Last night, the night before turning 50, my 47-year-old brother called me. “This is the last time I’m going to speak to you in your forties,” he said. “Wow, this is big. Turning 50 is big.” He asked me how I was feeling.
“I feel fine,” I told him, and I did.
“I don’t,” he said.
He called back the next morning. “This is big,” he continued as if we’d never hung up. “Fifty. My sister is fifty. I feel like some sort of baton is being passed and it’s not a good one.” Hours later, a bouquet of flowers the size of Mars arrived from him. A gesture of condolence, he joked, as much as celebration. I was able to laugh because, as I mentioned, I felt fine.
Six months ago, however, I did not. I was spiraling fast and furious into old age. Why? I stopped getting my period. While turning 50 in and of itself didn’t bother me, forty-nine sans the cycle did. My bones, I imagined, were becoming more brittle by the minute. When I looked in the mirror at my body, I saw skin shriveling. I saw my breasts sagging (even though they are fake due to reconstruction following a mastectomy and so don’t budge let alone sag). I saw myself shrinking. I saw visions of my grandmother and all the other grandmas who, during our Christmas vacations in Florida, shuffled themselves to the card section of the pool deck in their various shades of grey hair and colored house coats.
“That’s me without Martha (my hair colorist),” I said to my husband, as I pointed to a picture of the aforementioned grandmothers circa 1975. Never mind that I’ve been coloring my hair since my mid-twenties. For nearly three decades I’ve been getting rid of the grey on a monthly basis and never once did I correlate the act with age. Only with annoyance at the activity’s time and expense.
But now that I was old, the grey meant something. The word matronly came to mind, and there it stayed, instigating a host of matronly actions. I grew hyper-conscious of other women who were not out to pasture…all the young ones. Suddenly, it seemed, there were so many young ones. Two of them who lived under my roof.
“Do you want these?” I said to my sixteen-year-old daughters, as I held up my cut-offs—my beloved jean shorts. If ever there was a symbol of youth it is the cut-off. And if ever there was a cut-off date for cut-offs, I figured, it had to be “the change.” I recalled all too well the grandmothers in Florida who strutted around the pool deck in overly youthful one-piece suits and heeled sandals. Even as a kid, I sensed they were fighting too hard against the inevitable. I would not be one of those women, and so I bestowed my cut-offs upon the next generation. At the same time, I bought a pair of practical loafers. I also took up canasta. Now, once a week, a group of middle-aged women come over to play cards.
My mother tried to convince me of the upsides of menopause. “Goodbye and good luck,” she said to me as I mourned my loss. “You’ll never have another headache or buy another tampon. Think about all the free’d up space under your bathroom sink.”
Her pep talk didn’t help. Not that I was ever attached to Aunt Flo, as we used to call her back when sanitary pads were the size of diving boards. She never treated me well. Her visits were erratic, and she was totally inept. I had to outsource my childbearing to a lab and a test tube. Nonetheless, when one of your systems shuts down for good, when you cannot have another baby no matter how much you don’t want one anyways, you can no longer deny that you are a woman of a certain age. And that age, regardless of years, is old. What else is fertility if not the poster-child for youth and vitality?
Age is a state of mind. We hear this all of the time. Though often, I notice, by men. Mark Twain said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” The genius, Albert Einstein, came up with, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
These bromides are just the kind of soundbites that our culture likes to throw around these days; self-help softballs. Aphorisms under the umbrella of “stay positive” that are simple to say and make you feel like a moron for not being able to implement into your own daily life. Forty is the new thirty. Fifty is the new thirty. We may as well all be f’ing thirty.
Maybe we can’t implement them because they’re just not true. A woman can tell herself all day long that age is an attitude, but the reality is, when you no longer get your period, when that well runs dry, you are not thirty. (And if you are, you have a medical condition called Premature Ovarian Failure, which probably makes you feel like you are fifty.) “Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do.” This, from Golda Meir. #I’mWithHer.
I think attitude about age stems more from one’s state of being than state of mind. Whether a person defines herself as young or old depends on how one feels on any given day rather than simply on what one thinks about the number of her years.
Last fall, for example, when I herniated my back and could not walk for weeks, I felt about ninety-three. Just like having a fifty-year-old sister made my brother feel seventy-five, and having a fifty-year-old daughter made my 75-year-old mother feel ancient. All the while the fifty-year-old herself felt terrific because just last week, while I was, ironically, playing canasta with the ladies, Aunt Flo miraculously re-appeared. Suddenly I felt forty-nine again. Age comes and, apparently, goes with the flow.
Perhaps it’s her swan song, Flo’s grand finale, but either way she’s a gift. I am, for at least the time being, out of the storm of old-age described by Golda. On my fiftieth birthday, what more could I want? Besides a new pair of cut-offs.
Francie Arenson Dickman has a new novel coming out October 9, 2018. Check it out and put it on your reading list.