We were hiking up a hill in my neighborhood after dinner. Night had fallen, but porchlights on nearby houses and a lone streetlamp lit the way. Michael, my son, said, “You know, Mom, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Why not? I’m sure-footed.” Although I couldn’t have kept up with him if he hadn’t slowed down for me, I felt strong and capable. I had been taking a late evening stroll for decades, with or without a dog leash in my hand, and I had no intention of stopping.
“Oh, I know. But an older woman alone at night? You should be careful.” He sounded conciliatory but firm.
“I’m always careful,” I said, a little miffed, knowing my neighborhood to be safe, and disliking his presumption. My mind zoomed to the first time someone had treated me like an “old woman.”
Years ago, I was climbing up the subway stairs in New York when it began to rain. As I struggled to open an umbrella while dragging my suitcase, a middle-aged man offered to help. I rejected him outright, thinking gray hair should not imply incapacity. I realized at that moment that people were going to slot me into the “old” category whether I liked it or not.
Evidently, my Michael did so, too. He should know better. Hadn’t we recently climbed to the top of Stone Mountain together?
Shortly after my son flew home to Atlanta, something happened, a minor thing, really, but it forced me to review my stance. The classical radio station played a piece by Herschel; the host mentioned that not only was the man a celebrated musician, but he was also the father of modern astronomy, having discovered Uranus, among other feats of science.
My brain flipped to another classical musician also known for his science, what was his name? What was his name? It’s taking a while, but… Ah, Borodin!
Then the question that had been bothering me all day popped into my head: someone had asked about a secondary character in a novel I wrote, and I couldn’t pull the character’s name out of my gray matter. If I could recall Borodin, shouldn’t I be able to retrieve the woman’s name, given a little more time?
I could remember what she did in the story, why she did it, and even what she wore at critical junctures. I sensed her name began with an “H” but wasn’t Helen. Surely, the correct name would emerge; after all, I’d invented her.
The evening of the following day, I gave up and opened the file. Her name was Hope. Of course.
Is it time, I wondered, to consider myself “old”? Most of my friends tell me they don’t care about the label; they simply go about their business. When they see their loose, wrinkled skin in the mirror, they don’t recognize the image as essential to themselves. They only worry about age when a doctor asks.
I am 70-something and healthy, yet I bridle when my son tells his mother to be careful. He’s right that a mugger might consider me easy prey; but I might be capable of running away faster than a younger woman in heels.
I’ve always had a problem being relegated to a category, any category. As a girl, I studied math, even after being told “no boy will ever like you.” As a young woman, I chose nonprofit work although it would never make me rich. I married a man less educated than I, but who understood and supported me wholeheartedly. I launched a new career in my 60s, for goodness’s sake, despite the prejudice in the field.
Author Sandra Butler likes to say, “I’m not elderly. I’m not a senior. I’m not in my golden years. I’m just old.” She insists no one should make assumptions about her tastes and capabilities based on her appearance or actuarial tables. I agree, and I want my son to understand that stereotypes don’t apply to his mother.
But maybe they do. If I can forget Hope Caldwell’s name, what else am I missing?
Getting old is so unpredictable! I want to think I can hike to the top of Stone Mountain with Michael for another decade. But I am a realist, and I won’t buy a plane ticket to Atlanta more than six months in advance. Getting old is like being a new mom: you learn to adjust one day at a time. If only the way were clearer… The end is all too clear.
When my son says things like “you shouldn’t walk alone at night,” I should just shut up and remember that he means well. When he is my age, he’ll see for himself that the “old man” category won’t do him much good.
May he reach my age, and exceed it, with his spirit intact.
Have you been thinking about adjustments to your routine you might need to make because of your age? What might those adjustments look like? What do you say to people who appear to consider you old and frail, when you feel anything but?
Tags Getting Older