How I wish I could hibernate for the next thirty years — no make that twenty — so I could suddenly wake up feeling old and being okay with it. Gray hair: check. Wrinkles everywhere: check. White eyelashes: check. Liver spots (ugh): check. I’m all here, but I’m calm in my old age and not fighting to be a young old person coloring my hair, wearing ingénue clothes, working at breakneck speed to keep up with a race for new technology that I cannot win.
And there I would be, coming out into the light of day, stretching, yawning, squinting from the glare; nearly falling from the atrophy of unused muscles; my hair long like Rip Van Winkle’s, my fingers gnarly and stiff from arthritis, but all of the trappings of being old are hanging happily on my psyche because it’s okay to look old at the age we all know is finally old.
It used to be that fifty-five was old. People retired then. Next, the age went to sixty-five, jumping some invisible chasm from which retirement definition comes in non-dictionary form, to be suddenly the number chronologically at which one turns out the lights to one’s office for the last time. You close the blinds, turn off the computer, turn to look one last time at the place you called work, and bend down to pick up the box full of stuff that you accumulated and that they cannot keep for the next desk jockey to house your spot: your nameplate, your own crystal tennis ball paperweight from your twenty-first birthday; pictures of your mom and dad when they were young; a completely different century where horse-drawn carriages still peppered the byways.
Your handcrafted leather-handled letter opener combination staple remover (you always used it for both) and pictures of your children, your grandchildren, all four of your dogs and the last picture your youngest child drew in watercolor class in fifth grade are all there. He became a famous chef and caters to the rich and famous in a snooty New York City restaurant with and unpronounceable name meaning “Chicken Feed” to those in the know and who care. Most people don’t. And you’ve just had your last treadmill test; the ticker is ticking, like a well-oiled time bomb wanting to blow up the thing you have deftly called life, but you’re not really sure anymore. It could be something else — a dream, a play, or a movie.
* * *
Here’s my life at eighty-seven.
I’m a little old lady in tennis shoes, a member of the Red Hat Society; purple dresses, traveling with a carpetbag. I’m feisty and spry. I have no kids, no husbands, no PTAs no big house to clean, no laundry to speak of. I have an herb garden and tomatoes in pots. Where am I? I’m spending long days and cozy nights by a fake fireplace in a tiny, neat condo near a park. I live in a small town with a university at its center; I take classes and walk in the woods. I put up the tomatoes, write stories and essays, make mosaics, try to play the piano, and read to the kids at the local library, acting out the parts with wide eyes, arching eyebrows and big arm gestures. The children squeal with delight as I act out Little Red Riding Hood or Stella Luna to these lucky few that aren’t so mesmerized by television and computers that they actually enjoy the story. I’m happy in my tennis shoes. Happiest still in a pair of old-lady pedal pushers or jeans and baking brownies. Or not. No one really cares. I’m the only one I need to do for now. Yes, I like seeing the grandkids, but I don’t want them over every day. Oh. But they’re here today.
“Grandma Kaffrum, Grandma Kaffrum,” they call me now. “Can you help us make a blanket fort?”
I love blanket forts. I made them with our kids until they became quite the edifices that surpassed my talents: the kids had a dining room, living room, and TV room, all separated out nicely in their blanket forts, and I was proud. Going deftly and carefully from one soft-sided room to another without pulling the walls down with bigger clumsier feet than those of my little boys made me happy. And letting them sleep in the fort was a special treat for special kids. I remember the time when “closets” were added with boxes and masking tape, and doors made out of appliance box flaps had “Keep Out” signs emblazoned in big block letters with the skull and crossbones to scare away the meek and tender. Flashlights made strange light forms on the ceiling as the rays bent and twisted through the blanket folds.
I miss those times and hope for their return when I wake up from my next hibernation. As in why not?