A lot went down on our old Ercol, floral sofa. It took pride of place in the ‘TV room’ and it was where we all came together… somewhat stiffly … lined up like The Walton’s to watch the TV. It was also the location for any important ‘chats,’ a bit like the command centre for family affairs. My Dad still has that sofa, pushed up against the wall in a ‘good’ room he never uses. Neglected like a forsaken relic from a past life that has fallen into a state of disrepair. The basket weave of webbing that supported its cushions has split, dangling down like a sad reminder of its former glory. Sometimes when I visit Dad, I rest my head on the cushions of that sofa and inhale the memories that have impregnated their every fibre.
I remember sitting on that sofa next to my mum, teasing her about the wobbly flaps on the undersides of her forearms. I would ‘jiggle’ them back and forth and then go on to pinch the skin on the top of her hands and make fun of how it would stay sitting up in small folds like teeny stalagmites, suspended in time … not spring back into place like the skin on my own youthful hand. I can almost hear her voice saying; “Darling, my body might be fifty, but in my mind I don’t feel a day over twenty-five. You just wait til you’re this age.” I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was being sincere, but I wasn’t buying into it. I was twelve and I felt fifteen, not six, so why should she feel half her age? I mean she looked old, so it would stand to reason that she should feel old too? But like many things she said that made little sense at the time, I get it now. I don’t think it was her delivery that was the problem. She could have weaved her message into the lyrics of a Spandau Ballet song and it would have made no difference, because when we are young, the future seems so far away.
I understand now, that what my Mum was trying to say was that she didn’t ‘identify’ with her chronological age, much like I don’t identify with mine now. The by-product of fifty birthdays is a total mismatch between how old I am, how old I feel and how old I look, a discrepancy that was never more horrifically apparent than when I walked into my thirty year school reunion. The room was full of people who used to be my age, but were now much, much older than me. They looked familiar but different. They looked like their Mums. Perhaps I had inadvertently walked into the wrong reunion? But they were greeting me like I belonged. And then it dawned on me … I was in the right place. These were my classmates. We were the same age now as many of our Mums had been, the last time we’d met. I was one of them in body, but not in spirit and I wondered if everyone in the room secretly felt the same way. This fault line of age incongruity has widened with every passing year and now the chasm between how old I feel and how old I am seems impossible to reconcile.
My ‘looks’ are like the negotiator called in to mediate between these two sides who refuse to meet in the middle, but they are dealing with some invisible adversaries of their own, like gravity (which has a lot to answer for) and Mother Nature, who it turns out, is an ageist bitch. The ultimate paradox of aging is, that it’s our greatest hope to grow old… we just don’t want to be old or look old. Oh, and we also don’t want to appear as though we’re trying not to look old. Capiche? But ageing is a perk not a penance. As Ashton Applewhite said in her popular TED talk titled Let’s End Ageism, “Ageing is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.” In a world that is increasingly segregated by race, religion, colour and class, the ‘gift’ that is aging should unify us not divide us further or worse still, pit us against our future selves. We are all old people in training, but the manual we inherited that outlines how a 50-year-old woman should look and behave, was clearly written by a misogynistic bloke, because there is no way any self-respecting woman would have written that story.
The idea of aging gracefully (with elegance and poise) is silently loaded with rhetoric and innuendo. It oozes an overtone of resignation, a cinematic fade to be followed by a surreptitious exit stage left. A polite way of encouraging a generation of people to step out of the limelight, occupy as little space as humanly possible, hoist up the white flag and conform to antiquated, societal stereotypes that are outlined in a rulebook of unknown origin. I often wonder who wrote the rulebook of aging gracefully and if someone from the International Department of Aging is accountable for periodically updating it. Because a LOT has changed. Over the course of the last fifty years, this war to stave off the ravages of time has been aided (and abetted … depending on your standpoint), by significant advancements in the field of ‘cosmetic intervention.’ In this superficial world, obsessed with youth and filled with absurdly unrealistic images of “real” housewives and a plethora of other ‘enhanced’ stars, we are bombarded with contradictory messages about beauty and aging and I for one, admit that I am a little conflicted on this issue. Officially, I subscribe to the ‘just because you can does not mean you should’ philosophy, but I confess to having dabbled with a few (non invasive) cosmetic procedures over the years. In all honesty, I could be tempted to experiment further, but I fear that I might be standing on the precipice of a slippery slope, that ends with a face that takes on that homogeneous look of ironed foreheads, lifted brows and plumped up cheeks, shared by many women who have been seduced by one too many vials of filler.
A few years ago, I did have a consultation with a plastic surgeon, but left his surgery feeling more despondent than when I arrived. Armed with the world’s largest hand held magnifying glass and what looked like a laundry marker, he went to town on my face, pointing out all my shortcomings, which ranged from droopy eyelids to marionette lines, crows feet, a dominant jawline, sagging cheeks, thin lips, large pores, rosacea, liver spots and a prominent frown line. Awesome. “Is that it?” I replied sarcastically. Apparently he did not share my dry sense of humour. He began searching for more flaws like his life depended on it. When he ran out of space on my face he then turned his attention to my arm and pointed out what I considered to be a slightly bumpy but innocuous mole. With an alarming degree of misplaced enthusiasm, he went on to advise me that this in fact, was a ‘senile wart.’ Seriously? That dude must have had a sense of humour after all. Because ‘senile wart’ cannot be a thing. It sounds more like a venereal disease that one might expect to catch in a nursing home, and I was beginning to believe that the good doctor was not just a sadist, but that he also received a referral commission from the psychiatrist across the hall, who I suspected must specialise in post cosmetic consultation induced depression. I felt entirely defeated. Had he ‘drip fed’ me the extent and severity of my multitude of shortcomings, I may have been tempted to experiment with some of his suggested remedies. But, so overwhelmed was I by his analysis of my defects, that I left (with my senile warts and sagging cheeks in toe) feeling entirely deflated (like my boobs). There was only one possible remedy for this dire situation. Retail therapy. ‘Investing’ in another miracle cream to add to my repertoire was surely the answer. I think the one I purchased (at great expense), may have contained traces of the rare Amazonian boo boo berry mixed with shavings of rare pink diamonds and a spritz of ape shit. That would most certainly do the trick.
After much consideration, I have concluded that aging gracefully is the ultimate societal hypocrisy. We are coerced into believing in this meritorious ideal of just surrendering gracefully to the vagaries of time, and then we are punished for doing so, which leads to this ‘black market’ situation, a bit like the sporting equivalent of performance enhancing drugs. Abstinence is meritorious, but the temptation exists to do whatever you can get away with whilst simultaneously avoiding detection. Perhaps a better alternative to the ‘aging gracefully’ idiom, is ‘aging gratefully.’ Because, after all … the alternative to aging is way less appealing and I am for one am grateful for every year I have the opportunity to age. But if living and aging are synonymous, why don’t we embrace the natural and beautiful side effects of both? We are far more forgiving of a piece of furniture, seeing beauty and value in its history and signs of wear, than we are of our own bodies, in which we desperately try to mask the perceived imperfections and hide the signs of aging that society has conditioned us to believe aren’t beautiful. Mid century design and furniture is revered way more than mid century women! If only we would all acknowledge and celebrate the beauty in our own imperfections. Or better still not see them as imperfections at all, but rather as beautiful reminders of the passing of time and the gift of life.
Now more than ever, as I age, I want to celebrate the history of my life that is reflected back at me when I look in the mirror. Try to reframe my appearance, as though I am looking at myself through the eyes of a loving parent and embrace the wabi sabi beauty in all of my shortcomings and imperfections. I can see my Mum’s smoky green eyes framed by the lines of a million smiles, my Dad’s ample forehead imprinted with the grooves of concentration and concern and my Grandma’s ‘rosebud’ lips that have fed me and formed millions of magical words. As I look down, I see a map of freckles on my sun kissed chest and a tummy that shows the signs of being home to other lives. A beautiful patchwork of the people I love reflected back at me. Perfectly imperfect, just as I am.