The TGB Interview: Dr. Robert N. Butler
The Women Behind Their Blogs

Intimations of Mortality

category_bug_journal2.gif It is hard to fathom now when I see myself in photographs or on television, but it took me what felt like forever to look like the grownup I eagerly wanted to be.

When I read blogs by young women lamenting that they are getting old at 27 or 28, I realize how much times must have changed. I looked about 15 for a frustrating decade; no one took me seriously. They ignored me, dismissed my opinions and carded me in bars. I longed to see some years accumulate on my face.

At around age 30, I finally looked old enough to be treated as an adult. I still thought of myself as young and being old was far enough in my future that I didn’t much think about continued aging at the time. I’d been young for so long, I thought it would go on indefinitely - which is probably as it should be at age 30.

Not too long after I had achieved the appearance of adulthood in the eyes of others, walking home from the subway one evening – I was 35 or so - I turned the corner into my block where two boys about 11 or 12 were playing ball in the street. As the boy nearest me ran backwards to make the catch, the boy facing me yelled, “Look out for the lady behind you.”

Lady? No one had ever called me lady or woman. In those days before the women’s movement forced a widespread change in language, all but the oldest women were commonly referred to as girls except, perhaps, by children to whom everyone over the age of 20 seems old.

It was a shocking moment with intimations of mortality which I still didn’t believe in then, at least for me. It was one thing to have happily settled into adulthood; quite another to be perceived as – well, not young, to which I was still accustomed.

I brooded on it for a day or two - what the boy's perception of me as an adult might mean in the greater scheme of my life - and then let it go for the next 20 years as my life was consumed with career, lots of travel and the usual ups and downs of midlife we all experience. Until…

You’ve read it here before: the day I looked around the room at my coworkers at cbsnews.com and realized I was the oldest kid there - by decades, at age 55. And thus began my quest to discover what getting old is really like.

In the years since my youth, age has become more culturally fraught. I make a puny attempt at Time Goes By for acceptance of the natural aging, but most of the country goes blithely forward spending annual billions of dollars on anti-aging potions, Botox and cosmetic surgery.

No matter how much “work” a person has done, there must come a time when the futility of it is obvious and acceptance settles in. But what I’m interested in today, is who among us may have had similar intimation-of-mortality moments as the two I experienced.

[See the follow-up to this post here.]

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz explains a military man's clever move to foster understanding in The Silver Dollar Scheme.]


Comments

I was single and went alone to my 20th high school reunion in Reno in 1989. Like you, I looked younger at that age. Unlike you,I wasn't evolved enough to care. The casino that hosted our dinner arranged the room with large round tables that seated ten and I sat with friends I hadn't seen in decades, along with a few of their spouses. A classmate-in-charge began speaking at the mic, sadly noting the names of deceased classmates, then moving on to reunion announcements. I turned to one of my girlfriends and said (in all seriousness), "She sounds just like a grown-up!" (grown-up, not adult, was the description I used) To which my friend replied, "Well, (Lydia) I would hope that we all do by now!" It was such a shocking moment for me and I realized how far removed I was from reality.

One moment for me occurred in my late sixties, after I fell, broke my pelvis (I thought it was my hip), and was hauled off to a hospital. I happened to see my chart, and the attending physician had written, "Elderly woman admitted . . ." Up to that time, I hadn't faced reality.

I think it hit home when people started giving up their seats for me.

I looked young well into my forties and was the "cute little blonde" that turned heads when I walked through a restaurant. I married young and my looks (and the response to them) were a major part my identity even though I was involved in the Women's movement and the ERA.

As I entered my fifties, I realized that I was invisible to the opposite sex. Even men much older than me were not even aware of my presence.

If I had life to live over, I would find a lifelong career, discover other interests, and not depend on men's afirmation to determine my own positive value.

The two homes I have built over the last 5 years I noticed the majority of the workers would not call me by my name. It was always Mrs.
This was new to me. A sign of respect from them and a sign to me that I did not appear as young as I felt inside.
Also have noticed that for a few years senior discounts just seem to be given automatically.
A reminder that I had entered my third age.

I was 25 and had one child. My husband was serving in Viet Nam. I was walking to the post office to see if I got any mail that day from "him". The blizzard made postal delivery impossible and the kids were enjoying the day off playing in the snow. As I passed between two groups of boys throwing snow balls back and forth, I wondered if I'd get hit as I'd always do growing up. And then one of them said, "Let the lady pass." "Lady"? "Pass"? It had nothing to do with "looking good." It was something else....They were kids and I no longer was.

A couple of years ago I was visiting my son's place and once answered the doorbell to greet a female friend of my daughter-in-law's. Later my daughter-in-law told me that the friend had asked her "Who's that elderly woman who answered the door?"

Like you I looked younger than my actual age for many years. I thought it would last well into old age because my mother was like that, people would joke that we looked like sisters (I didn't think that was funny but she liked it). Sad to say I don't think it has. TNWoman mentioned that sense of having become invisible to men in her fifties, I've felt that too. My looks were never my strong point but it was gratifying when men did notice me and noticeable when they stopped. Ernestine mentions the seniors' discounts, the first time that happened to me was in a bank and I actually tried to argue the point. The bank teller told me I looked the same age as her 65+ mother! After that I stopped arguing and just took the discount.

Like Lydia above, I got my first age-related dope slap at my 20th high school reunion.

I was showing a woman I barely remembered the photos of my daughter Elizabeth that I always carried with me. Elizabeth was then four years old.

The woman responded by showing me photos of several kids about Elizabeth's age. They were her grandchildren.

If some of us were old enough to have grandchildren, I suddenly realized, then all of us were!

My hair had turned pretty much completely gray by age 45, but I think the graying started in earnest at that moment I saw those grandchildren.

Is it coincidence that I have never attended another reunion?

Lately, as I have attended Duck's dying, I've felt even more old than usual.

Ronni,
Two times that stick in my mind: the first being pulled over by a cop--someone with significant authority--who looked, at least to me, that he couldn't yet be out of high school!

The other what the first time I was casually called "Mr. Gillis" (similar to your becoming "lady") instead of Rick. After a while the cute response--'Mr. is my dad. You call me Rick...'--wore out.

Signed: Mr. Rick Gillis :)

my first ah ha moment was about 27 and it was when I realized my legs didn't look like girl legs, knees were bonier, something and I knew I had left girlhood behind (two babies should have already done it but hadn't); then it came again around 60 which I felt was the gateway to old age whether I looked it or I didn't look it. I expect when I sign up for Medicare later this year, it'll be further reinforced. Once in awhile something will come along with my body, like a thumb that doesn't automatically move back into position without help and it also reminds me that I am in the wearing out age whether I accept it, make the most of it, or not.

Long-time reader, first time poster :-).

I do love your blog and at 48 going on 49 I've always embraced getting older and never had a problem with it. That is, until my mother died in 2005 at the age of 86. I was 46 at the time and was standing in my sister's kitchen and looking at the kitchen table filled with all my nieces and nephews in their mid-20s to early 30s and suddenly realized I was no longer the hip, young baby sister, but a middle-aged aunt.

Ah ha moments for my husband and I came on college campuses, in incidents occuring 12 years apart.

I had just started a new job at about age 35 or so on a college campus. I was so happy to be back on any campus...and this was my alma mater, no less. Went to lunch on my first day at work. A young engineering student accidentally bumped into me and my overburdened tray of food and said, in good old Southern fashion, "Scuse me ma'mm." For a fleeting moment I thought he might bow, or worse, offer to help me to my table. Even though I was still "young" in my own eyes, I was already an ancient in this kid's eyes, as polite as he was trying to be. Reality-check number one.

Twelve years later, on a campus in the northeast, my husband was going to lunch a few days into his first month on a new job. A student bumped into him and very politely said, "Sorry 'bout that, old school." Old school?! Well, my hubby was already in his 50s by then, but we've both had a lot of fun teasing each other about how much older we look in others' eyes than we actually feel, and how silly (and often how serious) the misperceptions about aging are in our youth-driven society.

When I was in my early forties I went to the beach with my 3 younger sisters. The 'baby' of the family looked at my legs and asked me what those wrinkles were above my knees. I suddenly realized that I was no longer a kid and the aging process had begun.

Reading these stories so far reminds me that although there are some holier-than-thou sorts who tell us that what other people think doesn't matter (and is true is some contexts), the kind of live feedback we're talking about appears to be vital in helping us know our place within families and our social circles.

I remember the shock I felt after my mother died (my father was already dead), when it occurred to me that I had become the oldest generation. There was no longer anyone to call on and yell, "help" when I didn't know what to do. It was now up to me.

These are important milestones, these little incidents.

I got the V8 bop on the head the day I went past a store window and saw my reflection. Was that lonely woman really me?

But at 64, I take good care of myself. Good hair cuts, lighter lipsticks, good complexion & no botox.

I'd rather spend extra savings on renos than waste it on cosmetic surgery. I keep fit by cycling, gardening, kayaking, walking and fixing up my property with rocks gathered from everywhere.

Having a good sense of humour always saves the day for me.

A friend and I were driving down the street in Grenada (Caribbean) in her open-top jeep about ten years ago and we drove past some Limers (idling men). One of the fellows called out to us, "Sexy grannies" as we rounded the corner. My friend and I starred ahead with stone-face expressions. We were 40 years old and someone was calling us grannies! I turned to my friend and said, "Well, at 40 many Grenadians are grandmothers. And he did say sexy...". At which point we broke out in uncontrollable laughter.

When I picked up my son from childcare a few years ago (I was in my late 30s) and another kid called me a nanny. I realised later that's what he called his grandmother. My son is now asking me about what it was like in the olden days and asking me when am I going to die?

My husband's sister, Sue, was 16 years older than Roy and myself, so she always called us "The kids".

Once, when we were about fifty and still thinking we looked thirty we were leaving to go to the World's Fair in Knoxville. The last thing Sue said to us was "Well, you kids have a good time." And the first thing the box office attendant said to us was "Do you want the senior Citizen's discount?"

That sure knocked the bloom off the rose!

I have always been grateful that I look at least ten years younger than I actually am and was one of those who went blithely unaware into aging UNTIL I consistently began to use a little box of hair color every few months because my gray hair was making my auburn hair dull, THEN, I began just recently having difficulty word finding when I was trying to describe something or someone, this one really scares me. Then just a few days ago I received an e-mail from a friend. She was sending out a huge group e-mail letting us know that our friend of 30 years is now in liver failure due to the metastasis of her colon cancer. I'm only 51 but lately aging and all that comes with it has begun to present itself in all forms and I'm not sure what to think about all of it. However, I am heartbroken for my friend. She's amazing and her illness seems so unfair.

I do a fair amount of public speaking (workshops, seminars) and recently I, too, had that experience of reaching for words that used to come so automatically. It was funny. And it wasn't.

I've always thought I looked young. But somehow young people know I'm not one of them!

My three-year-old grandson hesitantly touched the age spots on my hand and asked, "Are these tattoos?" I was flattered that he thought I was cool enough for tattoos.

Is it just me, or is all of this whining and lamenting defeating the whole purpose of this website?
I have had the same or similar experiences as all of the above. It goes with the territory. I have never really thought about it. Too many other, more serious things to think about or be concerned about, i.e., ageism, discrimination in the workplace, health, etc.,
I am not tooting my horn and am certainly not unique. There are millions of others who think the same.
Stop being so sensitive about being addressed as "ma'am, sir, lady." In most cases, I don't think there is any bad intent. If there is, then they are the idiots. Do you remember addressing older people the same way when you were young? I do.

In Texas, every woman who is not an obvious teenager or younger is "ma'am" to ANYONE with adequate manners. Ditto for men, they are called SIR.

It did sound somewhat odd to my ears that had lived for many years on the east coast, but after living here for 6 years, its now just plain nice, and most polite.

It offers a tiny measure of respect, and isn't THAT one of the main things we are asking for here as we age?

I will, however, play along and offer my own moment of leaving youth behind. It was when I bought a bottle of wine, just a year or two ago (I am 46) and I was NOT carded. The little sign on the grocery store register says "We card anyone who doesn't look 35".

I actually thought "Well its about time."

:)

This is a vanity confession...

I loved being a "looker" when I was younger. It gave me power and I enjoyed using it to the fullest. Relying on a pretty face to get you through life ensures there will be a day of reckoning.

It has been quite a revelation to discover I have lost this "power" and am invisible to nearly all men(except for the one male in my life that matters the most ;-)

Ce la vie.

I recall some "aha" moments the first time someone called me "ma'am" and I wasn't in the south; years later someone gave up a seat to me. I felt smug at 50 when I asked at a restaurant for their age 50 and up Sr. Discount and was carded more than once.

The biggest jolt was years earlier when my son started school and realized his teacher and most of the other kids parents were much younger than my 42 yrs. In an effort to let me know he was now wiser to the world, smiling, he lovingly said, "You know Mom, I used to think you were cute."

The current crowning reality cue occured last year when momentarily wrassling with my carry-on suitcase at airline terminal steps, a women suddenly offered to help and grabbed it before I could respond -- worst of all was the fact she looked to be my age. I looked she and her husband over more closely later and concluded they were Boomers, so that made the experience more tolerable for this 70+ elder, but I also thought, maybe they were just impatient and in a hurry -- rather than thinking I could have used the help.

I'm a 56 year old male and I can remember when kids started calling me Mr. That did feel old. Now men in their forties call me sir in the way I used to talk to my elders. It makes me wonder if I'm looking even older than I am.

I now find hilarity in such experiences but I don't know if I always will. Like many of the women who have comment, I do feel that getting old means becoming invisible. At meetings you're the old guy with the old ways.

I've talked with a number of women who are getting older that lament they don't get the flirting attention they once did. I'm the most attracted to women my own age, but usually they have given up on guys their age, so I tend to think women are more fixated on youth.

Jim

No "aha" moments come to mind as I have always looked older than my age and acted mature beyond my years; but, a couple of amusing times come to mind.

At age 25, having recently moved into our first owned home, a neighborhood child came to our door to ask if my son could come out to play. Having no sons, it quickly dawned on me that the kid meant my Hunky Husband--who, indeed, was taken to be my teen-aged son, for years!

At age 52, a coworker asked why I didn't have the same eye surgery that a mutual coworker had just undergone to improve her near-sightedness. When I replied that the procedure was too new to know what the long-term effects might be, he responded, "What do you care?!" I was too old, in his eyes, to last long enough to worry about long-term! (I swatted the little devil up aside the head--lol!)

I think it is so funny - and encouraging - that so many of us are stunned to discover that we are "old." Always petite and youthful looking, I gained weight and neglected to color my hair this past year and have had to get used to a new image of myself in the mirror. Thank goodness I can see I now look ridiculous in youthful styles! Although a little wistful, I am ok with my newfound maturity. Guess it's about time - I am very close to 50 now.

Once, when I was 40 years old, I was on vacation with my family and we were scrambling up a very steep and rocky slope from a beach. I was in the rear. My younger daughter, then aged 9, looked around at me puffing along behind her and said, admiringly, "You're pretty good, Mama. Most people your age would have conked out by now."
The memory of that sweet 'compliment' has always made us both giggle, but specially this past weekend, as Saturday was her 40th birthday.

I was buying tickets to a movie from an automatic kiosk when I noticed that the Senior tickets (Senior = 55 and over) were $2 cheaper. I hesitated for a nanosecond and then thought, "What the hell - who am I kidding?" Hey, two bucks is two bucks!

Like so many of the comments here assert, I too looked quite young into my early thirties. I was carded and refused service of a beer at my 33rd birthday party at a local tavern.
But unlike many others, I worked in the field of Aging most of my adult life, so aging was very real to me. Nevertheless, though 50 was nothing, 60 and 65 hardly noticed, 70 got my attention. Now almost 80, I enjoy every day. There is pain, and there are disappointments, but there always have been. And I am not quite so "reactive" now. As Dogen said at the end of his life: "Nothing in my life has left a trace of the path...lost between the true and the false." To be more and more lost is the point, except there is no "point". And growing older helps, quite a lot.

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