I’ve lived my life with enthusiasm, courage, raucousness and passion. Why on Earth would I want to grow old gracefully?
Why would I want to be Whistler’s Mother when my whole life what I’ve wanted to be is Mae West?
Let’s face it: It’s about as likely that I'll become calm, serene and dignified as I age as it was that I’d be prim, proper and sweet in my youth.
Those were always lovely fantasies — for somebody else. But like charming dresses that would never flatter me, I don’t fit into these patterns. They weren’t designed with me in mind. No matter how I try to tailor them or hold my breath long enough to slip them on, I know they’d be confining, inappropriate and impossible to carry off.
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But “growing old gracefully” is one of those phrases we’ve heard so often we’ve internalized the concept without examining it. I’ve decided that as I age, rather than becoming contemplative and introspective, to become more disruptive, seditious and boisterous instead.
Not only am I not going gentle into that good night, I am not going gracefully into that late afternoon. I intend to go as gentle as a mastodon stuck in a tar pit.
I want to be one of those women who brandish a cane. I come from a family of people with bad knees, so that particular accessory is probably in my future. But I don’t plan to “carry,” “rely upon” or “make occasional use” of a cane, but to brandish it. The two things a person can brandish are canes and swords, and I’m unlikely to model myself after either Xena, the Warrior Princess, or Joan of Arc at this stage (although anything is possible). Cane it is.
I might also start carrying a flask. It might contain gin; it might contain Ensure. What it contains is beside the point: What matters is that I will be able to whip out a flask.
I might also begin to dispense some of my possessions to the young under my care. This will happen in those instances where I can now afford to purchase higher quality goods. “Please take this handmade quilt. Grandma’s gonna get some sheets from Frette’s.”
After 50, you can begin to distinguish what actually makes you happy from what you’ve always done to please others. Being able to define that difference is an accomplishment. It’s one of those areas of expertise that takes at least 10,000 hours to learn.
After a certain age, you finally become the indisputable authority on the subject of yourself.
It’s absurd to think that you’re then supposed to spend all your time sitting quietly while people tell you dull stories about their kids (whom you don’t know), their dogs (who have a limited range of talents, although often cuter and less self-involved than their kids) or their gall bladder surgery (more engaging than either offspring or pets).
Is it simply a lack of imagination that makes us view old age as a time of life when people are mostly worried about what will get stuck in their trachea? Or is it because we’re still bound by weirdly constructed and entirely arbitrary definitions telling us how people are supposed to act at a certain age?
When I was a girl, I was told I wasn’t supposed to be energetic, ambitious or competitive. I was told I wasn’t supposed to be fierce, seditious or demanding. I didn’t listen then; why would I listen now, when I’m being told essentially the same thing — a version of “Sit down and be quiet”?
It’s easy to say that what I really want for my 80th birthday is to be surrounded by loved ones and to have my health, but what I truly believe I'll want on my 80th birthday is a leased Ferrari and a month at the Waldorf. I’m 57, so if I’m lucky, I have a little time to make plans.
But on his deathbed, my father preferred Prosecco sipped from a straw to chicken soup; he was a good role model. Like him, I’d rather be a legend than leave a legacy.
Rather than grow old gracefully, I want to grow old gaudily.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.
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