The first time this happened was when I was actually quite a young adult. Somewhere in my twenties. Not old. Not even acting old. But some pipsqueak little twit in the grocery checkout line called me ‘ma’am’. “Thank you, Ma’am.” “Would you like help with your groceries, Ma’am?” I wanted to reach across the counter and lay hands upon him! But I did not. I was a respectable teacher in the community and how would that look? Which is how I later rationalized his behavior. He was probably a student and he had recognized me from school. He was only being respectful, I decided. Good boy.
This little four-letter contraction – ma’am – continued to plague me every so often over the years. As my kids grew, their friends began to call me ‘ma’am’. Sometimes ‘Mrs. Gibson’. Never by my first name. Well, at least, they had been taught right, I said to myself.
Then came the grandchildren, whom I adore, by the way! I was a young grandmother and I was a fun grandmother. I was not old. And I now am a GiGi. That’s code for great-grandmother. And I am still not old. As I have always contended, age is just a mindset, if it is anything.
But time has a way of catching up with us all. This was most apparent after the sudden death of my husband. The world really shifted that day. Even without realizing it, my sons took on a new role of ‘guardian’. I saw it the instant they walked into my house that morning of their father’s death. But most eye-opening to me was seeing things from the perspective of my eldest grandchildren. They felt the loss of their grandpa deeply. And they hovered around me like they thought I might disappear. It was not until I realized that my grandson, the oldest of the group, had not let go of my hand all during lunch, that I began to make a connection. I made a little joke but, instead of releasing me, he held on and looked right into my face. “Grandma, you’re not going to die too, are you?” At that verbalization of all their fears, I was suddenly swamped with kids and, believe me, I made assurances that I know someday I will not be able to keep. To them I was old. To them, I was vulnerable and next on the list. They had not yet learned that death doesn’t work that way. I plan to cheat it for a while longer.
In the South, a sign of respect for ladies of a certain age is to interject the word ‘Miss’ before her name. I have moved, kicking and screaming, into that realm. Kicking and screaming because I am not old.
But there is an advantage to getting older. I no longer have any compunction whatsoever about stopping that cute guy coming toward me in the grocery aisle and asking him to reach something down from the top shelf. Or flirting scandalously with the docent at the museum. Or using my ‘oh, poor me, Southern Belle routine’ to get something I want. Shameless, I know.
My most recent experience with ageism came just this week as I went to the ophthalmologist. Several visits ago, I had been told that cataracts were beginning to form, so I sought the second opinion of a specialist. Now, I knew I was setting myself up for the “old woman treatment” because, after all, this place caters to old people and old people problems. Still, it catches me off guard whenever it happens. And these people are connoisseurs of exemplary elder customer service!
The instant I walked through the door, someone was there to direct me, as if I could not find the desk by myself. The sweet young thing there was very perky and spoke in an ever so slightly louder volume than needed. She was extremely helpful in giving the easy-to-follow instructions, actually separating them into two groups so as not to overwhelm me. I was escorted to the examination room and told where to sit. A nice young lady about half my age did some preliminary tests and, studying the computer screen, announced, unnecessarily and quite loudly, that I am almost seventy. I shrink back at that! I am most certainly NOT seventy. I may be sixty-nine and three-quarters, but I am definitely NOT seventy!
The doctor came in. He was a very nice young man who must be around, oh… twelve. I’m not sure he has even begun shaving yet! But he was pleasant. He did all the right things and asked all the right questions. He seemed knowledgeable. And there is definitely something to be said for steady hands when someone is going to be cutting on your eyeballs!
However, one of the things that annoyed me – and many things annoy me some days – is the presumption that I would agree with everything that was being said and done. I have lived long enough to know that I can say ‘no’ to anything. And hold my ground with confidence. No, you can’t dilate my eyes. I wasn’t told to bring a driver and I don’t have time to waste sitting here in your office, waiting for my vision to clear up. No, I will not schedule the operation today. This will take some planning. I have a life. I have a job to do. I write. Eye surgery is going to interfere with that!
Oh, I will have the surgery and soon. And I will have this particular group do it because they are the best. But it will be on my terms. Because I can still make my own decisions. I can still decide what is best for me. And it will only be what makes my life better.
Some people are old at twenty and some are still young at ninety. We are not all the same. We should not allow ourselves to be treated as if we are. We are individuals and should demand respect for the lives we have lived. I am not yet old, and I refuse to act like I am. In fact, I may never be old!
Have you ever experienced ageism? Tell me your story…