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Commentary: Becoming an old lady

Musings on getting to 'that' stage in life.
A sweet old lady? We don't always see the same image in our own mirror that others see when they look our way. Photo supplied.

There were lineups at all of the tills in Safeway, but I saw a vacant self-serve, so I went over and started scanning my items. I couldn’t find the code for one, so called the watching cashier over. On his way to help me, he spoke to someone who was coming from the same direction I had and was walking toward a free self-serve machine, “The line-up is over there!” pointing to a queue of customers along another aisle.

“Oh, no, I crashed the line,” I said. “I didn’t see them.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the young male cashier told me. “A sweet old lady like you can get away with anything.”

Moi? A sweet old lady? I was stunned. Yes, my hair is grey (silver, I like to call it, but they won’t put that on my driver’s license), but I’m not even quite 70. I was wearing my usual patterned leggings and bright green fuzzy jacket. Is that what old ladies wear these days?

And sweet! What made him think of me as sweet? That was quite a presumption, given that his was the first time we’d met. The not-so-sweet part of me wondered what else I could get away with. Shoplifting? Bank robberies?

This business of getting older has been occupying my mind ever since I retired last June. I love having the freedom to do anything I want with my days; it feels like being a kid again on summer holidays. On the other hand, I feel guilty when a day goes by and I don’t feel I’ve accomplished anything worthwhile. (Finishing a book or a jigsaw puzzle doesn’t quite satisfy my ingrained Protestant work ethic.) In my former job working with hospital patients, I felt like I was making a difference. Now, my life feels a bit meaningless.

It also feels frighteningly short. All of a sudden, I’m looking at a life expectancy that has fewer years ahead than have already passed. I guess I can no longer consider myself middle-aged, unless I plan to live until I’m 130, but my finances, or lack thereof, would run out long before then even if my health held up.

My work colleagues gave me a T-shirt for my last birthday that said, “It’s weird being the same age as old people.” My sentiments exactly. To resign myself to being “a sweet old lady” is quite a stretch.

So, what kind of old lady do I want to be? Breaking records for running marathons is an unattainable goal given that the most exercise I get is clipping fitness routines out of magazines and putting them in a folder labelled “Exercises” in my filing cabinet.

Wearing purple and spitting like the familiar poem isn’t in the cards either, even though I’ve sometimes been tempted to carry a cane to bash cars that don’t give me time to cross the intersection.

Maybe I can be a feisty and opinionated old lady. They are the kind of old ladies I’ve always liked and befriended. When one of my much-older friends had to use a cane, she invested in numerous ones in a variety of colours and patterns. She carried her oxygen tank in wild and wonderful printed backpacks. Another friend explained the presence of her walker by telling people she had fallen off a bar stool.

I can get back to writing letters to politicians, participating in election campaigns, joining protest marches—all the things I used to do for various feminist causes. This time I will take on other issues that concern me, issues of particular relevance to seniors, perhaps starting with ageism. A sweet old lady? I don’t think so.

Shirley Serviss is recently retired and enjoys having time to muse about getting older.