Monday, February 17, 2014

I'll Never Be Like That!

They cluster around the enormous stone fireplace, a couple dozen of them, mostly women, clutching cups of tea and eating doll-size cucumber sandwiches.  Their scalps shine pinkly through their short white hairdos.  Their backs are bent and their voices crackle and squeak like a poorly-tuned radio.  I walk into the room and immediately I want to run back out, into the icy parking-lot, into my car and back to my house.

But I am handed a cup of tea, and somebody else offers me a tiny sandwich and asks where I'm from.  Because I have no choice, I make polite conversation and somehow, before I know it, the wrinkles and the faded pupils and the hearing aids recede from my awareness, and I find myself chatting with a person who talks about life in this "continuing care retirement community" with enough wit and irony to keep me interested.

Not a moment too soon, I am learning how to be around the aged.  I am learning to stifle the "get me out of here!" reflex that springs from my own dread of aging, for here before me, drinking tea by the majestic fireplace, are images of what I myself will be in ten or fifteen years.  My scalp will shine pinkly through my snow-white hair;  my hands may shake as I hold the cup;  and I may even lean on a walker with a little basket hanging from the bar.

I make an effort to hold this image of myself in mind, even as the primeval cry rises up from my  depths:  "Not me!  I'll never be like that!"  And then it occurs to me that this may be just what people in their fifties say silently to themselves when they see me as I am now.

This age business is so complicated.  My own mother remained alarmingly youthful into her nineties.  She achieved this in part by associating almost exclusively with people a good two decades younger than herself, and refusing to identify with her contemporaries.  "Look how old these poor people are," she would mutter, practically holding her skirt aside as she passed a group of her coevals.

On the other hand, there is George Sand, who said that on the day she decided to admit that she was old she instantly felt twenty years younger.

The average age of people in the retirement community to which we plan to move is eighty-three.  The average age of entry is seventy-eight--almost a decade older than we are.  There are people there who are a few years younger than we, but not many.  Will the company of our elders infect us somehow, and cause us to age faster than we would otherwise?

I tell myself that this need not be the case.  I tell myself that we are simply moving to a smaller house, and that with that house come a number of services and activities that we can choose to take advantage of, as the mood strikes us.  I envision our little cottage as a base of operations from which we can range--as far as we are able, for as long as we are able--to enjoy the proximity of the "big" (in Vermont terms) city of Burlington and that public ivy, the University of Vermont.

Note that, again, I'm comforting myself by telling myself that I don't have to be "like them," or "with them" all the time.  But what if, as the phantasms of aging crowd closer to me day by day, I find instead that the company of my elders is stimulating and affirming?  What if I find, once I get used to the sight of walkers and hearing aids and trembly hands, a company of mentors and models of how to age wisely and well?

We expect to be in our cottage by early summer.  I have a lot to do between now and then--sorting, and packing, and letting go.  And working on shedding the pervasive, tyrannical prejudice against the old that I, along with almost everybody else in this culture, have absorbed.  Learning to see them as people just like me, and learning to see myself, if not right now, then soon, as one of them.

(But one thing I'm not going to do is cut my hair.)

11 comments :

  1. Oh Lali....You are going to love it in many ways, I can tell already. The advantages will quickly out weigh the fears you are living with now in terms of isolation. So many new characters to write about. I remember hating violets when I was young thinking that they were old lady plants. We do have many prejudices regarding aging but will have to break those barriers with the help of the ancient sages, who always seemed so cool.

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  2. Maybe we'll turn into ancient sages, and be cool.

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    1. Lali, I already think you're cool.

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    2. Mali, the oldest woman in our book group refers to herself as the "senior goddess." Talk about cool!

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  3. You are giving yourself many gifts in this choice, not the least "choice". I have attended many memorials and thought I wish I had spent more time with that person especially after hearing their life stories. Please tell us their stories.

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  4. My guess is that as soon as you get to know them, they will cease being old people and become just people. I've been hanging out with people 10 to 20 years my senior all my life, and it can be fun being the youngster of the group. Especially now that I'm in my 60's, it's kind of nice to be seen as the young one.

    Maybe it's that I have exceptionally good taste in friends, but my older friends have been great role models. They are active, vibrant, involved, lively people well into their 90's. They've taught me that aging is nothing to fear. They are much the same people they were 20 or 30 years ago, only with more wrinkles.

    When I see an old person on the street, I think "old person," with all the preconceptions that go with that. It comes as a shock to realize that they may be younger than my friends, and not much older than I am. When you see people from the outside, you see your own preconceptions, but once you know them, that falls away and you see the individual.

    I'll tell you what makes me feel old, is when people younger than I am (children!) post pictures of products from the 1980s or 90s, and say "remember these?" Or when they talk about their antique find, and it's something that I use every day, not realizing it has gone the way of the dodo. One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of a metal beer can opener (which we used to call church keys) the other day, with a caption of "remember this?" Of course I do, I used it an hour ago! So I think that being around young people can make you feel older than being around old people will.

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  5. Or the tacky furniture from the 50s that are real finds now. I didn't like it then and still don't - no chartreuse naugahyde for me!

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    1. Me neither. Or a lamp my parents had with Pollock-y swirls on it. Or those ubiquitous amoeba shapes...

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  6. Yes, do not cut your hair; resolve to never have that perm of tight white curls worn like a bathing cap.

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  7. Right! I'm planning on a long white braid...so Vermontish.

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