I never thought about being old until I was.
I knew older folks, been around them all my life, but I didn’t dwell on the idea that I would someday be old myself.
Of course, I knew I would grow old, but I never worried about it. I was too busy living each stage of my life to wonder about the next phase.
What 7-year-old thinks about what life will be like when you become 40? And most 20 year olds don’t have time to contemplate the challenges facing a 60-year-old. Even as I saw my parents age and die, I didn’t internalize how I would look, how I would act, how I would live when I reached the age that we consider ‘old’.
I remember in college I asked a friend what her goals were following graduation. Her reply bumfuzzled me.
“I want to grow old gracefully,” she said.
Hello. You are 21 and you want to grow old gracefully? Come on, what the heck does that mean?
First of all, doing anything gracefully was not part of my daily routine. I couldn’t get in or out of a bathtub gracefully, much less age with any expectation of doing so with refinement and poise.
My mother must have recognized I was not destined to be the epitome of polish, so she took steps to remedy my lacking social skills. She sent me off to a girls’ school in the deep south. We are talking on the Gulf coast of Mississippi: way south. She thought learning how to eat fried chicken with a fork, and attending formal teas on Sunday afternoons would provide a crash course in turning a very ‘rough around the edges’ west Texas girl into a Southern Belle.
Her motivation might have been her fear I would marry a local boy and remain in this small country town destined to a dull and uninteresting life, But, she insisted sending me away for my senior year of high school had to do with a better education and teaching me how ‘the other half’ lived.
School officials did their best to sandpaper away the jagged points that defined my personality. I learned how to properly pass salt and pepper shakers to the person sitting next to me. I mastered making my way along a receiving line while mumbling ridiculous greetings. I also developed a liking for butter knives, an instrument unknown to me at the time, but now helps me define a really ‘fine’ restaurant.
When I graduated from high school in 1960, I could hold my own in southern social circles, But, alas, there was no great (or even small) demand for southern belles. Those days were rapidly waning.
In fact, times were not just slowly changing; that train was speeding full throttle into the Vietnam War, hippies, drugs, free love, Woodstock, and miniskirts. Eating fried chicken with a fork was at the bottom of most social agendas. After all, fast food didn’t require a knife or a fork.
Suffice to say 9 months at a ‘finishing’ school didn’t ‘finish’ me. I still had lots of growing, testing, experimenting, learning, tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, and living to do. And I did all of that. Some of those experiences were amusing, a number of them would fall into the category of ‘please never let me do this again’, and some would be write-offs, tossed out the window of lost causes.
I understand they were all necessary in order for me to reach the ripe age of advanced adulthood. As I tell folks, if you haven’t experienced debilitating heartbreak, wondrous joy, excruciating pain, and belly laughing embarrassment, then you just haven’t lived long enough. Stay around, keep living, and all of those things will happen to you, at the most inconvenient times.
So, one aging day at a time, I’m learning what being ‘old’ means, and how to do it. Not gracefully, but with determination, high expectations, and pink hair.
If still around, the head mistress at Gulf Park would be shaking her head and declaring me ‘unfinished’.
Unfinished, but still kicking.