I have been considering getting old. Not as in yes, no or maybe or should I, could I, or do I opt in or out, like a vain sister-in-law of mine who didn’t claim Social Security for years because she would have to admit her true age. When, even in the dimmest of light, it was abundantly obvious. Wasn’t she silly, I thought. To deny the obvious.
No, not as in yes or no, but as in how it happens. It does not descend on you like a curtain at the end of a play. No, old age creeps up on you one event at a time starting when you are really quite young. Like a brick wall that grows, first slowly and then later rapidly, one brick at a time.
When you are young, old age is a spectator sport. You know it by what you see and hear. My grandfather’s shuffling gate and his hearing aid. My grandmother’s wrinkles. But old age was something that happened to other people.
When I was a child, probably just preteen, I counted up and realized that I would be 51 in the year 2000. I had the first glimmer, albeit distant, of my own mortality. 51, yuk. I would be old, very old, with wrinkled creases and a wobbly turkey neck like my grandmother. The funny thing was that she didn’t appear to worry about it. She seemed to accept it. No scarves or turtlenecks for her. Her wobbly neck was on prominent display above her lace collar and cameo. She might dab a bit of Oil of Olay here and there, but that was about it.
My first brick fell from the sky in 1975. I was a teacher in a Catholic school, all of 26. And I had a “thing” with a 20 year old college student. I actually overheard his mother tell someone how old I looked. Old? I was, I thought, still getting carded. No one had said “yes m’am” to me yet. I had Farah Fawcett hair and an orange Bug. I tried to laugh it off, but couldn’t quite manage it.
A year or so later, I was hit with my first “yes m’am”. From an early age, my mother, who actually consulted the likes of Emily Post on the subject, insisted that “yes m’am” or “yes sir” was a the respectful response when dealing with old people. Well, that may have not been it literally, but it’s what stuck in my mind. I was in a shop in a mall and the offender was a teenaged clerk. It is one of those little things that stay with you, because you begin to feel a vague disquiet. A tiny little brick, but a brick nonetheless. It niggles, worries at you. You look in the mirror and see a small wrinkle. That’s when you probably succumb to the face cream ads. An ever increasing phalanx of jars and bottles set out, amassed for the coming up hill battle.
After graduate school, I ended up in England by virtue of marrying an Englishman. In my early 30’s, I decided that I would become a lawyer. So, I went to law school. Americans are always reinventing themselves. You read of plucky 90 year old college students or successful authors who started writing in middle age. Not so in England. Out of a class of 150, I was one of two students over the age of 30. Fresh young faces besieged me.
There would be two years of law school, followed by two years of office training, then referred as an “Articled Clerkship”. So I started applying for Articles. I wrote letter, after letter, after letter. Probably 200 of them. No, no, no and again no. When I complained to the other old woman in the class, an American even older than I, she educated me. I was too old. She had only gotten a place because her uncle had his own firm and had taken pity on her. In one of the three interviews I got, a partner in a large City firm informed me that I was too old and too American, but that he had had me in because he liked Americans. We then proceeded to talk about his holiday to California. Several more bricks.
Thirty turned into almost 40. My husband and I were trying without success to have a baby. We went through an every escalating series of treatments and tests. And then at the age of 40, I was told by a lugubrious doctor that my eggs were stale. At least that’s what conventional wisdom dictated and that I should give up. Too old.
We moved on to adoption. Dear me, said our American agency, you are older than normal, and you live out the country. Going to be hard, if not impossible. But we, rather I, persisted and were successful. It took two years and a couple of failed attempts and no end of heartbreak and disappointment. When we took her to kindergarten, most of the mothers were young enough to be my daughters. They hung out together, went to the park together. This age thing was stacking up on me.
I reinvented myself at 50. Lost weight, got into the best shape of my life, had a facelift. I thought I had beat the clock. The first time I met my new personal trainer, she rubbed the skin on my bare arm and told me I was around 50. The wall was suddenly waist high.
And now in my 60’s, there’s that twinge in my hip and the arthritis in my shoulder and the cloudy vision that means cataract surgery is looming. My hearing is not what it used to be. I no longer race up stairs, but rather hang on to railings and pull myself up.
I tend to hang out with people in their 70’s. It makes me the youngster. They warn me that it gets worse after 70. Some refer to falling off a cliff. They talk of their ailments and their doctor’s appointments, and I can’t imagine myself doing that, but know I probably will.
And I think back on my grandmother, wrinkles, wobbly neck and all. Maybe acceptance is the secret. Maybe I should just sit on top of my wall and watch the world go by. But then there is the thing about old dogs and new tricks.