Age is a funny thing. We can think that the phrase- and its associated number – means categories that limit, bound and define. Or we can mostly ignore it and live the life we choose, until we’re too ill to do so.
In this twenty-first century, we read and hear the phrase, ‘women of a certain age’, so often that it’s become a trope. We know that certain age is over fifty, or sixty or seventy.
Media ads displaying images of ‘senior’ women aged seventy as the new forty are commonplace. Models in their sixties, seventies and even eighties no longer shock. Think Christie Brinkley, Lauren Hutton and Jane Fonda, It’s the baby boomers, of course, that generation of post World War ll kids who mostly came to personify most of what they had once rebelled against. The institution. Authority.
Inevitably the years add up and suddenly, we’ve become women of a certain age. Like our mothers but very different in the way we dress, act and feel about ourselves.
And I had to stop and think about what that number is. Because I don’t stop to think about my age. Only rarely when aches and pains that weren’t around fifteen years ago force me to. My psychologist husband tells me that’s because I lack the markers of age for most women: Children. But for me the ‘age thing’ is something elemental, fundamental.
It was my Dad who taught me about about the paradox of aging. Not so much in what he had to say but by how he lived; his dislike of anyone reminding him of how old he was. I think about him as I recall how much I disliked her question: “How old are you now, Lin?” And smile because of the onslaught of memories the question evokes.
For years, my support of the tennis game my father enjoyed with a group of men who were twenty to thirty years younger than he was a source of great consternation to my mother. During each visit to my parents’ home in Tampa, almost every time Dad would leave to go play tennis, my mother would snap at me, “Will you please tell your father he is too old to be out there running around that tennis court like a fifty-year-old?”
When I replied the way I always did, “No, Mom. I think it’s great. In fact, let’s you and I go for a walk,” a glare and stony silence was her reply. For my mother, women of a certain age defined her when she began menopause at thirty-nine. Just four years after I was born. To her the end of child- bearing meant old. Old at thirty-nine, with no understanding of how to remedy the sweats, mood swings, insomnia and countless other avoidable symptoms of menopause. The fact that her husband did not feel the same way about his age puzzled and annoyed her.
At a conference in California, I heard a gerontologist speak about his book, We Live Too Short and We Die Too Long. I can readily conjure up my reaction at those words: “What a hell of a title!” Because man, did I know the truth of that statement. It seemed to define life for my mother.
I bought two copies of his book: One to send to Dad, the second for me. Both of us devoured the book.
Near the end of that week, I realized I could not put off the conversation I had promised my oldest sister I would have with Dad. Our mother had died, Dad lived alone and he was now over eighty.
Dad, I promised that I would talk with you about what you want us to do when…
Those may not have been my exact words for I was exquisitely uncomfortable having this conversation. I was stumbling around for the right words. It felt intrusive, disrespectful, almost condescending. Although the conversation took place many years ago, I can see the expression on my father’s face, the grin that transformed his face and the vitality in his very blue eyes. He cut me off, knowing precisely what I was going to say. Death was not the enemy, my father knew.
Honey, I know how you want me to die….on the tennis court, playing the game I love.
And he did just that- at the age of eighty- four.