Tag Archives: Middle age

Is age a point of pride, or a fact to be denied?

I caught myself doing it again on a chilly evening in October, telling a group of young parents and first-time homeowners at a neighborhood block party that my husband and I are being careful to take Coronavirus precautions because we are “not young.”

During a Zoom call recently with students at the college where I work, I referenced “people my age” to distinguish myself from the students’ generation, but I didn’t say how old I really am. Similarly, in a conversation with my 30-something manager about whether in-person contact with college students is safe during COVID-19, I said, “You know, Josh, I’m not young anymore.”

Why can’t I state the obvious, to speak the very word (“old”) that I am trying to embrace? Here’s why:

  • Because my colleagues at work might see me as irrelevant.
  • My young neighbors might deem me a person not worth befriending, no longer fun, with my aversion to swearing and dated love of high-waist jeans.

Just as it’s OK in our culture to describe someone as “thin” but never “fat” — even though both adjectives layer a none-of-my-business judgment onto someone else’s body — it is a compliment to say someone looks young but never old. To deny that I am old, at 63, is to imply that age is a deficit, an embarrassment, rather than an achievement that grants us wisdom and perspective. By using euphemisms to sidestep the truth, I am colluding with the stereotype I seek to shatter.

“Lots of old people don’t get wise, but you don’t get wise unless you age.”

Educator, author and scholar Joan Erikson

I want to claim the word “old,” just as some young women have “reclaimed” a pejorative that I consider so sexist and vile I refuse to reference it as anything other than “the C word.” My hairdresser, who is five years my junior, dismissed my reasoning with a tinge of anger the last time I had a haircut. “You’re not old,” she snapped. “My mother is old. She’s 91 and in a nursing home.”

Except I am old. Not elderly, as in physically decrepit or unable to manage my daily life. But at 63, I am hardly in midlife any longer. I use wordplay to describe this shapeless period bridging authentic middle age — the 40s and 50s — and the point at which I will retire from my career. I say that I’m in “upper middle age” or in “my early 60s.” I say that I am ”older,” borrowing the tentative nomenclature in an article about a scientific study of walkers in their 60s, 70s and 80s; the reporter called them “older people in good health.” Older than what, or whom?

Maybe “young-old” is the most accurate (and palatable) as I navigate this mystical, mysterious final third of my life, the one with the end I know is coming but cannot see.

Age is relative

I walk by a well-tended Little Free Library on a warm autumn day, and the book that calls to me is one of those little handbooks of sayings, the kind you keep at a lake cabin or in the bathroom. It’s called “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese.”

I smile, of course, but do I believe the title’s true? Isn’t claiming that “age doesn’t matter” just another way of denigrating old age, of saying it is a reality and simple fact to be denied?

We dismiss age in our culture. We exchange disparaging birthday cards about growing older, like the one I saw recently of a drooping, half-naked granny wearing leather sex gear (how preposterous that an old woman would have a sex life). We women lie about our age, feeding a multi-billion-dollar “beauty” industry with face creams and makeup and hair dye and Botox injections — and taking it as the highest compliment when someone reassures us that we look good, “for your age.”

We deny that age will affect us. As an athletic person and daily exerciser, I have done so myself, until sore knees and slower bike rides and more need for sleep have told me otherwise.

During a get-out-the-vote phone bank before the election, I commented in the Zoom chat to my young colleagues that it would be interesting to discuss what conclusions we draw based on the prospective voter’s age, which we can see. “I usually look forward to talking with older women because I assume they’ll be kinder,” said one woman who’s maybe 30. “But I have talked to some feisty older ladies lately.”

I might have counted National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg as a “feisty older lady” until she poked fun at her age on “The Axe Files” podcast with political commentator David Axelrod. He noted that Totenberg, who’s 76, has been covering the U.S. Supreme Court longer than any current justice has been serving. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. And then came the predictable: “I’ve been covering the court since I was 6.”

Right, LOL.

My extended family had a Zoom call recently to meet my 82-year-old uncle’s second wife. They like to golf and someone asked what her handicap is. “That’s like asking a woman her age,” one of my cousins said to a round of laughter. I wondered whether I — the humorless feminist — was the only one who felt the sting of shame behind the joke, the hard and hurtful implication that women lose value as they age.

Name it and claim it

My younger son sits in the kitchen of our family home, thumbing through a novel he has stopped by to give me. He reads a quote by Buddhist author Pema Chodron at the beginning of the book: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

I expect him to ask me the question that Chodron posed. Instead he says: “Do you worry about death?” My son is 25, old enough to be framing some structure around his life but still young enough to see the vista of options spread out before him. He asks me if I fear death because he sees my lifespan as limited. In his eyes, through his experience, I am old.

I answer not reflectively as an older woman but instinctively as a mother, with a Mama Bear protectiveness that has been part of me since I gave birth. “No, I don’t worry about my death,” I tell my son. “I worry more about yours.” He looks surprised and oddly pleased, while I am momentarily caught in the memory of the color draining from my father’s face as we waited for my older brother’s funeral to begin barely three weeks after he had turned 33.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”

Writer Victoria Holt

I don’t fear death. I fear decline. I think of the woman a decade my senior who told me that she began to feel more physically vulnerable by age 70. I’m more afraid of falling than I used to be, less willing to risk a new activity like rollerblading or scooter riding for fear of being injured.

The righteousness, the declarations that age won’t slow you down, the rage against society’s youth-culture machine: Those all feel deliciously true, until you turn the corner and stare age squarely in the face. Until you recognize that time moves through a lifetime as it does through a vacation — starting slowly, stretching out in front of you as though it will last forever, then speeding up as the end draws near. And then you’re scared.

I’m never going to run an 8-minute mile again, and my waistline will never be what it was before my pregnancies. So how can I embrace who I am today? How can I love this wrinkled, wiser woman who nursed her mother to a dignified death, who raised two boys to be good men, who is trying to come to grips with the reality that her career is almost over and a decades-long sense of purpose will have to be replaced?

“During much of my life, I was anxious to be what someone else wanted me to be,” says poet Elizabeth Coatsworth in the Age Doesn’t Matter quotations collection. “Now I have given up that struggle. I am what I am.”

And what I am, vibrantly and gratefully, is old, with wisdom and a wealth of experiences that compensate for the swift and sometimes bittersweet passage of time.

Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.