THE BIASED EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

On Monday mornings I flip the pages of the New York Times past the international and national news to the New York City Metropolitan Diary. Here stories are written by New Yorkers about happenings in their daily life. The stories make me laugh, cry, or shake my head—only in New York.

This story, written on November 14 by Susan Heath entitled, Beauty on the Bus, delighted me. So I decided to refer to it on my next Post.

This is the story:

A few mornings ago, our 86-year-old neighbor, elegantly dressed and perfectly made up as usual, knocked on our apartment door. “This is for your wedding anniversary,” Ruth said, and gave me one of her wonderful light-up-the-day smiles, an enchanting orchid plant and a big kiss. (My partner and I got married a year ago after 23 years of living together, and that day Ruth gave us a bamboo plant in an elephant pot, signifying long-lasting happiness.)

We chatted for a minute and then, her bright blue eyes twinkling, she said: “May I tell you something? I’m just a bit embarrassed about this, but I have to tell someone.”

It had happened that weekend. Ruth was on the M104, going up Broadway, sitting in one of those front seats they keep for old people. A youngish man came forward and stopped right in front of her.

 “Can I ask you something?” he said. “Do you know how beautiful you are? Your hair is so gorgeous, and your outfit is magnificent. May I take your picture?”

 Although Ruth was a little disconcerted, she said yes and the stranger took her photograph and (somewhat to Ruth’s relief) got off the bus.

 Then a young woman a few seats away called out, “I agree, you’re perfectly dazzling,” and several people shouted from the back, “He’s right, you know.” And suddenly everyone in the almost-full bus was shouting agreement and clapping like mad!

 “I’ve never seen anything like it,” the bus conductor told Ruth as she got out at her stop.

 And I said to her: “They’re right, you know. You are stunningly beautiful. New Yorkers always know best.”

 

Then I searched for pictures that would represent older, well-clad women I could use for my post. Most were from Ari Seth Cohen’s book Advanced Style.olderwomaninblack (Maybe he was the youngish man on the bus?) I had written about him in a past post, Sob Sisters.  His book showcases extremely lovely older women.  But when I tapped into pictures of less stunning women, run-of-the-mill women and 5372301-very-old-woman-face-covere-with-wrinkles-closeup-photosome very wrinkled old women, I became uneasy.  Were these women not lovely in their own way, too?

Are we trapping women in a category? Women of means who buy up-scale clothes, apply make up perfectly and walk down 5th Avenue to be seen. A small cache of exceptional older women that the rest of us women of a certain age should emulate?

I remember the ‘50s.  All women clumped together as an entity.  Dress alike. Act alike. Accepting the direction by a paternalistic society: make babies, the harder a wife works_nbake bread, and not worry our pretty little heads about anything important—leave that to the men.

Thank goodness for women’s lib of the ‘60s. Women decided that the yardstick for success should be determined by the women themselves.

I think we need another round of consciousness raising.

Getting Older

I promptly lost my first Medicare card. When I opened the envelope and saw the red, white and blue border, I was reminded of the elderly I cared for over twenty years ago when I was a gerontological nurse practitioner. I ran a not-for-profit clinic in a converted one-bedroom apartment on the tenth floor of a senior citizen highrise in Chicago. How many times had I asked to see someone’s Medicare card? Most of my patients were poor, illiterate and had multiple health problems. So when I first looked at my card, I could only remember loneliness, despair and disability. This couldn’t be happening to me. And, poof, the card was gone.

Slowly other patients strolled into my memory. Mildred, blind and lived alone, always asked me to put her kitchen cabinets back in order after her daughter visited. Margie, ninety-something with an Irish brogue, came down to the clinic, laughing as she told us how she chased away the prostitutes with her broom. The prostitutes frequently slipped into the building to solicit and rob the older men.

But Helen was my favorite. She lived in an apartment next to the clinic. She dropped in when I wasn’t busy. She called me Kiddo.  She had one son who hardly visited but I rarely heard her complain—about anything. She was the one who taught me not to be uncomfortable talking about death.

Of course, I know older people live longer and are healthier than years ago. I now have the time to write, paint and play with grandchildren. I would like to go back in time and share my experiences of aging with Mildred, Margie and Helen. These resilient women would laugh when I tell them how I lost my first Medicare card.