In some ways, assumptions related to my appearance are nothing new. I've always looked older than my true age since childhood.
I'll never forget the young Navy veteran I met at Sawyer's School of Business where my parents sent me to learn typing one summer many years ago. He was in his twenties, newly discharged from the service and taking business courses. He was also looking for a girlfriend. Despite his good looks and charm, I was not interested. Trying, nevertheless, to make conversation with me one day, he asked if I was headed back to college or to work after our summer classes ended.
My jaw dropped. "College?" I gasped. "I'll be in sixth grade this fall!"
The shock was evident on his face: "How old are you anyway?"
I've never seen someone disappear so quickly.
It was just the beginning of a lifetime of looking older than my years.
I won a California state acting competition at the age of sixteen -- playing the role of a 50-year-old woman.
I was never carded at bars when I was in college.
My hair started turning gray well before my 30th birthday.
And so, as I settled into middle age, unasked for senior citizen discounts became routine.
They started coming when I was in my late forties and seriously graying. One evening Bob and I went to a local Sizzler for dinner. The check was less than we expected. I mentioned this to the cashier.
"Oh," she smiled. "That's because I gave you the senior citizen discount!"
My husband, a year older than I and undiscounted, could barely contain his laughter as we walked to a table. "She's probably thinking 'What a nice guy: taking his dear mother out to dinner,'" he snickered. "We've got a Barbara-and-Poppy Bush thing going here."
I gave him a hard nudge in the ribs.
Two days later, I was telling my fellow therapists at a family counseling center about the incident. Lavaris Harris, an African American therapist who was close to my age, but with impossibly youthful good looks, was sympathetic nonetheless. She asked if I'd like to grab a quick lunch. We hit Jack in the Box for fajita pitas. As we were walking away from the cashier to a table, the young cashier called me back: "Wait, Ma'am! I forgot to give you the Silver Discount!"
Despite her compassionate thoughts for me, Lavaris doubled over with laughter and could hardly wait to get back to the counseling center so she could tell everyone that I had received yet another unsolicited senior discount.
Now, of course, I am well into the age range for legitimate senior discounts.
Now I have white hair -- and lately the concessions to my age have been more extreme.
When leaving to visit my cousins in Kansas City recently, my first clue that this wasn't going to be an ordinary journey started in security as I was removing my shoes.
"Oh, honey!" a screener greeted me with a smile. "That's okay. Didn't you see the sign? Those born in 1937 or before don't have to remove their shoes. So keep your shoes on!"
I paused, confused. I was born in 1945. I didn't want to embarrass her. I also didn't want to get caught sneaking with shoes on through security when my ID clearly stated that I was under 75. I smiled back, thanked her and quietly told her that, despite my appearance, I was still young enough to need to remove my shoes.
Then, after boarding the plane, I was lifting my suitcase to the upper bin -- quite competently, I thought. But another passenger -- a young woman, interestingly enough -- rushed forward. "Oh, let me help you!" she said, grabbing my bag and deftly stowing it in the overhead bin. I thanked her warmly while wondering if I had been looking frail or if simply the sight of a white haired woman hefting a suitcase had prompted her kindness.
When I returned to Phoenix the other day, I was the recipient of two other kind offers: as I walked from the gate toward baggage claim at Sky Harbor Airport -- briskly, I thought -- an airport employee with an electric cart asked if I'd like a ride. I declined with "Oh, no, but thank you! This is my exercise for today!" And I walked on --faster than usual just to show him. Or was it to show myself that I'm not really slowing down?
And when I was outside baggage claim, curbside, waiting for Bob to pick me up, I briefly noticed a young couple, both with canes, sitting on a bench nearby. The young woman got up, leaning heavily on her cane, and smiled at me. "Would you like to sit down?" she asked. I thanked her, but declined, wondering if I was looking especially geriatric that day.
I think I am looking rather geriatric these days -- even if I still feel like a visitor and not a full-time resident of a rapidly aging body.
I do have my moments: like challenging my husband to an arm wrestling competition -- and winning! Like schlepping a whole trunk load of groceries into the house in one trip. Like swimming laps at a fast clip for an hour.
There are times I entertain the notion of lying about my age -- by inflating it. Have you seen those T-shirts that say things like "Sixty and Sexy" or "Seventy and Sensational." I'd feel silly wearing one of those because I don't look especially sexy or sensational for 68. But 80? If I got a T shirt saying I was in my eighties, maybe people would say "Wow! You look great for 85! You don't look a day over 75! Really!"
We all have our dreams.
But this recent glut of good will coming my way from fellow travelers and airport officials has given me pause. I've been moved by the kindness and respect of strangers. I've been surprised that it has been, most often, young women who have volunteered to help. And I've been humbled by the fact that they may have seen something I can't let myself see or feel or admit: that maybe I don't lift suitcases or balance or walk with the same assurance that I did when I was younger. Even thinking such thoughts is akin to my shock when I look in a mirror and see my mother's face.
And I stop -- with surprise and bemusement and a touch of sadness. Yes, the years take a toll. I am looking noticeably older. My aging is no longer an act or an illusion. It's a fact. And yet..... I still feel so young and strong and positively frisky inside!