay. “I’m not sure I can take it.” Kay’s optimistic response was, “Aren’t you glad you’re not taking the SATs?”
Touche’. While I long to be seen as youthful and capable, there are some things I don’t want to do again. I’ve paid my dues; I just haven’t updated my ID card since college.
I guess we are never the right age. When we’re young, we want to be older. When we are old we want to be younger, and in the long middle of life, we just want to survive. But we always want to be seen as capable participants in the game of life. We all want to be chosen for the team and not dismissed as inconsequential observers who can watch from the other side of the fence.
And so I study for the wellness exam.
I am feeling weepy today.
Serena Williams will take the court
at the Arthur Ashe stadium this evening. It is possible that this will be the last time she participates in the U.S. Open or any professional tennis match. Though she dislikes the word “retire,” Serena told Vogue magazine that she is “evolving away from tennis” to grow her family and her business interests.
Just shy of her 41st birthday, Serena is a 23-time grand-slam champion. Even though I don’t know much about tennis, I do know that is a remarkable record. And while I have no money on the game, I am rooting for Serena to come out on top at the Open. I want to see her go out in glory.
I was in high school in 1973 when Billy Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. It seems ridiculous today that that tennis match was such a big deal, but women’s sports and women, in general, took a back seat to men. It was not long after Billy Jean King won that match that I graduated from high school and went to work in an office. What we would call sexual discrimination today was the order of business back then. I remember young women law clerks being told that a woman would never sit in the board room or new female associates being told that if they were thinking of having children, they could kiss their careers with the firm goodbye.
Young women of that era worried constantly about their weight as they squeezed themselves into short skirts and high heels, served the coffee, picked up the boss’s dry cleaning, and typed the boss’s kid’s term papers. Women made little money because it was considered pin money: “Buy yourself a nice dress,” money. Leave the real earning power to men.
We did what we had to do, and thankfully, we tossed an evolving, improving world to the next generation. Serena caught the ball and hit it farther than any woman of my generation, white or black, could have imagined. She is beautiful and powerful in a way that the ancient Greeks and Romans would have memorialized in statues. Her spirit is indefatigable, and she is a force that transcends envy. One can only feel awe.
So, I am cheering for Serena today. Do it for yourself, Serena. Do it for all of us. And do it in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the namesake of another tennis great who dared to pick up a racket in 1949 and changed the rules of the game.
The wheels turn slowly. Some of us push, others drive, and then there are the exceptions, the few who fly. Many of us fought the good fight. We are coming to the finish of the race. You help us to keep the faith, Serena. Show ‘em how it’s done.
I stood in the check-out line behind a young woman dressed in rainbow-colored leggings. The leggings were so tight that I’m pretty sure the woman had a beauty mark on her right butt cheek. I felt a little awkward with this view of the woman, so I tried to avert my gaze. The outfit seemed to say, “Look!” but it felt wrong to see so much. Shifting my eyes to the phone charger display, I wondered, what is the correct reaction to this new wardrobe phenomenon? Envy? Acceptance? Disdain?
I decided to go with discomfort. Even my own skin doesn’t fit that tight. If I were I to try to stuff myself into a pair of those leggings, it would be like trying to get rising dough to stay in a teacup or a helium balloon to stay in a paper bag. There would be a lot of fruitless pushing and punching going on. Regardless of the self-flagellation, something would be left hanging out, and it would be a lot more than a beauty mark.
I have to accept that I am of an age when the term “skin-tight” no longer applies to me. I have been voted off that island and sent to the place where what is baggy is me. Any clothes that fit like my skin need to sag and be permanently wrinkled. The only starring role appropriate for my look is that of a Shar Pei.
I have a very beautiful and dear friend who hates shopping. As a matter of fact, she doesn’t even call her pursuit of new clothing shopping. She will report in her discouraged way: “I went out to try to buy something.” My friend is a slender, fit, and active woman who prefers soft sweatpants and loose flannel shirts. She, like so many of us gals, survived girdles, garter belts, underwire, mini-skirts, hip-huggers, and platform shoes. We were the generation that grew to womanhood watching older women burn their bras. Perhaps it was all of that Lycra on fire that led to the deterioration of the ozone layer and our minds, but we got the message. We’re all about comfort now. Bring back the moo moo!
But style shifts aren’t the issue. No, the real culprit in this fashion evolution is spandex. It has turned underwear into outwear. Spandex has spread faster than the coronavirus and infected everything we wear. It is like the COVID of cloth. We are being embalmed in our active wear. Please! Give me some distance, some breathing room.
I am amazed that some people who object to wearing a mask will stuff themselves into clothing made of 98% spandex. Folks who won’t take a life-saving vaccine consider better living through chemistry to be the laboratory-created fibers that stretch up to five times their original length. DuPont started cooking this stuff up back in the 1950s along with a stockpile of forever chemicals.
Does that mean leggings are here to stay? Maybe not. Things do change. After all, spandex was the replacement for rubber in girdles. A friend who was a flight attendant back in the 1960s tells me that even a stick-thin stewardess was required to wear a rubber girdle as part of the uniform. The only upside was that it protected her backside from being pinched by inappropriate male passengers. Today, if a man were to grab a woman’s spandexed bottom and release quickly, the woman would be rocketed into space without the wings. But as the commercials promise, spandex will hold its shape even when we don’t.
From my point of view, it’s not the leggings; it’s the spandex that is the real enemy of the people. No wonder folks are so miserable and full of complaint. We’re all clothed in fabric stretched too thin. Life has enough pressure, now our clothes are squeezing us too. I say, “Loosen up!” You don’t find the peace and love crowd wearing spandex. Jesus and his followers wore loose, flowing robes and comfortable sandals. Other holy men and women have followed suit.
The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” a sign that you’ve lost control of your life. Sure, Karl, nothing says “I’m in control” like being bound with elastic and scheduled for labiaplasty. Going forward, I think I will take my fashion advice from the grand designer. I’m going with the Jesus-look. Fortunately, the one item of clothing I own that contains absolutely no spandex is my bathrobe. Depending on the wind speed, you may be seeing more of me.
I’ve got gas!
And I’m not embarrassed to admit it. In fact, I am celebrating. Living without gas proved to be much harder than living with it.
On a recent Friday morning, I stopped at a local gas station to fill my tank only to discover that my car’s fuel door would not open. I pulled the lever, but I did not hear the affirming pop. I tried again. And again. But no matter how many times I tried, the little round door would not open. I squeezed my fingertip into the narrow space surrounding the door and pulled, but I could not get the fuel door to budge. I resorted to reading the owner’s manual, confident there was a back-up system. Eight chapters later, and with no alternative, I returned to the cashier to secure a refund, and then I headed straight for home. I called my regular auto repair shop to make an appointment: “We can get you in on Wednesday,” the manager said. It was going to be a long five-day weekend.
Feeling vulnerable without my wheels, I realized that I needed to preserve the remaining gas to get to the repair shop on Wednesday. Immediately, my mind began a thorough exploration of all of the emergencies that could arise between Friday morning and Wednesday evening, crises that would require a full tank of gas. Topping the list was something awful happening to one of my children. I mentally lived the horror and the shame of not being able to get to one of them on some dark and lonely road or in a busy emergency room, and what if one of them was abducted and I needed to join the search?
Shaken and grief stricken from all of my vivid catastrophizing, I reminded myself that I was a trained therapist. I took some deep breaths and began the process of cognitive restructuring. I made a conscious decision to be positive. I would use the time to catch up on chores around the apartment, do some deep cleaning, and get in a lot more walking. By the time I fully committed to positive thinking, I was exhausted, and it was time for bed.
I awoke Saturday morning to the sounds of heavy equipment in the parking lot just outside my window. A crew from the electric company was busy replacing some tall light poles. I went about my morning business until I noticed the faint smell of natural gas. The electric workers had hit a gas line. A gas company representative arrived promptly to shut off the gas to the entire building. They would be back to deal with the issue sometime on MONDAY. Now, with no gas in my car, no gas for cooking, and no gas to heat water for bathing, not only would I be helpless in an emergency, but I would starve and be stinking when the authorities came to recover my body. They would look at my fetid condition and my empty refrigerator and charge my children with neglect of a senior. All of the evidence would point to the conclusion that I should never have been left alone.
Despite my resolve to accept my circumstances and look for the positive by spending this very long weekend on self-care, chanting words of peace and love, and sniffing essential oils, I continued to wander out to my car to try to open the fuel door. It’s hard to say how many times I tried, but I am sure it was enough to arouse suspicion, and all of my comings and goings were caught on camera by my neighbor’s RING doorbell. The authorities would have more physical evidence to prove their case.
I was torn apart by what this behavior might do to my children’s future, but I just couldn’t help myself. I really did try to stay focused on the cognitive restructuring plan, but let’s face it--peace and love will only get you so far, and then you need gas.
After innumerable trips to my car, it finally happened--the fuel door opened! Was it a miracle? The fruit of obsession? A never-say-die attitude? Who knows?
In any case, I immediately got gas. The peace and love came much easier after that.