Two friends are celebrating significant birthdays this month. So for them, I am reprinting this essay from September 18, 2019. Happy Birthday, Kim, and Belated Happy Birthday Dani!
My late mother-in-law, Mary, was a world-travelling, spirituality-seeking whirlwind. She was bright, intelligent, graceful, and had a marvelous sense of humor. I absolutely adored her. The destructive evil that is Alzheimer’s robbed Mary of all these qualities, but until that happened, the woman I lovingly nicknamed “La Comtesse” was everything I wanted to be as I aged.
One of my favorite memories of Mary stems from the days when she was still a healthy woman who travelled extensively. Arriving home from a cruise, she related a story from her vacation, and to this day I recall the look on her face as she concluded the tale. At the time, Mary was on the far downhill side of 60, rapidly ziplining toward her next decade. One of her shipmates on this seniors’ cruise was a silver-haired lady, tidy, quiet and retiring, who participated in few of the ship’s activities. This quintessential little old lady, Mary remarked, observed a birthday during the cruise, and La Comtesse asked her which birthday she was celebrating.
“Oh,” the little old lady replied, “this is the big one! The big Five-Oh!”
I had cause to recall the irony of this story not long ago, when an author whose books I generally enjoy put dreaded words into the mouth of a youthful character: the young woman referred to an aged character as an “old biddy”. Judging by this youthful writer’s perspective, my beloved La Comtesse would have qualified as an “old biddy”. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! Then, with dismay, I recalled that “old biddy” was actually the very phrase my own Grandmother used to reference those in her age group who’d stopped really interacting with life; who spent their days bemoaning their aches and pains while disparaging everything modern and recalling the past in a pink-tinted haze of inaccurate nostalgia. (Grandma, too, was a whirlwind, one who drove everywhere in her huge yacht of a car, couponed madly, fed everyone home-cooked meals no matter what the time of day or night, drove to work at an office until she could no longer shovel her car out from the snow in harsh winters, and generally had a rip-roaring good time.)
I have walked a few weary miles since the days when I was a mere teenager, sitting through a boring classroom lecture about semantics: the value of a word beyond merely its definition; the weight and worth of meaning given to it by opinion and understanding. And so as I now deal with the reality of my own aging, recalling Mary’s humorous tale of her “old” shipboard companion and my life-loving Grandmother’s behavior, while encountering demeaning phrases in books and being treated with thinly-disguised impatience by the very young, I’ve had reason to truly mull those long-ago lessons in semantics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s often sadly true that those in the latter half of life are treated with disrespect and contempt in modern society. And I’ve decided that some, perhaps many, of those attitudes center less around one’s personal behavior and ability than around the semantics of the word “old”.
We treat merchandise with disdain when it is merely old. To be old is to be outmoded or outdated; unfashionable. We begin to appreciate it when it becomes vintage, but it is not until it is antique that we regard it with awe and reverence. When we speak of “elder” it is with respect; i.e., “the elder statesman”. Yet to be elderly conjures up a picture of frailty and infirmity.
Old is old-fashioned; out-of-date; old is an outlook that is behind the times. Old is a pensioner, a senior, a geriatric—yet mature is a superior condition. Songs can be “oldies but goodies”; cars can be classics. Yet attitudes can be scathingly considered traditional and even archaic. Aged is a sad condition, yet historic is valued, while ancient or antiquity are regarded with wonder. Old, though, is time-worn, hoary, antiquated.
With all of these words firmly in mind, each of them denoting a different semantic variation of that which is old, I’ve decided that I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old. I will not even disrespect myself by remarking that I am aged, or aging. The words I use to refer to myself need to be free from heavy and unintended meaning, weighting me down with subconscious consequences.
So from this point forward, I plan to be Vintage. Vintage is treasured, special, worthwhile, valued, appreciated. Vintage is desirable.
I’m not nor ever will be an old biddy. But I’m already Vintage.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay “Dying to be Seen”. Scroll to the Archives, below, and you will locate it published September 4, 2018.