My writer friend Chris taught me a lesson this week and I appreciated her opening my eyes. Because, like most lessons, it came right back to bite me in the butt within 48 hours.
On Monday, I wrote that story “Shine Through” about my return to Wesleyan for Alumnae Weekend. In it, I made an offhand reference to “eavesdropping on a couple of little old ladies.” Chris emailed me later that day and said,
“Hey, I think we’re good enough friends for me to say this. (We are.) ‘Little old ladies?’ Think about removing that from your vocabulary. It’s talking in stereotypes. Would you call me that?”
Now, for the record, Chris IS somewhat of an authority on this because she is an actual five-foot-tall woman who has been celebrating birthdays since 1932. So technically, someone could look at her and think little + old + lady. But that someone would be seeing an idea of her, not her.
I replied, “Of course I wouldn’t call YOU that! You’re a badass.” This woman is funny and smart and iron-jawed and gentle and fierce and kind. She’s had her heart broken beyond measure. She was a computer programmer when that was a man’s game. She’s a grandmother to two of the coolest kids in the world. She’s facing a tough Mother’s Day this year because her daughter died in the fall. She knits. She doesn’t cook. She writes stories. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She’s my friend.
If you saw her toodling down the street in her big ole Buick, white curls blowing in the breeze and a sensible sweater over her shoulders, you wouldn’t know all those things about her.
Sure, “little old lady” isn’t the worst thing you can call someone, but it’s dismissive in a thoughtless way. It doesn’t see the real person, just the stereotype. That’s why I thanked Chris for saying something.
And then came the aforementioned biting of the butt. Two moments happened to me this week that had me thinking about age and the assumptions we make based on it.
The first moment happened at that same Wesleyan reunion. After the big meeting, my classmate Tara and I were standing on the front porch talking in the sunshine. As people came and went, I spoke to just about everyone. Gave some directions. Answered questions about events. Near us, an alumna sat in one of the rocking chairs. At one point, she reached out for my arm and asked, “Are you a student?”
Oh, how Tara and I laughed! My first thought was that I was just so darn cute and charming that she thought I was still a teenager. Easy mistake to make! I leaned closer to her so she could see my gray hair and said, “Good grief, no! I’m 45 years old!” I giggled a girlish little giggle.
She flapped her hand at me and said, “Oh, well…I’m blind.”
That explains it. I owe my youthful charm to macular degeneration.
The second thing that got me thinking about age happened yesterday. We had that awful windstorm in the early morning so trees were down all over town. Carlos’ day care had to close because they had no power. He and I had an impromptu adventure day together. We came home from our trip to the library to discover that two fire trucks were parked on our street, just a couple of doors down. We wandered over to see what was going on. A tree had fallen onto a power line and caused some sparking, so the fire fighters were babysitting it (their words!) until the power company could get there. We had one 3-year-old boy who likes fire trucks right there with six bored fire fighters, a fire truck that still smelled like smoke from an earlier call, and a gigantic hook and ladder truck. Carlos was in heaven!
Those men were so sweet to my boy. Carlos doesn’t like loud noises, so he stood there the whole time with his hands over his ears, worried that the siren was going to surprise him. One man opened the doors of the truck, showed Carlos the hatch on the front that holds the nozzle, even offered to let him sit in the driver’s seat. Carlos just said, “No!” and “Wow!” It was precious. One of the older fire fighters and I were talking about the whole fear of loud sounds thing. He said his granddaughter doesn’t even like it when his cows get to mooing.
Anywho…after a while they got the word that one truck could leave. So the nice fire fighter looks at Carlos and says, “Ask Granny to take you back in the yard now!”
GRANNY??? It’s not the first time someone has mistaken me for Carlos’ grandmother. I do have silver hair and an imperious bosom. But DANG. Do I look like a GRANNY? Maybe a “Mimi” or a “Nana” or something sassy like “Gigi” or “GaGa” but GRANNY???
Who does he think I am, some little old lady?
Get to know Chris better through this wonderful blog post: “Child of the Thirties.” It even has pictures!