Sunday, June 9, 2013

You Know You're Old When...

You know you're getting old when kindness replaces indifference in total strangers, when your white hair inspires altruism in others.

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'm eleven."

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!



  1. And it's how we feel inside that counts! When I first told my students I was retiring at the end of this school year, one 7th grader asked, "How old do you have to be to retire?"

    I answered that my years of service, 29, plus my age had to equal 80.

    He silently counted on his fingers for a bit and then blurted out, "Golly- so you're 71?"

    We are only as old as we feel!

    1. Congratulations on your retirement, Shelly! I'm so thrilled for you that you're able to retire while still young enough to try all sorts of new pursuits.

      I love your young student's math! Of course to a 12 or 13 year old, most people over 40 look the same: old!

  2. I don't know if I can top this very funny post, and I don't mean to, but gotta tell ya. At 45 I was carded and got into a verbal fight that I was NOT younger than 21! "I'm not going to lie about my age just for some margarita!" (Some members of my family and I were at a Mexican restaurant.) She pleaded, "[In this state] Servers have to pay the $5,000 fine if we serve someone too young." I'm not too young! I'm probably your mother's age." "Please." "Alright!" I pulled out my driver's license. "Oh! You are my mother's age." "Don't you dare hurt her feelings and tell her." Kathy, please don't be mad at me, but hang on for the really good part. Just one infinitesimal year later, I was at a Buffet restaurant. The person at the front desk asked, "Do you want the Senior Discount?" WOW! At 46! Health really does play a role in how we look. Was it the cane for the MS? Had I forgotten to keep up with the Grecian Formula? (Which really does wonders w/o the artificial look of dyeing.) One day I was walking from my mail box and this gray-haired woman pushing a young child in a pram, said, "Honey, (to the girl) if you ever see one again, that's a grandmother." "WHAT! I've never been a grandmother in my life!" "Oh, I just thought that because of your cane . . . ." SHE was the one with the all white hair! And, had the nerve to point me out like some animal in a zoo! Age is an individual perception, I guess. I've been asked by 14-year-old boys and 30-year-old men how old I was when I turned 50. Okay the 30-year-olds, but the teenagers!??? I've been asked by nurses in the ER, "How old are you, anyway?" I have florescent lighting in my bathroom and I know I look as old as I am. Eye sight plays a big part in what people see. I've yet to be snarky enough to suggest eye exams. I've thought of leaving my hair almost completely gray. But, I feel so old that it's all I can do to feel a bit younger. Other than eat right, etc., etc. So, Kathy, your youthful smile and quick step have to make up for a the premature head of white hair. ;-) LUV you. PS: The smoothing feature on the digital camera works wonders too. ;-)

  3. Oh, dear -- How well your write what I, too, am beginning to experience! I've had the premature senior discount offers (and I'm pleased to say that now I seek them out, though they are no longer premature!). But in my college campus environment where most young people -- students and younger faculty, too -- walk with their head stuck into a smart phone and their wires attaching their head to one device or another -- have become kinder -- holding the door or the elevator -- and I am heartened. With what seems like so little awareness of the world around them, they remain aware of others -- even though it may not seem so at first glance!

    1. Isn't it reassuring that the younger generation of young adults is really more sensitive and aware than we often give them credit for? I'm glad to hear about your experiences, too, Jeanie!

  4. Love your writing, Kathy. You have such talent... I was born when my mother was 42... To me, she always looked old. When I see photos of her when she was young, I don't recognize her.

    I didn't think about it much at the time but Mom was already 60 when I graduated from high school --and Dad was 71. Gosh--glad I wasn't still raising kids at that age.

    I never thought of myself as old until I started having those typical aches and pains of old age... Hubby and I both used to love it when they'd ask us IF we qualified for a Senior Discount... NOW--they don't ask anymore!!!!! ha

    My mother had the gray hair at an early age --but I am lucky in that I don't have too much even at age 70... Daddy was never gray--so I guess I got that one gene from him..

    Have a great week, Kathy.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Betsy! My sister -- who is turning 58 today -- could relate very much to your experience with older parents. She was born when our parents were in their mid-forties and was in her early twenties when they both died. So her growing up memories are somewhat different than mine because she was essentially an only child from age eight on -- when both my brother and I left home -- and had parents who were in a very different place in their lives as well.

      You're so lucky to take after your Dad! My hair was white by the time I was in my late 50's. I remember seeing a picture taken at Christmas 2002 when my hair was whiter than Aunt Molly's -- and she was 85 at the time!

  5. I wold love to see a photo of you at that age of eleven.

    1. I can't immediately find a picture of myself at that age. Very few were taken between the ages of 10 and 16 or so because I went through a super ugly duckling phase that was so bad that even my parents didn't want to see or take pictures of me. But I was 5 foot 4 at the age of 9 and hit puberty about that time, too. So by the time I was 11, i was my present height with a definite figure, but was, in terms of emotional development, an 11-year-old girl. My parents definitely kept an eye on me -- though I was so shy around boys and so geeky looking besides that they needn't have worried.

  6. Ahhhh! What a joyful read! I always acted older too, and grayed earlier than my husband. I started to wear suits and acting older when I began teaching in high school,afraid I'd be confused with my students.

  7. Those were the days, weren't they, when it took a little effort to look older!

  8. What wonderful stories, both in your post, Kathy, and in all the comments! I looked younger than I was for many years, but now that my hair is starting to grey, and I am not dyeing it, and my skin is starting to sag (got my Dad's skin, not my mom's, darn it!) ... I have caught up to my driver's licence :)

  9. I can relate, all too well, and I don't like it one bit. On the other hand, aging truly is better than the alternative.

  10. I like to streak my hair but now when I do it, it looks like gray hair when my face is attached to this I am lucky not to have any gray hair so I figure better to let it stay natural.
    My knees hurt so I am not as active as I would like to be. I don't like pain so I don't aggravate the joints so I have to cry later on.What I find however, is that people like to complain for the sake of complaining. It makes them feel better to depress others lol
    When you try to explain to them that they need to slow down,
    that doesn't wash well with them and finding new friends is not an easy task when you slowed down yourself lol
    There are many articles out there teaching people how to be happy but no one explains how to be happy, surrounded by unhappy sick people, who are happy to be unhappy. lol
    And at this age, you see more and more of this than the other.
    It's become a competition as to who is sicker and who is suffering more. Funny how life changes lol

  11. Dear Kathy, do you remember when Jack Benny would always say that he was 39? As a youth, I thought of this as a joke. But now I think that Benny felt 39 within his heart and soul and spirit and mind and so he gave the age he felt, instead of his actual biological age. Like you, I feel young and vibrant and eager for the next part of this journey. And yet, I'm so aware that others are seeing me and offering to help me--carry the groceries to my car from the store for instance. Oh, if only we could be as respectful toward all human beings as we now seem to be toward "the elderly." Peace.

  12. I was feeling older until we went to Kenya. Just got home today. I was able to manage all the travel, all the game drives, all the time changes. I decided not to wear makeup because I was wearing sunscreen. When I look in the mirror I look old to myself. But apparently there's enough of me left to visit Africa.

  13. Oh Kathy, this is so very funny. It can’t be very amusing at the time when people lump you in with the past-its - I am one, so I’m only rude to myself - but for an outsider it is.

    Last time I went into hospital the nurse asked my age and when I told her she exclaimed: really, you’ll have to tell me your secret. But I do colour my hair and cream my face religiously.

  14. While reading, I laughed some and sometimes I didn't.

    My latest favorite phrase is, "It is what it is."

    I'm one of those women who had a child at 42. LOL But I hang on to the fact that my grandmother had one at 42 also and lived to be 99.

    My mother has skinny legs and used to say, "I got two husbands with these legs."

    It's always something... for all of us.

    Sounds like and appears that you've had a successful, and hopefully, peaceful life. And that's what's important.