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Lessons on Aging from My Mother and Grandmother

By Elizabeth Dunkel November 25, 2022 Family

Now that I have become “their age” I find myself thinking a lot about my grandmother (Tania) and my mother (Helen). After all, they were my first aging female role models.

When they were the age I am now (in my 60s), I didn’t give their age a thought because, like all daughters, I was consumed with the drama of my own life – deeply embedded in childrearing and a bad marriage.

One thing I do remember, though, is that I was always amazed at how I seemed to be getting older, whilst they seemed to stay the same age: comfortably, nicely, calmly old. Or, ageless.

What I would give to be able to talk to them now, to ask their advice about aging! The only thing I can do is remember and form my own conclusions from what I saw and experienced.

Don’t Mention It

For starters, they never talked about age. It wasn’t because they were shocked or ashamed of their age. Rather, it was because they felt talking about age is… useless… and boring! There’s nothing you can do about it. And there are so many more interesting things to talk about!

We spend all our lives taking care of ourselves so we can get to old age – it makes no sense to complain about it when we get there. My mother and grandmother “just” lived and enjoyed. They were both vital women until the very end when they were felled by terminal illness and passed away.

The Power of Lipstick

My mother and grandmother understood and believed in the power of good grooming. They didn’t do it for others, they did it for themselves. Even on days when my mother didn’t particularly have any plans for going out, she smoothed her complexion with powder and put on her red lipstick.

Neither woman had the taut skin and bloom of youth, but they were empowered by being soigné and perfumed. Whilst they did their own manicures at home, they went to the salon for perms, cuts and color.

I understand this insistence on grooming because I do the same thing. Red lips, a fluff of powder and I feel amazing and ready for anything.

Dashing Over to Bloomingdale’s

The power of fashion never ends; its eternal promise to make you feel a certain way, or to reinvent yourself with a new style. My mother and grandmother both were seriously interested in fashion and keeping their wardrobes fresh.

They taught me that the great thing about being retired is that you can wait for things to go on sale. There’s the fun of stalking an item as it drops in price and the triumph of finding a great bargain.

My grandmother lived in New York City and favored slacks, a low stacked heel and nice blouses accented with costume jewelry: large chains and large earrings. She never wore rings or bracelets as she was a pianist. As an urban woman, she understood the power of a great coat.

My mother had suburban style. She looked jauntily sophisticated with freshly pressed jeans or black pants with a chic Eileen Fisher sweater and a beautifully cut designer fleece vest. She preferred small gold necklaces, diamond stud earrings and rings on her fingers. Both of them loved really good shoes.

My mother and grandmother felt shopping was a social activity and a good reason to get out of the house and merge with humanity on days when they might have felt a little lonely or down.

Shopping didn’t have to mean buying, it could mean mingling on the street, in stores and malls, people watching, enjoying, having a cup of tea and returning home.

Why Not Work?

Both my grandmother and mother remained involved in meaningful activity with part time work. My grandmother had been a rehearsal pianist at the School of American Ballet, the academy for the New York City Ballet. She worked part time in her later years as she loved having a place to go and people to socialize with.

My mother was a part-time bookkeeper for the local Nature Center in our town. She too relished the sociability it provided, as well as the funding it offered for her fashion forays and travel.

Eat the Butter

In her later years, my mother read the news reports when scientists and nutritionists declared that eating butter was no worse than eating margarine. She was furious! She had spent her life eating the horrible, salty, oily tasting margarine she hated because she had been told it was healthier than butter.

The next day, there was butter in the house. Peanut butter had been vilified as high calories, and we never had it in the house. When it became “natural health food” a jar appeared in the cupboard.

“Everything in moderation” is the lesson here. And that’s why there’s a small container of fresh half and half in my fridge. When it comes to my morning coffee, I love the rich mellow taste of creme. It’s my luxury and I deserve it.

They Loved Young People

My grandmother was surrounded by young, slim ballerinas, and she kept up with their trials and triumphs. I think they were also the reason she kept her figure her whole life.

She was the original nutritionist, eating her generation’s version of healthy food – prunes, cottage cheese, very little meat and a light dinner at night.

My mother enjoyed all the young people at her job as well. She grocery-shopped daily, like a European, choosing that night’s dinner with care and delight.

They Were Positive and Never Complained

I don’t remember my mother or grandmother ever complaining about their aches and pains. I know they had them, it’s inevitable given what I know now about the aches and pains that accompany the aging body. They just got on with living, with enjoying what they could.

Zest and Dimes

Two final thoughts to share with you. Their zest for life is what made them ageless. Staying interested, staying involved, being curious, enjoying. Art, politics, people, society, culture, nature. Zest for life gives you energy and pleasure.

And finally, they taught me that “life can turn on a dime,” so “don’t postpone joy.” That’s hardly news. We know it’s true our whole life, but never more so when you get older. So: Full pleasure ahead and “don’t spare the horses!”

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What did you learn from your grandmother and mother about aging? The lessons can come both positively and negatively. Do share with us below! It’s your chance to join the conversation! We want to know!

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💯 everything in moderation is what my grandmother always told me…so true

Catarina Adams

You’re right in that neither my mom or mother-in-law complained about getting old. My mother always said she felt so much younger than what her age was. She was very active physically and mentally which surely helped her live to almost 90.

The Author

Elizabeth Dunkel is a writer and novelist who recently moved back to the U.S. after living in Merida, Mexico for 25 years. Elizabeth is the proud founder of the Merida English Library. As a Cambridge CELTA certified teacher of ESL, she considers herself not just a teacher but a dream maker. “Teaching English empowers people to reach their dreams.”

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