When I was thirty I could climb to the top of a branching oak tree, compete in pogo stick races, and dance all night. My tanned skin was smooth, my eyebrows high, my hair glossy thick, and my three beloved children were precocious, funny unpredictable toddlers. Now, at seventy, I gaze longingly into low hanging branches, would no more mount a pogo stick than jam a knitting needle in my eye; I’m good for maybe three fast dances before oxygen deprivation starts in. At seventy, my skin looks like a wadded first draft retrieved from a waste basket, my eyelids sag low over my squinting eyes and my hair catches light like a frizzled halo. My five grandchildren--while surely precocious and funny—have not been toddlers for years. Yet I would not trade that thirty for this seventy for all the Portraits of Dorian Gray in the world. I look at my hands with their raised veins and age spots and literally grin. I made it, I think. Way too old to die young. These hands have lived! I’m still around to see how the story ends. In fact, I’m so old and wise, I know the story never ends.
When gathered round a table with my loud and interrupting-one-another-women friends, I want to raise a wine glass high and say: “We made it!” Think of the centuries before--right on down to our very own mothers --think what time did to women back then. If Patsy Cline had been born a couple decades later, instead of ‘walking in the rain, trying to forget,’ she would have ‘washed that man right out of her hair’ and hung out with some wild and raucous girlfriends. Poor darling.
I’ll admit, when I first became invisible, it was hard on me. For most of my life I caught an eye or two as I walked down the street or into a room. I had good luck hailing cabs and got really great seats in restaurants. Gradually people stopped looking my way and—after a while—it became necessary to wave to get a server over to my bad table or a clerk to wait on me at the hardware store. That repartee I so easily engaged in seemed to have disappeared. I mean, I still did my Dorothy Parker act with waiters and store clerks. But it made them back away. How could I possibly be funny? I was old! My peers were still amused. But, as an old person, I was about as funny to the young as a walking corpse, cracking bad “knock knock” jokes. Once, during Senior Discount Day at Kroger’s, to spare the clerk asking the obvious question about my elegibility, I gravely intoned: “I am an ancient one.” He almost rang for the manager in his horror. I felt sorry for him and he was terrified of me. I’d forgotten I was invisible. But, by the time I was fully in my sixties, I saw the fun and freedom of invisibility. I began to feel like Lily Tomlin in ALL OF ME.
I have a friend who can’t even say “old,” she calls it “the O word.” My brilliant friend is to this day a respected and prolific scholar and writer. She is older than I am and yet won’t even agree to dip a toe into the pool of aging. Don’t call my friend old and don’t offer to carry her groceries! She was a stunningly gorgeous young woman and that seems to have cursed her golden years. Smart as she is, she doesn’t understand how very valuable we are, no matter how we look. We often argue about this. I am urging her into the peace and glory of aging and she all but wears a necklace of garlic around me, as though I am a vampire threatening to suck away her young blood. To me young blood is like Dr. Pepper, while our old blood is like a fine Barolo.
True, we in the over-seventy set are prone to dementia, broken hips, failed gums, and crippling arthritis. None of it fun or pretty. It is harder to be delighted to have survived the fire in the belly and the wages of sin if you don’t recognize your own daughter, or won’t ever walk again. I’m not saying anyone should shout: “Yippee! Yipee! I live in a nursing home!” Nope. When old age gets hard, it is really hard. Those of us still gathering rose buds—wilted and scentless though they may be—owe our less fortunate sisters and brothers any bed of roses we can provide. We need to look out for one another and we need to keep dancing, even if we can only manage three songs, or so.