(This article previously appeared on latetothehaight.blogspot.com.)
I’m 16, sitting in the kitchen at my boyfriend’s house, talking to his mother, while Joey gets ready for our bike ride. Adele Lawton — Mrs. Dr. Roger Lawton — is very nice. She offers me lemonade and asks me questions about school. She wears a dress, a dark print, with stockings and flats. I figure she is just a little older than my mom, maybe in her mid-50s.
Joey tells me his parents go to a lot of costume parties, whoop it up and drink and dance. That’s not the woman I see sitting across from me. In a moment of panic, I wonder if Mrs. Lawton suspects that Joey and I spend more time necking than riding bikes. I open my eyes wide and flash my most innocent virginal smile. She doesn’t notice. That’s not what’s on her mind.
Mrs. Lawton leans across the table. “You’re 16. You look at me and you see Joey’s mother, an old woman. That’s who I see when I look in the mirror, too,” she says. "But inside, I am 16, like you." She settles back in her kitchen chair. “I remember 16," she says. "I remember 25. I remember 40. I do not feel the age I am, the age I look.”
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Suddenly, I see her at 16, laughing with friends, dressing carefully for school, flirting with boys. I see her at 25, married to a handsome doctor, starting a family. I see her at 40, dressed in an exotic pagan goddess costume, paying the babysitter when she and Dr. Lawton return home from a party.
Adele Lawton has just told me that inside, she is all these people at once.
Visions From the Past
Now I’m 66, but I remember 16. I remember 25. I remember 40. And I remember two months ago, when I’m sitting inside a large, round glass column, sort of a tall test tube designed to hold one person. This cylinder is closed at the top, but it has a door and I can see out.
The medical technician is a short, thirtysomething man, cheerful but professionally impersonal. He explains how I am to breathe into the hoses extending into the cylinder. We practice together, panting in unison, for six or seven breaths.
I’ve got this. It’s like panting during labor. Been there, done that. For 40 minutes, I pant while the technician stares at monitors. When the panting gets tough, he acts as a cheerleader. “Good! You’re doing great! Just a few more minutes now! Keep it up!”
Finally, the test is over. “Look at this,” the technician says, pointing to graphs on a monitor. “Look at these numbers! You have better lung function than I do!” The test proves, he adds, that I do not have asthma. I exhale, greatly relieved, and turn to flash him a big smile.
Then I hear the technician say this: “When I saw your age and weight on the chart, I didn’t have a lot of hope for you.”
What? I want to slug him, pound on him, make him take it back.
Suddenly, visions of my athletic prowess race through my mind — me, winning a belly dancing contest on a cruise on the Nile. Me, chasing — and catching — buses all over San Francisco. Me, hiking to the top of Angel Island (OK, I cried a little along the way, but I made it to the top).
Next, I mentally gloat over my most recent blood work. I need a button that reads, “Ask me about my triglycerides.” I pat myself on the back — figuratively, of course — for losing 80 pounds some 10 years ago and keeping 70 of them off.
Yet, in that room at that moment with that technician, I am just an old, overweight, red-faced woman — one with clenched fists. I can’t outrun security guards, so I decide to wound him with words. "Don’t you ever make assumptions about people you know nothing about,” I roar. Then I stomp out.
I am still new to being old. I am startled that I have gray hair, but smart enough to know if I color it, I will never get a seat on the bus. The occasional physical limitation conflicts with my self-image, and I now get why I am too old to fall.
(MORE: The Fear of Looking Old: Let It Go)
The Story of My Hands
As for my hands — I do remain in awe of these hands, hands that have allowed me to earn a living as a writer for over 40 years. Through the decades, I’ve interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of older people, and now I realize I was on the outside, looking in.
Now that I’m on the inside, I would ask different questions:
- How do you like being ignored, overlooked, undervalued — invisible?
- Do you find it hilarious that young people think they invented sex?
- Are you angry that so much of what you know, what you worked for your whole life, what you’ve accomplished, is now disregarded?
- Just how much do you miss cute shoes?
- Are you unnerved because most of your life is behind you?
- Do you relate at all to the word “elderhood?” Beware: it’s coming soon from the mouth of a medical professional near you.
Back to my hands. I have to admit I don’t much like how my hands look.
My right hand now squares off at the wrist. There is a knot on my left thumb. And one of my little fingers is so crooked that it looks like a new mom standing with her hip jutted out to hold a baby.
I look at these hands and I see wrinkles, a few age spots, a weird bony bump. Yep, these are the hands of an older woman. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming…
I’m 26, visiting my neighbor, sipping tea and talking. Anita reaches for my hand. She holds it a minute, strokes it. “Look how smooth and soft your hand is,” she says, “how youthful and pretty.”
Anita — in her mid-60s then, a retired pediatric nurse — compares her hand to mine. “My hand is wrinkled,” she says, “with age spots. My thumb has a big knot on it and two of my fingers have decided to stiffen up and grow crooked.” Anita stares at her hand. “When did that happen?”
Now I’m the one with the old-lady hands. Every day I use them to push away the past, hang on to the present, grasp for the future. They have another use, as well. One day last month, my grandson, who is just three, looks at me and asks: “Nana, are you a grownup?”
"No,” I say to Max. “I am a girl." Then these girlish hands grab him — and hold him close.
Hey, I remember 3!
Patricia Corrigan is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in USA Today, Toastmakers International and Family Fun.
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