They used to be everywhere. One sat on every front porch, park bench, and bus stop
of the town I grew up in. One watched from the front window of every house; one
talked to another over every back yard fence. They stood behind the counters of
the dime stores, drug stores, corner markets, florists, bookstores, and soda fountains.
They taught every class in the grammar school. The library belonged to them. So
did the churches. They ran the beauty shops. They operated the telephones. You could
not take a music lesson without going to one of them. You could not make a bank
deposit. You could not buy a stamp.
That was fifty years ago, when I was a child. I thought old ladies ruled the world.
Each one was different. Each one was alike. They all wore the same clothes:
black shoes that laced, heavy dust-colored hose, hand-knit cardigans, silky dresses
with hems that drooped. Rubber girdles. Veiled hats with feathers. Fur boas. They
all carried pocketbooks and when they pulled the keys out of their pocketbooks they
opened their doors onto the same sort of room: dim, clean, with an African
violet near the radiator, a sepia photograph of someone dead on the desk, a pimpled
milk-glass figurine of Cinderella’s hollow slipper on the bric-a-brac shelf.
They kept bowls of sweets—ribbon candy, lemon drops, green and white striped
peppermints—on their coffee tables. None of them ate the candy.
Their names began with Miss or Mrs. They often called each other Miss or Mrs. Their
first names, linked, formed a gentle alphabet: Addie, Bessie, Clara, Dot, Edith,
Fanny, Gertrude, Hazel, Ivy, Jewel, Kitty, Leila, Mabel, Nola, Opal, Phoebe, Queenie,
Ruby, Stella, Theodora, Ursula, Violet, Wilma, Xenia, Yolanda, Zelda. They used
these names at the tables where they played against each other in contract bridge,
canasta, and mah jong. They used these names in the basement restaurants of the
department stores where they gathered to eat chicken pot pie and scoops of Neapolitan
ice cream from stainless steel goblets. Their dentures clicked and some of the bolder
ones, the ones with full sets of false teeth, bit into the ice cream showily and
chewed, unmindful of the cold. Their voices, talking to each other, were harsh and
They talked about train trips and movie stars and radio shows and yardage sales
and the few relatives—rarely husbands—they were proud of. They talked
about their illnesses. They were often ill, their bodies bent, bow-legged, breakable,
subject to mysterious catarrhs, goiters, dropsies. Their skin was pale and delicate
as plum petals, marbled with blotches, mustaches, warts, chin hairs, liver spots.
Moles the size of pencil erasers hung off their lids and upper lids.
They didn’t care. Their eyes were bright, magnified behind thick glasses or
beaming out unaided from beneath brows that had either been plucked and penciled
to improbable arches or left in a tangle. Their cheeks were softly wrinkled and
rouged. Their hair was either white or gray or came in colors from a paint box:
apricot, lilac, pitch black, blue. Sometimes their hair was skewered with sharp
thin wires and caged inside a filmy net that looked like something insects might
hatch from; sometimes it was tucked under a turban, a babushka, a snood. At night
their hair floated down free and glowed like a ghost girl’s.
They got up early.
They went to bed late.
They moved around the house where the rest of us were sleeping in long flannel nightgowns
that smelled like Vicks Vapo-Rub. They sighed and sipped hot water with lemon juice.
Even at night their hands smelled like soup, their breath like sour tea. Their bellies
smelled like baby talcum, their bosoms like funeral flowers—the rose, gardenia,
violet, and lilac scents they sprinkled on stained handkerchiefs and tucked inside
their brassiere straps all day. Their armpits were rank with faint sweat, their
feet smelled like everyone else’s, and an interesting rot came from their
flanks when they crossed and uncrossed their beautiful blue-veined legs.
By dawn they were already in the kitchen. They cooked all day. Boiled green beans
with gray slabs of bacon. Deep-fat fried chicken with blood at the bone. Sugary
pie crusts. Watery custards. Milk toast. Aspics. Hard little lard cookies. Livers
They were not good cooks.
No one could say this, except other old ladies. Other old ladies could say anything
they pleased, about themselves, about each other, about the President of the United
States, and about you. Old ladies saw you, when you were a child. They
saw you in ways your peers and parents did not. They were not fooled by your dimples
and curls. They looked right inside to something called your “character.”
They saw that your character was unformed and basically vile but salvageable and
they believed that with a strict application of effort and will you could still
become worthwhile, someday. They saw you had potential.
Because they believed in you—because they offered that great and terrible
courtesy—you tried to measure up. You washed your neck and scrubbed your elbows.
You stood up straight, kept your napkin in your lap, chewed with your mouth closed
and did not pick your nose in public. You cleaned your side of your room, kicked
your sister covertly, did your homework, double-checked your sums, said your prayers,
and included them in it. You made way for them on the sidewalk. You offered them
your seat on the bus. You helped them cross the street. Even though they acted as
if they were helping you.
Some of them were witches. Some of them were saints. But most of them were simply
the best friends you had.
I would have been lost without the old ladies of my childhood. Miss Buck taught
me to read from the comics before I was four. Her maiden sister, The Other Miss
Buck, taught me to tell time on a grandfather clock. Mrs. Istin made me paper dolls
from the Montgomery Ward catalogue and taught me to knit with kitchen twine and
two pencils. Mrs. Cotter took me rowing on the small city lake. Great Aunt Ethel
took me to the Ice Follies. Great Aunt Rose took me to the ballet. Mrs. Brown, who
wore a body cast, taught me can-can. Mrs. Shippy taught me how to spell Mississippi.
One of my grandmothers let me drink watered rose wine with dinner. The other grandmother
sat by my bed when I was sick and made up stories about every square in my counterpane.
In the white square we rode polar bears through the Arctic, in the green we camped
under redwoods, in the blue we sailed the cold Pacific.
This grandmother was the love of my life. Shy, restless, she never stood still long
enough for a formal portrait, but I keep a snapshot of her on my office wall. She
is dressed for Easter in a slippery ill-fitting brown and white dress and she is
wearing a brown hat that squats like a brood hen on top of her bad gray perm. Her
shoulders sag, as does her bust. Her stomach shelves out. Her glasses are crooked.
She is wearing crystal earrings and a crystal necklace; this set, which I own now,
she told me came from the chandelier of a French chateau. Elves gathered it, she
said, and gave it to her so she could give it to me. Her feet, deformed by bunions,
are encased in orthopedic boats. Her bare arms are heavy and slack; her watch cuts
into the flesh of her wrist; her rings can’t come off. Her face is downcast
but her eyes flash up at the camera, bright, proud, and mischievous. And the smile
that exposes her badly spaced, coffee-stained teeth is so genuine that my heart
bows before it even now.
Her own heart was already burdened by then, her pulse slowed by long years of widowhood,
her arteries clogged from gravies and cream pies, her blood pressure soaring from
the daily demands of a menial job, her sciatica screaming, her arthritis a smoldering
coal on each joint.
She was my age.
Only I’m not old. I wear jeans and lacy camisoles and cowboy boots. Sun block,
moisturizers, facials, and retin-A have helped preserve my skin. Contact lenses have
camouflaged the need for glasses. My teeth have been straightened, my hair has been
curled, and both have been bleached. I go to a gym, lift weights, do yoga, Pilates,
and hike. I get massages when I need to, see a psychotherapist when I need to. I
have a job I enjoy, many friends. I travel a lot. I fall in love often. I beat the
steering wheel and sing to Al Green when I drive. I weigh less than I did at eighteen.
Friends my age aren’t old either. We all look good. Some have had plastic
surgery to help them look good, but most haven’t needed it. Charlotte, 73,
just came back from trekking through Myanmar. Jo, in her 80’s, spent the last
six months living on a barge in The Netherlands, researching a river. Barbara, 68,
insists I take the wheel of her new Jaguar, and counsels as I edge down a steep
stretch of coast highway, “Don’t use the brake, honey, don’t use
the brake.” Kate, 76, teaches yoga. Gina, ageless, accepting a national award
for her latest book, stands at the microphone and stammers, in a young girl’s
voice, “I’m not ready.” Susan, 60, recovering from a bout of colon
cancer, jumped on a Norwegian freighter, sailed around the world, and ended up marrying
the ship’s chief engineer. Eve, 68, just won her umpteenth decathalon. Esther,
80, is building a back deck on her house by herself. Betty, 58, came back from Egypt
with a 27-year-old tour guide.
“We’re a different generation,” I boast to my grown daughter who
has come over with my grandson for dinner. I am whipping around the kitchen in my
skinny jeans and ballet slippers, pulling out organic vegetables for a stir-fry.
“You are,” she agrees. (She’s a wonderful daughter.) She glances
at the beginning pages of this article, which I have left lying on the counter,
picks it up and reads out loud. “Where have all the old ladies gone?”
“I know,” my grandson beams. His eyes are dancing.
“You do?” We humor him. “Where?”
“Here! One lives right here! In YOUR house, Gramolly!”
What a lesson! Who needs it! I have seen the enemy and she is me. Only she’s
not an enemy and I couldn’t have seen her without my contacts plus the huge
magnifying glass I keep by the phone book. I throw the enoki and sustainable tofu
back in the refrigerator; phone the pizza place for a Combination, Large; snatch
my grandson up to shake the giggles out of him; and then follow him, still giggling,
to my writing room where he settles before my computer. There, while we wait for
the pizza to be delivered, he shows me how to Text and Twitter and I pretend to
understand, delighted by the lights in his quick, intent, intelligent eyes. I watch
his little hands continue to connect me to an iphone and an ipad and an ipod and
who knows what. Good heavens, I think. Where have all the children gone?
—First published in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging,
edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What (Serving House Books, 2012)
is the author of a novel, Iron Shoes, and two award-winning collections
of short stories, Rough Translations and Creek Walk. She teaches
Fiction Writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.