Gina Barreca: The surprising journey of aging
To be young is to be arrogant. I know this not only from personal experience but also from research.
Next week, I’ll turn 62. An English professor by trade, I’m a reader of books and a watcher of movies by vocation.
After a lifetime of examining great stories, I know this much is true: Old people in film and literature aren’t easy to like, unless they’re truly evil or fantastically warped.
Don’t talk to me about Lear. Nobody likes Lear. Nobody wants to date Lear. If you saw Lear’s profile on eHarmony, would you be inclined to make a connection? “Family-first kind of guy, ambitious, know what I want but have regrets, looking for partner with her own kingdom, army, no fat chicks.”
And really, really don’t tell me about the way older women are changing the way we’re perceived, not if you’re going to mention Cher, Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Iman. Most of us are not even from the same species as those creatures.
Michelle Pfeiffer is a year younger than I am. She’s also from another planet, or she might as well be.
When she was 29 and I was 30, I did not have the temerity to compare myself to that stunning, gorgeous and accomplished woman.
So, what, because Michelle and I are now both deeply post-menopausal, I should start seeing her as a reasonable role model? I have a better chance of turning into a turtle during the next 10 years than I have of turning into Michelle Pfeiffer. I don’t care how many vegetables I eat or how much time I spend on the treadmill. It’s a turtle-future for me.
You want to mention Judi Dench, Diana Rigg or Helen Mirren? It’s the same deal. Look at photographs of these stars when they were younger. They were drop-dead stunningly beautiful, in addition to being outrageously talented. Unsurprisingly, they’ve stayed that way.
So why do we seem to be surprised, as if they suddenly become glorious at age 60?
Why are a lot of us women saying things such as “I want to be like Diana Rigg and have a major role in a hip television cult program like Game of Thrones when I’m an old woman” without factoring in that when she was 31, Rigg has already starred in a cult TV show (as Mrs. Peel on “The Avengers”), played Helena in Peter Hall’s film adaptation of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” played James Bond’s wife?
At 31, I was trying to figure out whether I could sublet the dank apartment I was renting (I couldn’t) and whether I could get a driver’s license in Connecticut since I couldn’t get one in New York (I could).
Yet at that age, I felt smug about simply being under 40. I had the nerve to wonder what it must be like for people whose lives were no longer ahead of them. Primarily what I felt for the elderly (meaning anyone too old to rollerblade) was pity. Respect or admiration were afterthoughts I had to remind myself to feel.
I thought life after 55 or 60 was like one of those parking lots where you sit in your car until the ferry arrives, except that the boat was crossing the river Styx. No round-trips.
I also thought, for some bizarre reason, that I’d magically become a quiet, calm, curled-up, pie-baking sweetheart of a lady after age 60, even though I had been nothing but a noisy, raucous, fully inflated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float of a pie-hating woman for 59 years.
Around the time you stopped wearing 3-inch heels, I figured you filled out forms, got granny glasses, started wearing a mop cap and began to say things such as “Who needs love? I’ve got memories” and “Oh, botheration. Where did I put that lard?”
That hasn’t happened.
Instead, I’m learning to dismantle the old sets of directions meant to guide me toward some misty, vague old age. I’m learning that old hungers, desires and ambitions may become reconfigured but rarely disappear.
Very little about getting older resembles the journey I imagined. The roads are far less dreary, the routes more circuitous and the scenery far more intriguing than, in the arrogance of youth, I could have ever imagined.