We were sitting at the bar in Red Lobster awaiting our call to a table. Husband sipped his glass of Chardonnay while I was downing a martini and already buzzed. Next to us, a man in his mid-thirties lustily chowed down on rock lobster and king crab legs.
I sighed loudly and commented to my husband about how hungry I was, and the lobster/crab guy said, “It probably doesn’t help to watch me eat!” There ensued a short round of joking back and forth before he dove deeper into his food, which left me much aware of my age and the limitations I let it put upon my attitude and behavior.
My Medicare card is already tucked into my wallet, though I won’t turn sixty-five till April. My hair is mostly gray and my legs stiff with arthritis, though I do an hour of yoga a day, some fast paced walking and a swim on Saturdays. Not a day goes by that I don’t contemplate, if only a little, my aging body and how it must appear to others. What used to be a confident dark haired woman striding along the street as if she owned the place, has turned into a hesitant, rather meek individual afraid of offending. And my question is why. No one has insulted me for being a “little old lady.”
On the contrary, people have sometimes gone out of their way to make my path easier, yet I am often imagining how they see me or noticing the fact that they don’t see me due to my age, of my apparent, in their eyes, purposelessness in the modern world. Not among people of my own age, of course, but with anyone more than ten years younger.
I experience a sense of being out of the mainstream of life, the rush of “important stuff,” while at the same time knowing by now that all that need to push and struggle is an illusion younger and middle-aged people swallow in order to feel they have a vital purpose. When in fact, in a strictly biological sense, their only vital purpose is to procreate and safely raise their offspring to self-sufficient adulthood before they croak.
I can imagine outraged rebuttals to this - what about finding the cure for cancer, writing a great novel, designing iconic architecture, inventing new technology? Honey, by the time you’re old, it won’t matter. Not any more than all those hieroglyphs some guy painted in an Egyptian tomb, how many people climbed Mr. Everest, how chic those hats were that someone designed for the flappers, or what fancy delicacies Mr. Rockefeller’s chef created for this banquet or that. Filmed over by the distance of time, and that time just keeps whizzing by, it all eventually takes on the faded colors of a daguerreotype. So, that au courant outfit you just wiggled into, that hot looking car you just revved up, the tony apartment you rented, the posh school you got your kid into - well, snap of a finger, thirty years disappear and who cares? I’m just saying - what seemed so imperative then is gone in a flash and you pop open your eyes to see your sixty-fifth birthday cake and look around dazed.
The cake seems a bit tasteless as you chew. It’s not exactly that you long to be back there in your twenties to fifties because you can’t go back. I’m not referring to the fact that science hasn’t invented the fountain of youth yet, but that even if you could swallow a pill to turn your body ageless, your mind cannot go back.
Suppose that a forty-five year old could slip her middle aged mind into a sixteen year old body and reattend high school. How childish and silly the social interaction would look. Would she be able to actually care if she was wearing the correct name brand of jeans, if her hair was cut in the exact, currently “in” length? Would she possibly be turned on by males who consider it desirable to binge drink till they puke, whose idea of sex is a fumbling fast draw, whose weekend fun consists of horror films, fast driving and parties with people passed out on the floor? I think not. So, while she may wish for the younger body, there is no way she wants what went with it.
I say that from this longer stretch of sixty-five. Yeah, I’d like my old body back, even my fifty year old one, but I simply cannot unfurl my mind and what I have learned back to the state of it in earlier times. I do not envy the endeavors, passions and beliefs of youth, but I do wish I had the energy, beauty and health that comes with it.
Back to joking with the guy at the bar. My husband and I are old enough to be his parents. Because of this, does he view us as people with all the same beliefs, habits and idiosyncrasies as those of his parents? Does he lump us with all the other gray heads he has known in the same manner as a bigot may lump black or Hispanic people into one category? Or all young men wearing hoodies, all people with tats, men in suits, women in tight clothing? Does he assume that because we are old that we don’t like to boogie, never feel sexy, are right-wing politically, never laugh till we pee? I would have liked to ask him, but of course that would have been weird, could possibly have ruined his dinner.
A few weeks back, I was discussing all this with a friend five years older. She has traveled the world, enjoyed many lovers, was active in the feminist movement and published a book on women and aging. A hot item in our discussion was the fact that we’re afraid to really dance.
“I feel like people watching will think me silly,” she said. “They’ll think, look how ridiculous that old woman looks dancing like that. It’s disgusting!”
The thing was, she had made the same judgment once when an older relative was dancing. “She was really loose,” said my friend. “She was moving sensuously and having a great time, but it seemed silly to me, just didn’t look right.” Yet this same person is the first to admit that she has times when she wants to get up and dance sensuously.
I knew exactly what she meant. I find myself feeling very self conscious now should I want to dance. Me, who used to be pretty hot on the dance floor. I stiffen up and not just because my body itself is less fluid, but because somehow I believe that Old People Dance Stiffly.
But suppose you take a relatively healthy, active women of seventy and hypnotize her. While she’s under, you tell her she is thirty years old and it’s whatever year it was back then. Put on music from that era and suggest she get up and dance. What will happen? I imagine that she will dance, to the best of her ability, in the exact way she did then - loose in the hip and agile on her feet, though her breasts now sag, her waist is thick and her hair wiry and gray. The question is, what’s wrong with this picture?
Nothing is wrong with this picture. Yet, no matter if our seventy year old is dancing quite well, if you suddenly snap her back to her current age and suggest she continue dancing after awakening, she will probably be mortified and stiffen up. Act one’s age, for crying out loud!
I had a friend (now since has passed on) who, while chatting and laughing with me and another neighbor, all of us many years younger than she, would “forget herself” and use the gestures of a young woman - certain eye rolls, shrugs, flipping of the hands, even giggling. I remember noticing that this seemed inappropriate. Something in me I am not fond of judged her for this, found her ridiculous. Apparently, she should have been acting in the manner of a grande dame for me to feel right. But why? What if she felt the need to giggle? What if a teenage eye roll most accurately expressed her emotions at the time?
A dear young relative of mine is fond of teasing me about being techno-challenged, but when he does it, he’s the only one enjoying the joke. I feel an urge to go on a rant about each generation knowing loads of things about their particular time in history that no other generations would understand. I want to scream that someday his own children will smirk over how stupid he is because he’s clumsy with the time machine controls or whatever. So his amusement at my techo-density, which I somehow imagine flowing horizontally to others his age, results in my assuming whether correctly or incorrectly that they are laughing at me for not having my old eyes perpetually glued to a smart phone.
Of course I could be wrong about all this. It is quite possible that a sexy-dancing, gray haired woman, a giggling, eye rolling matriarch or an older person reading a physical book and not constantly checking her cyber equipment does not even phase younger people. I really don’t know what is in their minds.
Meanwhile, should I dance?