March 14, 2015

Growing Old

Old friends...
Sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes 
of the old friends...
Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
                                                  - Paul Simon 

      I suppose I have always imagined growing old. My childhood, like most, was very much about the destinations and less about the journeys. I waited for those birthdays, milestone checkpoints where I would be old enough to wear make-up, go on dates, get my driver's license or move out of the house. There were specific things I wanted to do and then there were those things in the far future I'd get to eventually. I would imagine, for example, what kind of an old woman I wanted to be. Now that inevitability looms larger on the horizon and I find myself thinking back to my impressions of old from a younger age.

      I remember a woman I saw walking one hot, summer day on Venice beach. I was about ten at the time. She was wearing the latest summer fashion that year, a black one-piece bathing suit that was cut to the navel, the center plunge bearing a sheer mesh insert. She was tanned as brown as a coconut, extremely thin, and was as wrinkled as a raisin. I would guess she was about 75. I remember she was strolling along the edge of the surf and she was, as they say, "working it." 

      I also remember that, down the street from my home near Rose Avenue, in Venice, there was a corner store. Before 7-11's it seemed every neighborhood had a little market of its own. It's where I discovered wax lips and candy dots stuck to paper strips. I remember buying cigarettes for my mom with a note and 35 cents for the pack. There was an older woman who shopped there regularly. Her hair was solid jet black, neatly smooth beneath a fine hair net. She wore a vast amount of red rouge, solid on her ancient cheeks and her lipstick was waxy and vibrant. It also covered far more than her lips, smeared out along the edges. She was friendly and distinctive and one could not help but notice her. I would bet she was close to eighty.
      Another woman who lived in my neighborhood was very different than both of these ladies. Her hair was a soft silver, always neatly tied in a ponytail, a blunt medium length against her slender back. She wore muddy gloves and she grew marigolds and stag-horn ferns in her amazing garden. I never saw her wearing makeup or nail polish and all of her color came from the California sunshine.
      At about the same age, my grandmother was not like any of these women. She was traditional, with just a bit of lipstick and white hair permed into neat rows of short curls. She was a wiz with a needle and a bit of fabric. She was as soft and warm as an old quilt. She didn't attract a lot of attention, never strutting along the beach or making up for her daily sojourn to the corner store. I never knew her to garden, beyond a heart shaped philodendron on her window sill. She was an older woman too, but none of those ladies were the same.
      As a kid I'd wonder briefly what kind of an old woman I would be. I didn't think it would just happen and so I'd have to figure out what style I would choose. I'd decide on that special day when I "got old" and then fall into a type like these ladies had done. I believed I'd have a choice. I couldn't decide then, but even as I grow older now, I still have not made up my mind.
      The lady on the beach was forever twenty-one. In her mirror she saw herself like Sofia Vergara, I think, young, voluptuous and curvy. As she walked along that sunny shoreline she felt beautiful and mesmerizing. The little lady in the corner store might have been on stage once, for her colorful personality and cosmetics. I'm certain, had I asked her to sing or dance, she would have put on a lovely performance. The woman down the street with her amazing garden knew the earth beneath her feet and I suspect she puttered in her yard all the rest of her days. When I last saw my grandmother she was quiet and reserved.
      None of these women made the choice where they would land in their autumn years. Their identities were the culmination of their lifetimes, an evolution of circumstances and all the little choices over the years. In the later years of their lives they were not so different than they were as young women, whether sexy or vibrant or natural or sweet. I applaud them all.

      I cannot answer the question of what kind of an old woman I will be any more now than I can say what kind of a young woman I was and who am I today. I hope I am not too terribly far past the middle of my life. I am many women. I am forever twenty-one. I am made-up and wishing I was dancing on stage, I have dirt beneath my fingernails and a needle in my hand. I am all of those women I have seen and appreciated and I am myself. If I am lucky I will be an old lady who inspires as well. I doubt it will be in a fetching, vintage bathing suit but there's still time.
      I am beginning to realize that growing old is challenging. Age is mean to your body and the world seems to make less and less sense. I know now that it is not so much that an older generation is disapproving of youth, but more that experience has taught us what inexperience can do. It means that as I grow older I must sit back and watch the young make their own mistakes because they too must learn so they will one day know what I know now. I have learned that some people grow to only a certain age and then emotionally they are stuck there. I know people who are forty going on thirteen. Imagine the fun old ladies they may be one day.  
     And so, I am still becoming the old lady I will be. I'll try to remember to let you know what I come up with when it happens.

Thank you for visiting. Please come back next week.

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