Fear of aging starts early, at least for women. Every girl child shudders at the cruelty of Snow White’s stepmother as she plots to murder the fresh and lovely beauty rather than submit to the ugly truth her talking mirror is pronouncing. Hansel and Gretel also had a mean old stepmother who drove them into the clutches of a child-eating witch. Folk tales often feature old women with pointed hats, hairy chins and knobby noses, flying through the night on Halloween or stirring their cauldrons of bubbling hate, as did Shakespeare’s three weird sisters.
In her novel, “The Mandarins,” Simone de Beauvoir gives us this reflection on aging women: “They’re old, worn-out hags, I thought, and I’m the same age as they.” Coming from one of the 20th century’s most famous feminists, these words resound with special force for women (like me), perhaps overtaken by age on the exterior but still young and spry in heart and mind.
Each time I look in a mirror or see my face reflected on the iPad, I shudder and wonder how on Earth I came to be one of those sorry old women I never thought I would be. I look for clues in photographs and biographies of women born around my own birth year.
By happy accident or divine plan, my cousin and I were born 70-some years ago on the exact same day in August, almost-twin daughters of two sisters who had married two brothers just a few weeks apart. With genes and signs in sync, we have always been able to look at each other to know how we must appear to others. Now, our wrinkles, our arthritis and our mutual boredom with cooking and housework match up as well as our discreetly colored heads of hair.
Friends I see on a regular basis age too slowly for me to notice the changes, until I am suddenly shocked to learn that one has breast cancer, another has macular degeneration and still another needs two new knees. At my college reunion, I looked in vain for those cute, crew-cut, buttoned-down boys I had once danced with and the poodle-skirted, fluffy-sweatered sorority sisters who had styled my hair and fixed me up with blind dates. Instead, I had to face my own vulnerabilities as I watched those old people, yes, my peers, no longer twisting and shouting but, in fact, barely hobbling across the ballroom floor.
Some people my age enjoy revisiting their youthful days and nights of dancing to doo-wop, but my best of times and worst of times were the years I spent at home mothering four sons in five years, with one later addition to round our number up to five. Through the early 1970s, my salvation was to keep all the boys in one room with me as I struggled to learn guitar chords well enough to play along with Peter, Paul and Mary. Now, when my grandkids’ Karaoke machine plays “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” I ache for the loss of that golden-haired, golden-voiced Mary Travers, once so slim and so exact in diction, reduced at the end to sickness and silence.
Gloria Steinem, on the other hand, has managed to retain her stunning good looks and impeccable wardrobe to this day, more than a month after her 80th birthday. But she always did have good, strong hair to go with her powerful brain, and she had no children, having put off marriage until she was 66. She may still be a feminist icon, but probably not the right peer image for me.
Perhaps I could find the correct way to “look my age” by referencing the appearance and demeanor of my foremothers. Whether searching through old photograph albums or my own bank of memories, I always see my maternal grandmother as terribly, terribly old. Despite the shy loveliness of her bridal portrait at age 16, I only knew her as a formidable figure, encased in a house dress adorned with apron, her thin grey hair caught up and hidden in a crocheted cap, her legs popping with blue veins flowing toward her rolled-down hose.
My grandmother’s mother had the misfortune of losing all her body hair during or shortly after her journey of migration from Slovakia to America in 1900. She never learned English but she raised her children and ruled the house, going out only for church on Sunday. My siblings and I were afraid of her strange language and strange bald head, covered with a babushka even on the hottest day of summer.
Looking over the matinee crowd at the Pittsburgh Symphony, I often see models of elderly elegance — a woman in a Chanel suit with a wispy scarf discreetly covering the neck, another with a smooth head of stark white hair cut to perfection, a few others in furs and perhaps even hats, caring enough to look their best for Mozart.
Even in a nursing home, women want to retain some remnant of youth and beauty. If the aides are kindly, they help each dear lady to put on a matching outfit each day or help them make their way to the in-house beauty salon for cuts and perms. At this stage, the women just want to look as good as they can, whether for the other residents (more women than men), the largely female staff or the cheerful visitors and volunteers. Real women until the end, they make the best of each day, wearing their wrinkles well and smiling with eyes that still can sparkle when attention is paid.
The best of my peers have shown me that aging can reveal a woman’s true beauty, stripped perhaps of distracting adornment, but showing the strength of a bare tree in winter.
Donna Lund is a writer and the author of a collection of essays titled “WOE to WIT to WISDOM” (firstname.lastname@example.org). She lives in Upper St. Clair.