Relativity

One autumn afternoon when I was six years old, I made a birthday card for my grandmother. I intended my card to be the best birthday card she got that year, one that she would remember for years to come. It was a sheet of yellow construction paper, folded in half, with a carefully drawn long-stemmed red rose on the front, complete with leaves, one facing left and one right, but no thorns. (At the time, I thought it was impressively gorgeous. In retrospect, I suspect that it was at least recognizable as a flower of some kind.)

I asked my father for spelling help, to be sure I got all the letters right in the greeting I wrote. It started on the front with “Happy Birthday,” and continued inside with “to an Old Lady of 53.”

My card did not get a reaction remotely like what I’d been seeking. I was completely mystified that everyone thought it was so funny.

The entire family remembered it for years, though.

• • •

I’m 65 now, no longer baffled why everyone thought it was so funny that my 6-year-old self thought of my 53-year-old grandmother as an old lady. Once I was an adult, I never paid much attention to my age—I think I was about 19 when I started having to subtract my birth year from the current year to even remember how old I was, and the major birthdays—30, 40, 50—never much bothered me. In my mind, I’m probably still around 28, though far more confident and assertive than I was at that age. I recognize that I am more experienced and knowledgeable than that person, but my personality was essentially set by then—I am recognizably that same creature.

My physical self, though, is much different. It’s not so much the extra pounds, or even the gray hair (I began to go gray before I finished high school and always liked it), as the joints that don’t articulate with the same ease they once did, the eyes that don’t focus as efficiently or effectively, the muscles that take so much longer to recover from exertions that years ago I wouldn’t have thought taxing.

And I’m bemused by how variable our perception of age is—not just how kids see adults as ancient and how adult perceptions of age change as we ourselves age, but how we are treated (and how we treat others) based on perceptions of age. Why do some of us at the same chronological age and general level of health seem to be years older or younger than others? How do we reconcile the person we feel we are with that ever-aging and increasingly unrecognizable person in the mirror? How do we cope with the realization that the versions of us that other people see are so often so foreign to the person we believe ourselves to be?

That’s what this blog will be about. I’m not a gerontologist or a psychologist or a sociologist. Though I often enjoy scientific literature in those fields, I’ve no intention of taking an academic approach here. Science may inform and moderate my views, but this will be a personal—even mostly anecdotal—exploration of what it feels like getting older, being older, and being seen as older.

Though I’m clearly a Boomer, I don’t imagine that we Baby Boomers are the only generational cohort affected by these varying and variable age perceptions. I laughed all the way through her 20s when my younger daughter moaned about how old the teens she works with make her feel, just I do when my mother says something that makes it apparent she still thinks of me as 15.

Aging is universal for all of us, but it’s constantly and continuously relative, depending on who we are with and what we’re doing. It changes our own behavior and it changes how people behave toward us. And it’s far more interesting than that 6-year-old imagined all those decades ago.

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