The week of my fiftieth birthday it came: the invitation to join The American Association of Retired Persons. Mistaking it for The American Association of Tired Persons and a shameless fan of member discounts, I dropped everything and filled out the application, eager to find out about their health plan and see if they had deals on a walker/shopping cart.
An adept multi-tasker, I was completing the application while on the phone ordering lacy lingerie from the Victoria’s Secret catalog that had arrived in that same day’s mail delivery. "The black teddy?" Victoria’s representative asked. Was I right in thinking there was something in her tone suggesting flannel pajamas with toasters all over them might be more suitable for someone my age?
Could she know how old I was? The four digits on Victoria’s shipping label identify my zip code, so why wouldn’t shouldn't I assume she also had been fed my hair color formula and whether or not I used moisturizer? It wouldn't be paranoid to think she was aware I’d just qualified for AARP membership. It was entirely possible Victoria, that big mouth, had called AARP to say, “I’ve got a stellar customer hitting fifty this year, a catalog addict. You'll thank me for this one; she’ll be ordering easy-grip pens and the hospital bed!”
If, as I’d suspected, the sales rep at Victoria’s 800 number was questioning whether the flimsy lingerie I was ordering was appropriate, she wasn’t alone. I, too, was confused about my age. Had the time come to lower hems, tuck up eyelid folds, and buy tan-colored, walking shoes with crepe soles and big toe boxes?
The fifties are murky, a transitional decade, not unlike the teen years, when hormones are the big issue. Fifty is an awkward age. You’re too old for happy hours, too young for early bird dinners. There’s nothing to do after work except pop into Williams-Sonoma and hope someone’s laid out crackers and dips, which you nosh while pretending to be serious about buying a new wok.
By this age, my mother had already taken on the aura of a senior. She and her canasta buddies wore drip-dry house dresses with snaps, their scuffs announcing they had no reason to dress for success -- in bed or elsewhere. Contemptuous of women vain enough to squander money on licensed hair stylists, my mother boasted about getting her gray hair rinsed blue at a beauty school, “Six bucks for the wash, set and manicure, including tip!”
My generation of women has extended its shelf life. Being fifty doesn’t guarantee someone will offer you a seat on the bus…unless you’ve had a serious ski injury or are pregnant. Fifty-year-old women, between mammograms and colonoscopies, are running corporations and marathons, are mothers of lower schoolers, grandmothers doing pilates, newlyweds with pre-nuptial agreements.
I asked friends in their 50's what they would have changed about their lives. “I’d make pretty much the same choices,” a writer, the mother of three answered, “but I’d write more novels.”
“I’d have had a daughter,” the mother of two boys volunteered.
It was my turn. “I’d have waited to get antique rugs until after our dog died.”
None of us had serious misgivings. Continuing with my informal and totally unscientific poll, I found other contemporaries who viewed our lives as more difficult, demanding and stressful. “All my memory bytes have gotten used up,” was a common source of concern. We worry about loss of memory and diminished professional power. Most of us have had too many friends die. Once again, my generation is on drugs, but now it’s mostly anti-depressants. Unlike the stuff we inhaled and snorted in the Sixties, these drugs are more user-friendly. Neither Prozac, Prempro or Viagara requires you to pick through sharp twigs, roll your own cigarettes or bake brownies. And you can take these meds through Customs without attracting a pack of sniffing dogs.
We were visited by my husband’s aunt, an earthy, sexy, blonde Parisian, who at ninety-two, has lost none of her “joie de vivre”. Others her age may leave home only when a 911 attendant has tossed them onto a gurney, but Ida, in heels higher than mine, was still accumulating frequent flier miles, packing and repacking to visit Texas, Israel and Cannes. While sipping a Kir, Ida leaned across the table to ask how I’d roasted the garlic, reaching into her purse for a pen to write down the recipe. “Snip off the top of the garlic, dribble olive oil on it and roast it at 250 for two hours,” I instructed. Though Ida surely thought nothing of this exchange, it impacted on me, reminding me of the importance of remaining curious and open.
In my fifties, I took my first scuba lesson, tried parasailing, swung from a flying trapeze at Club Med, completed two art courses, went on a cycling trip in France and spent a week at a vegetarian spa in Mexico. I got into better shape physically and ordered lacy lingerie with abandon, which made me think that Victoria should be offering senior discounts (Banana Republic does).
The shock of being AARP-age didn't prepare me for my reaction to turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare and the senior Metro card. But I'm done with that stuff. There will be no more "Hey, congratulations on being old" perks coming my way...unless someone is rude enough to offer me their seat on the subway.