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Jul. 27 2010 - 6:14 pm | 68 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

When I Grow Up, I Want To Be An Old Woman

The United Colors of an Old Woman

Image by pedrosimoes7 via Flickr

I live in an apartment building that is, frankly, something of an old age home — filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. There are days I weary of gray hair and halting gaits, but I have also learned to appreciate the deep value of role models, especially of older women living, well, alone.

My theme song is this, a rockabilly anthem to feisty female old age, from a 1988 album by Michelle Shocked.

I’m thinking of this because one of our building’s two cool 96-year-olds, one of whom lives on my floor, was taken to the hospital by ambulance yesterday. She’s got brilliant blue eyes, thick white hair, and a spirit so lively and outgoing we all love her. I’m praying for her.

The other, on my floor, is wealthy, a bit of a grande dame. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with a live-in helper. (Money is a wonderful, necessary adjunct to a decent, solitary [even shared] old age.) She wears fab clothes, keeps a fresh manicure, comes down to the pool, even with a walker.

Most women, statistically, will outlive their husbands or male partners. We have to be ready, in every way, to survive — and thrive — on our own.

But I also treasure Marie, 80, on my floor. She’s still married. She wears an immaculate bouffant pompadour hairdo, dresses with style and had a male stripper for her 80th. I asked her in the elevator one day — she’s OK with this sort of directeness — “How old are you, anyway?” I thought, maybe, late 60s.

I feel too fragile these days because of my aching, injured hip. When I watch these women soldiering along, finding new beaux, slapping on the mascara and nail polish and a smile, heading out for dinner with their girlfriends, I’m glad I don’t live surrounded by 20 or 30-somethings, slick and invulnerable.

These ladies are survivors. I hope to be one, too.


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  1. collapse expand

    While I don’t share your desire to grow up to be an old woman, I am very much aligned with the spirit of this post. My grandfather died early leaving my grandmother to live the last 34 years of her life alone until she died at 94. While technically living alone, she was never really alone at all, as she was always out and about, or at church with friends. I once asked her why she never remarried and she said she never needed to. And it always seemed to me that her first and only marriage wasn’t a good match at all, and of couse back in the day one could easily say marriage was not that beneficial for woman of her generation in the first place.

    Anyway, her name was Mary, and for me she was one of the first examples of what a liberated woman was. She was kind and happy in her life no matter where it took her.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks so much for this story. One of the things I think essential to growing old(er) happily, whether male or female, is just seeing — like all life skills — how it’s (well) done.

    I think North American Caucasian culture (perhaps different for some Hispanics or Asians?) sneers at the old and elderly, dismissing them, when, if we are lucky enough to have health, $ and friends, we really need to have some roadmaps!

    I have learned a tremendous amount from my older neighbors and, perhaps not surprisingly, they have shown great compassion for my orthopedic travails — knees, shoulder and now hip. I lost both my grannies the year I was 18 and never met my grandparents, so they have become my role models.

    Here is the essay I wrote about it in 2008:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/18Rgen.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=caitlin%20kelly%20and%20neighbors&st=cse

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    I love all those old dames! The Betty Whites, Cloris Leachmans, and Judy Denches (who really is a Dame!) of the world, every last one of them gives me a smile and something to look up and forward to. I can only hope to be half as vibrant and wonderful as these women are when I’m their age. I’m sure you will be too ;)

  4. collapse expand

    I hope we both are! I think feisty old broad is a good goal to aim for.

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    Former reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor) about -- what else -- my divorce. I've been writing frequently for The New York Times since 1990 on almost any subject you can think of -- yup, I'm a generalist. Author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books 2004). Canadian born, raised and formally educated, I've lived in New York since 1989.

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