‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck. Or so my mother told me.

Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that we must overcome: cover your neck and elbows so that no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.

The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me, you can always tell the women who’ve spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her sister who wrote from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my aunt’s insides running out through the hole below. I could see my aunt on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like her, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility. People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when she was still a young woman able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the queue because the person serving has not noticed you standing there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm.

The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground hog day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

And nothing new happens from one minute to the next save the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them because those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they are too busy tending to their own lot.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life.

And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through their mind as fast as it goes through yours: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself.

As Joan Didion writes:

‘I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

‘When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.’



6 thoughts on “‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’”

  1. The last time I was 31 was probably in my early twenties. I’ve never been my age. In ‘The More Things Change’ I make mention of this when I say Jim had been forty even since he was thirty. I’ve always looked older then I am. I’m 58 now and I’ve still not caught up. I look like a pensioner. The last time I asked anyone what age they thought I was I was 48 and the young woman said I looked like her retired uncle. I don’t mind. I’ve got used to it. For the longest time it even pleased me. But then I’m a man. I’m well aware there are double standards. I would certainly never do anything to change my looks. If Carrie wasn’t here to manage my hair I’d probably wear my beard shorter so I could take care of it myself but that’s got nothing to do with vanity. Vain I am not, not in the least. I don’t like looking bad in photos but badly taken photos can make anyone look awful. I should really update my profile picture online. It’s years old now and my beard’s a lot whiter. I like to think I have character. But being invisible I would regard as a blessing. I don’t like to be noticed and I positively hate being the centre of attention. I’ve always been a backroom boy. It’s why I don’t do better promoting my writing because promoting your writing mostly involved promoting YOU and I can never think of anything interesting to say. No, I’m perfectly happy to be the old guy shuffling around in the background. I do, however, remember the first time I was called a man. I must’ve been about 13 or 14 and had knocked on someone’s door for a reason long forgotten. A little boy answered it, took one look at me towering above him and bellowed, “Maaaaam! There’s a man at the door.” Fair made my day that did. It’s been all downhill since.

    1. I remember too, Jim, that sense of being forever young when young and not feeling that anyone makes you seriously and then suddenly the reverse and still no one takes you seriously. I reckon it’s okay to be invisible as long as you’re not wanting attention but if you were in a shop trying to get attention and you were ignored and someone else given preference purely because of their age and appearance then you might feel otherwise. I think it’s also worse of you feel invisible inside. With a reasonable degree of self confidence we can weather these storms. At least I hope we can. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Elisabeth, I have just returned from Europe as an ‘older’ traveller and your words have hit the mark. I became very aware that I am now an invisible old woman with deep pockets. Once upon a time I used to be able to connect with hotel staff, hospitality staff and virtually anyone I came into contact with. When I travelled with my husband I had no reason to notice the loneliness but this time I felt dismissed and ignored and of no value other than my credit card. I actually became quite homesick, something I have never experienced before, so desperate was I for someone to talk to. It will be a long time before I leave our shores again.

    1. Welcome back, Karen. I’m sorry to hear your experience overseas was so awful. This business of disappearing is truly awful and worse as you say when you’re treated merely as a ‘credit card’. I’ve been talking to one of my daughters about capitalism and the way it corrupts people into losing touch with values of decency. When capitalism mixes with sexism and ageism we truly have a toxic mix. Good that you’re home again and can feel something of how much you actually matter despite the cruelty of strangers. Thanks, Karen.

  3. I’ve reached the age where I’m no longer in my prime, and I hate the thought of being invisible and unattractive to others. I try not to think about it, to be honest, yet when I read pieces like this I’m reminded of it, and it makes me feel really sad, almost tearfully so.
    At the same time, I don’t want to return to the more youthful me, as unwrinkled as she might have been. With increasing age has come a confidence and wisdom I didn’t have in my younger years, and which I love and never want to lose again.
    Besides, when all else fails, at least we have our kids, so a part of us is always youthful! 😉

    1. I like Anne Lamott’s notion that it’s best we not compare our insides to other people’s outsides, Louise. Just because others might treat us as invisible, doesn’t mean we need to oblige. These days I’m determined to stay visible despite my determination in years gone by to hide. But it’s not easy. Thanks Louise.

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