If this were the Channel 9 News Hour, we’d call this segment “Brief and Unspectacular.” I have a few words to say about the dignity of being an old woman.
I recently became an old woman and I have been having mixed emotions about this. Let me tell you about it for a minute. Now, you may be saying “Girl, you have been old as long as I have known you. So what’s new about that?”
You may think I am old. Admittedly, I meet a lot of the criteria for being considered old: I am retired. I kissed my waistline goodbye. I have “the neck”. I know a lot, really a lot, about song lyrics from the 1960s. I voted for McGovern, for chris’ sake. These are all bonafide symptoms of being old and moldy. But I have never thought of myself as old.
Thing is, other than, suddenly at 40, becoming invisible to male clerks in sporting goods stores, I have never gone through a lot of the things that measure life in terms of passages. I don’t have kids or grandkids. I haven’t been to a high school reunion. Though I have been married to someone all my life, I have never been married longer than 20 years to anyone.
Another thing is that I have been mostly healthy. Never needed a new hip or knee. Don’t take any meds. When someone has needed the leaves raked or the lawn mowed, I have been the ‘helper’ not the ‘helpee’. Perhaps at 71 that would be considered a charmed life.
That recently changed. Over the past winter, you may remember that we had a few, a few, days of snow and ice. When we moved recently we downsized a lot but we upsized our driveway by a factor of 3 to somewhere around 100 feet. Key to this story is the January day when we had 8” inches of snow and my husband was out with knee surgery. For the first time, I had to ask for help shoveling the driveway. I got it about half done when a team of neighbor guys turned up to finish it. It was wonderful and I thank them a lot, but boy was it humiliating to be the old lady who needed help. Everyone was so kind, I wanted to bite.
I think when you’re young, compassion isn’t something you think about a lot. In any case, my focus was ME-ME-ME when I was in my 30s and filled with angst and ambition. What I am saying is that I have gotten to know a little about being compassionate, but it seems to me that the hard part about being an old woman is learning how to accept compassion from others. I am going to wrassle with being grateful in the coming years.
As many of you out there know, part of growing up female is getting used to being judged. Large and small issues. How you look, what you wear, are your towels really white, what you do, how nice you are, the color of your nail polish, yada, yada. I can remember times in my life where I was just paralyzed by feeling judged. I never spoke up, I just wimped out. I was afraid to challenge those judges.
The good thing that I have discovered about being an old person is that I have a lot more confidence now than when I was younger. Some of you know that almost every semester I have taken an undergraduate class in something at Washington University or at Meramec Community College. As I have exhausted the humanities curriculum, I have spun further and further out of my comfort zone into horticulture. Me, the art historian, taking science!
Now I am taking Creative Writing. In my class, we have written poems and are now writing a play. You can’t be a real poet unless you writhe around in your psyche for a while. In my younger days I would have been scared to death to expose deep feelings in public. My 20-year-old classmates are embarrassed, scared shitless to talk about guilt and shame and it shows. My work isn’t better but I can take more risks now. I like that.
In conclusion, my 3-minute take on being old is that, yeah, part of it is the pits. (I haven’t even talked about poverty, illness and death. Those are topics for another day). But part of being old is progress too. Keeping your dignity, but keeping on dancing.