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.)