by Claudine Wright
“I only saw an old lady in the elevator.” This was her response to my question, “Did you see my mother go by?”
Old lady? I was momentarily puzzled. There were no “old ladies” on our floor.
“Was she wearing a blue and white dress?” I asked, a sudden startling realization dawning on me.
Her eyes widened as her mouth fell open in that familiar expression of amazement mixed in with disbelief.
“That was your mother?”
For reasons that I couldn’t fathom then, and still can’t quite understand today, I was angered at her reaction.
"My mother isn’t old!" I snapped at her. I was amazed that she could make such an obviously crass statement. And to my face on top of it!
"Well, she looked old to me.”"
"Old!" I bristled. "She thinks my mother is old! How dare she?" At the time my mother was in her sixties. The young woman who had thus maligned my mother was new to our building and she and her family of eight lived in the apartment across from me. While we were both in our twenties; she was probably about two years younger than me. Yet I wondered. How could she perceive the woman I saw as being young and vibrant, a woman with nary a wrinkle and a full head of hair its original jet black, as old?
Later when I saw her mother coming home from taking her seven-year old sister to the park, I understood. Her mother was at most in her mid-forties, time enough indeed to have borne six children compared to my mother’s three. Sharon, the oldest, and my mother’s accuser, I later learned, was born when her mother was twenty. I made peace with her
reasoning. I thought her mother was young.
I have always had a non-judgmental relationship with age. My father, three month’s shy of his forty-seventh birthday when I was born, was himself almost two decades younger than some of his siblings, yet I never saw my uncles or my aunts as old. Even when they were crippled with arthritis and unnamed aches and pains, I saw the diseases as unkind
invaders, not the natural consequence of old age.
I rather enjoyed having family of advanced age. I loved it when I accompanied my aunt for a walk or an errand and people would look on favorably as she almost raced ahead, using her walking stick for leverage on the uneven Harlem sidewalks, and ask, “"s that your grandmother?"
"No. My aunt", I’d respond, and watch them look at us puzzled. Surely, I was too young to have an aunt that old!
"Your aunt! How old is she?" they would whisper, their faces a mixture of incredulity and reverence.
"Ninety", I’d whisper back. I would watch with pleasure as they silently mouthed, “Wow!”
"God bless her!”", they’d say.
"Oh, She does!" I’d respond. (I sneak gender equality in wherever I can.) Later, my aunt and I would chuckle over the incident.
After she died and I told a colleage at work that my aunt had passed away, she asked me if she had been ill. She had Parkinson’s was my reply. This prompted her to ask the question one assumes is the case with Parkinson’s disease.
"Oh! Was she old?"
I hesitated, turning the question over in my mind, trying to reconcile the conflicting images of advanced age and the blitheness of spirit that was my aunt.
"Well, not really."
"How do you mean ‘not really’. She’s either old or she’s not. Was she in her seventies, eighties?"
"Well . . . actually, she was ninety.”"
"Ninety! Claudine, I have news for you, ninety is old!"
I acquiesced, but only end the conversation. I had never thought of my aunt as being old. Despite the fact that she could recall the 1918 flu pandemic and how she staved off certain death by tying garlic around her neck; the harsh and brutal realities of the two world wars; the misery of the Depression; the date FDR signed the Social Security Act in 1935,
and the first time an automobile drove into her rural village in Jamaica, I never saw her as old. Yes, she had lived a long time, and yes, she was alternately hobbled by arthritic hips and stiffened by Parkinson’s disease, but old?
It probably helped that I met her when I was in my twenties and she was already well into her eighties. That side of my family had migrated to the US years before I was born, and having made the first trip by boat, my aunt wasn’t sure that she trusted the new-fangled airplanes that had taken over international travel to bring her back to the country of her
birth. I never knew her when she was young, so I never saw her age. For me, she appeared fully formed, like the goddesses of Greek mythology who began life as fully fledged adults. I couldn’t compare how she walked then to how she walked now, or how active she was then, to how sedentary she was now. We had no personal history, so we were unencumbered by expectations. We only had the present, the now.
It also helped that my aunt made no reference to her age, nor complained about her infirmities; even when she was clearly in pain, she always said she felt "a little bit better" when asked how she was faring. She was also one of the fortunate few who possessed a childlike openness that allowed her to marvel at all things new rather than look back at
all the things she had missed. If she regretted that her husband left to join the Marcus Garvey back-to-Africa movement, and never returned to the US, she never mentioned it. If she was unhappy that she had not had children of her own she never spoke of it. Instead, she was proud that she had helped her nieces and nephew grow into accomplished
adulthood, with children of their own. And she took delight in all that the world had to offer without a hint that she would miss anything when she was gone to "the place where they all go", as she would put it.
I remember once when we watched an Apollo launch together, she recounted the first the moon landing of 1969, and she asked me if they really went the moon. Yes, I assured her, they really did. She paused for a moment, and spoke of earlier days when most travel was by boat. "Look at what I’ve lived to see!" she exclaimed. She was grateful for her
long life, and while I was saddened when she died peacefully in her sleep, I was comforted that hers was a life fully lived, and wonderfully appreciated.
Yet the process of achieving peace with the process of aging is nor easy: aging is not kind, my friends in their seventies and eighties tell me. They speak of memory lapses where words, events and whole anecdotes they’re in the middle of recounting suddenly recede as if snatched back into the black hole of the unreachable, only to re-appear at moments
inopportune to their remembrance—like at the hairdresser, or in the dentist’s chair, or on the taxi ride to the orthopedist.
Aches become a constant companion as various joints in turn announce their degeneration. Old sports injuries, dormant for years reassert themselves. Eyes dim, hearing fades. Aging is not for wimps, a friend, himself a robust eighty-five, once told me.
So what are those of us past the threshold of forty to look forward to? Should we fear the oncoming years, anticipating aches and steady degeneration, a life of pills and potions for this malady or that? Or do we instead look forward to the freedom old age will bring us as the poem by Jenny Jones[*] famous on the Internet suggests, to wear purple with red,
or run our sticks along the public railings, to "make up for the sobriety of our youth?".
The truth is getting older can be as damning or freeing as we want it to be. We are lucky to live in a time when our choices are seemingly infinite: we can go back to school for a second or third degree; we can start a new business; if we are financially sound we can choose to travel the world unaccompanied. We can be wiser in our choice of mates or
choose to be without one altogether. We can choose to get fit, and resist attempts to "replace" our hormones.
We are also free to choose to be Botoxed, extremely made over, or "cougared" with a man half our age, forgetting how desperate we thought men looked to us when they went the nip-tuck-skirt-chasing route. More and more, it seems to me that accepting aging, or my preferred term, getting older, is like everything else in life-–a matter of choice. We can
choose live in denial or regret, or we can fully embrace the oncoming years. And choose to wear purple with red, or even yellow.