Old is when?

Life in the Pedestrian Lane

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2006

Copyright 2006 Virginia Walters

  Virginia Walters


Virginia Walters

When I was a kid — granted that was more than a couple of years ago — little old ladies wore long black dresses down to their shoe tops. The shoes were blunt-toed black lace-ups with clunky heels, and their stockings, if you caught a glimpse, were dark-colored, too. Some wore a shawl over bent shoulders and many of them walked with a slight stoop, leaning on a walking stick. Think of the pictures you saw of Hansel and Gretel’s witch and you have a visual of how I, at the tender age of 5 or 6, perceived these women.

I thought of that the other day when I was driving through a Kenai neighborhood looking for a garage sale and saw an old lady — really old, maybe 90 — sitting on her porch in a rocking chair dressed in a long garment, except it was bright blue with big colorful flowers adorning it and she was barefoot.

A lot was made last month about former Beatle Paul McCartney turning 64 and about his (not quite prophetic) song, “When I’m 64.” Remember 40 years ago when 64 was old (or you thought it was)? Now it’s just getting your second wind. Grandmas these days are skydiving and the last 64-year-old man I saw was mud-bogging on a four-wheeler he’d just gotten for his birthday.

When was the last time you saw a grandma who baked cookies or knitted stockings? These days they are too busy taking classes in applied economics or traveling to exotic places. Some — the slow learners — are even having babies.

And the grandpas don’t sit and whittle anymore. They’re out with Grandma scuba diving or running around in a red convertible (or Hummer, whichever) impressing the younger folks. I know a grandpa who learned to skateboard so he wouldn’t be conspicuous when he takes the grandkids to the skate park. (At least he isn’t dancing on TV to sell mattresses.)

It could be that grandparents are getting younger. I know a few in their 30s, but I think it is because 60 is the new 45 (you know, like green is the new black). People at 60 these days are still doing what people used to stop doing at 45. No gray hair (only your hairdresser knows), fewer wrinkles, little flabby skin (well, maybe for some), lots of energy and more curiosity than sense sometimes. So-called “senior citizens” are so involved with being senior citizens they don’t have time to be OLD. Where is the rest promised in the “golden years?” Where is the “retire” in retirement?

I’m not sure when it changed. My grandma was always there when I was growing up. She wore flowered cotton dresses with an apron over top and she baked lots of cookies and really great pies. If I needed a little extra TLC, I could always go to Grandma’s and she’d have time to play dominoes or teach me to sew or just sit with me and be quiet.

Then about 1965, when she was 70 years old, she bought a pantsuit. They were high fashion that year: every color polyester, very easy care. We never saw her legs again. Soon after that she started traveling with her sisters. They flitted all over the country and if they weren’t off someplace, she had a club meeting to attend. At 80 she got her ears pierced for her birthday and started playing pinochle in the evenings with her friends. We gave her a big celebration for her 100th and when my cousin asked her how much champagne to buy she responded, “Well, champagne will be nice, but MY friends really prefer beer.”

Grandma left us a few years ago at 105. She had slowed down a little: stopped driving, didn’t go out at night, rested some during the day. When we buried her, we searched to the back of every closet and couldn’t even find a black dress!

In my very short life (relatively speaking, of course) times have changed enough that not only do I not believe I am old, society doesn’t, either (except for that gum-snapping, pierced-nosed, skinny little airhead who suggested that maybe I’d prefer the beige blouse to the bright yellow pullover top “at my age”).

By today’s standards, that old lady barefoot on the porch last week would still have been a young woman back in the day. She most likely has the same memory of those little old black-clad women that I do and I can hear her saying to herself, “I will never wear those clunky shoes.”

I still haven’t figured out when “old” is, but I’m pretty sure it’s at least 15 years older than me anytime I consider it. And, no, I don’t have a black dress.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.

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