I read a short story half my lifetime ago, when I was in my thirties. It was written from the perspective of an old woman who spoke eloquently about the young woman she used to be being, trapped inside the old woman’s body she now possessed. It was fascinating. I’ve thought of that story from time to time over the years, but have never been able to remember the title or recall the author’s name.
We are all getting older with every passing day. I’m not overly conscious about growing older because age has never really bothered me, and it’s not as if I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror to find an old woman looking back at me. It has happened gradually. In my head I feel about twenty-five. Of course, my body has betrayed me just a little! No, that’s not true. The truth of the matter is that if there has been a betrayal, it is I who have betrayed my body. I don’t drink or smoke, but since thirty-five I’ve been eating for two. I think they call that hysterical pregnancy.
I remember seeing my first white hair. I had just stepped out of the shower, was drying myself off when I noticed in my nether region, (my “pubic area” to those less squeamish), what I thought was a white thread from the luxurious white, fluffy towel I was using. I reached to pluck it, and recoiled when I realized it was a white hair, very much attached to me! Oddly enough, I still don’t have many white or gray hairs on my head though, even at sixty-six. I don’t have any major wrinkles either, just tiny ones at the corners of my eyes when I smile, which I tend to do a lot. Perhaps it’s all the olive oil we Italians use in cooking. Of course, also due to that cooking, my waistline has become the equator that separates my sphere of a body. When I wasn’t looking, a second chin started to grow, and I also have a few rebel eyebrow hairs that strayed to several conspicuous places under my chin line; now I have to tweeze my face along with my eyebrows. Not nice, Mother Nature!
Seven or eight years ago I reunited with a friend I hadn’t seen in about thirty years. We hadn’t even seen pictures of each other in all that time. We arranged to meet for lunch and wondered if we would recognize each other. We did, of course. I arrived first and saw her come into the restaurant. I knew in an instant it was she, but she had aged a great deal. Her hair was almost all white. Her face was full, and once full lips had somehow become thin. I stood and waved her over, but couldn’t help thinking what a fantastic job some Hollywood makeup artist had done to hide the girl she once was. It was the oddest sensation. As she got closer, I could see the further ravages of the years, as armies of tiny soldier crevices marched across her face. I told her I recognized her immediately. I did not say she looked the same, for she, clearly, did not. She, of course, lied and said I looked the same. I know that’s supposed to be a compliment, but think about it. I hope I didn’t look like this at twenty-seven!
My concern has never been with age itself, but with having the grace to grow older with some style. As long as we’re alive, growing older is not a choice, but growing old is. By my estimation, I am not old. Oh, I may get achy at times, but I don’t have the monthly cramps I endured from the age of ten to fifty four. I am still comfortable in my skin even though there is considerably more of it spanning my globe. That tiny yellow rose I had tattooed on my left breast has become a long-stemmed one. Kidding! I have no tattoos –at least not yet! If I were to get one, it would say I AM NOT AGING, I AM FERMENTING.
The important this is that as I age, I grow more comfortable with who I am. I still want to look good, but I’ve lost the vanity of having to be fully made up whenever I leave the house. I’m more interested in connecting with other people than connecting the dots that create my made-up face. And, please may I never become that old woman who puts more rouge on than Emmett Kelly, the clown!
Growing older is nothing we can study for, yet growing older gracefully may be a test, or, perhaps, just a testament to the way we’ve lived our lives in general. I don’t think we really change much in personality as we grow older. We may be less able to do certain things, but I think we become more of whatever we were, or are, because we worry less about what people think.
I suppose, for some, old age brings up thoughts of mortality, and it is often the appropriate period in life to reminisce, to tell one’s life story. I have always felt that every person’s life is worth at least one novel, and that there should be a massive library somewhere containing all those works. Some would be more interesting than others, some would be shorter, some longer, but everyone would have a book on the shelf. Mine might be called I Never Got the Last Shipment of Rope…when I was at the end of mine!
Perhaps you’ve heard this story: A man was being chased by a tiger to the edge of a mountain. His choice was to jump off the mountain or be eaten by the tiger. He chose to jump. As he fell, he grabbed onto a branch of a tree protruding from a crevice in the side of the mountain. He knew he could not hold on for long but he did not want to die in fear. He suddenly noticed wild strawberries growing on the branch from which he was hanging, and decided to pick and eat one. As he put the strawberry in his mouth and declared it the sweetest strawberry he had ever tasted, he lost his grip on the branch, and fell to his death, but he did so smiling and happy to have had his last experience of life be so delicious.
I think we begin to feel old when we lament about the things we can no longer do as well as we used to, or that we can no longer do at all, or about the things we never did. Instead, we might focus on being grateful for those things we have in our lives, those things we can still do, and concentrate on enjoying them. We can always choose to reach for the strawberry.
There’s an old Norse tale the punch line of which is that if you tell a joke when you arrive near death, it shows Death that you are not afraid. I like that idea, and I love strawberries, so I’m asking my loved ones to have strawberries and a microphone handy when my time comes. Then I can do my last standup (or lay down) comedy routine, have a strawberry or two and leave everybody laughing. Then I’ll be able to die laughing too.
Ain’t life a hoot?