Salt and Pepper

Next month, I turn 59. I’ve reached the stage when I appreciate it if people think I’m younger. One of Emily’s college friends was recently surprised to find out I am not in my mid-40’s. This felt very good.

But twice this past week, I was mistaken as eligible for a senior price break—meaning 65 or older. Now, I’m sure the guy (both times about 30-something, must have guessed I was his mother’s age) thought he was doing me a favor. And both times, the guy made an assumption without asking.

At first, I thought it was just a fluke. The second time, I was really annoyed—insulted and perturbed. What is it about me that gives the impression I’m already a “senior”? (Of course, there is a corollary—if I look like a senior, that’s bad. More on this in a moment.)

The first time, while Al was out of town, I went to the movies by myself on a Saturday night to see director Michael Haneke’s award-winning Amour, a poignant, brutally frank portrait of an elderly Parisian couple whose cultured life unravels as the wife succumbs to a series of strokes. Maybe it was because I was going to a film about aging, maybe because I was alone, I don’t know, but the cashier automatically gave me the three dollar senior discount.

Initially I thought I somehow got a matinee price, which made no sense. Then I realized his mistake. Irked and a bit bemused, I decided to keep the discount. If he was going to size me up so inappropriately, I reasoned, I wasn’t about to shell out three more dollars to correct him.

I’d forgotten the incident by end of the week. Then, the same thing happened. I was at a national writer’s conference in Boston on Friday, having gotten there in a major snow storm and just made it to the registration booth in the cavernous Hynes Convention Center minutes before the first session was to begin. One of the conference staff guided me from the short queue to one of several empty stations. But this one was specifically for seniors. And this time, I spoke up loudly.

“I am not a senior citizen!”

“That’s okay,” he said, “it doesn’t matter.”

Well, it mattered to me. Much as I would have liked the steep discount in the admission price, there is no way I would have tried to finagle a lower fee, even if they hadn’t required proof.

Later, when Al picked me up from the train, I recounted my experience. He laughed.

“It’s not funny!” I protested. “This is when you’re supposed to tell me I don’t look a day over 30.”

“I was thinking you should have tried to get the discount,” he said, still smiling to himself.

I was not amused.

Several days later, I still feel the sting of mistaken identity. Scleroderma has aged me—fewer wrinkles in my forehead and around my eyes than most women in their late 50’s, but deep grooves around my mouth. Usually I’m no longer self-conscious about this, but the week’s events felt like a slap.

At the same time, I’m also questioning my angry reaction to the idea that I might look older than I am. It’s a cultural, ingrained bias: by definition, older women look ugly and undesirable. Not anything true. Ugly, of course, in our society, means diverging from youthful perfection. Which is why scleroderma is such a cruel disease for women, in particular.

But aging, in and of itself, is the natural order of life. And it brings its own kind of beauty. Yes, I’m trying to convince myself as I write, but I actually do believe this more and more, though it’s been hard to accept the physical transformation as my estrogen supply has dwindled.

I don’t dye my hair because I like the way my dark, dark brown is now shot through with silver—salt-and-pepper like both of my parents. I’m still fairly trim and spry for my age and, especially, my medical challenges. I dress as well as I am able. I’m mostly comfortable in my own skin, abnormal as it may be.

That level of self-acceptance is the true source of beauty. I’ve always admired older women who take care of themselves and radiate wisdom, compassion and clarity. It gives them an amazing inner glow. That’s my goal, in any case.

But I’m not fully in synch. Scleroderma has accelerated my biological clock, so my world experience hasn’t fully caught up with my body’s aging.

This is how I sum up my decades, so far:

In my twenties, I thought I had all the answers.

In my thirties, I realized I didn’t.

In my forties, I realized it didn’t matter.

In my fifties, I’ve been putting it all back together.

So my sixties should be great. Just don’t rush me.

Photo Credit: Portrait of an Unidentified Woman, Studio of Matthew Brady, c 1844-1860, Library of Congress PPOC

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Comments

  1. Pat Bizzell says:

    The Matthew Brady photograph is haunting. Perhaps emblematic of how clearly we are able to see ourselves–or not.

    For those who don’t see Evelyn regularly, let me inform you that she is one of the most elegant dressers I know and always looks extremely well put together–so there!

    As for being mistaken for an older person, I have to say that I don’t have that problem (yet!), maybe partly because I do dye my hair. But I’m pretty blase about it. On the other hand, what gets my goat is that even when a film features an older woman, which is rare, she has to be stick thin. She may even have a few wrinkles and graying hair, but no way can she have the thickened middle that all of us post-menopausal women have. Apart from the stick-thin actresses (oh I forgot to mention, they also have to have perky breasts), there are a few who are quite large and plump, but these are comediennes. Something inherently comical about a fat woman? Grrr.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Pat! Glad you like the image. It’s actually a decayed daguerreotype, which is what gives it that incredible, haunted quality.

      As for older women in film, one of the things I really appreciated about “Amour “was that Emmanuelle Riva is certainly an older woman, but quite beautiful with all of her wrinkles and mature figure. But of course, this is a French film, and I think older women are treated with more respect in European movies. Hollywood is certainly less kind to older women, specifically, and to all women in general, given that our movie industry is one of the main perpetrators of the perfect-youth-equals-beauty stereotype.

  2. Kathy Pulda says:

    It’s not that the 60s is old. After all its only 20 years older than your 40s. And that doesn’t feel much different. And it seems like it was just yesterday. But wait. It also means you’re 20 years away from your 80s. Gulp!
    As far as the senior movie ticket, if it makes you feel any better, it’s 60 not 65.
    Kathy

    • I agree. It sure doesn’t feel that much different from 40, except my energy level is not quite what it used to be. I’m pretty sure the sign at the theatre said 65, and I know it did at the conference. I also know it’s all in my head, but still . . .

    • actually, AARP gives you discounts at age 50 and up! It does hurt the pride, but not the pocketbook. I recently got 25% ($100) off my prescription eyeglasses and I’m 55 !

  3. Violette Holdert says:

    I was so glad to read your blog. I’m 65 and I’ve had scleroderma for just over 10 years now. At first I was pleased with the smooth skin around my eyes, but then the grooves started to become deeper and deeper around my (pouch) mouth and chin. now my face is a chronological contradiction, the top half could be 50, the lower half 85. so it was good to read about someone with the same problem. oh well, it is not really a problem, actually I’m happy to be alive and still able to do a lot of things.

    • Hi Violette,

      You’re definitely not alone! The facial changes are really hard to get used to. It becomes such a radical change in how you see yourself and imagine that others see you. The good piece, I’ve learned, is that those who matter most don’t really notice. I think as women, however, we’re socialized to be very self-conscious and self-critical about our appearance, and this is one of the ways that scleroderma does such a number on self-image.

      Of course, as you say, what really counts is quality of life. I hope you are doing well, otherwise. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Allen Katzoff says:

    I agree with Al. Take those discounts and run! LOL

  5. Ana Luisa Monge-Naranjo says:

    Hello Evelyn,
    Let me introduce myself first. I’m from Costa Rica, was diagnosed with CREST Syndrome almost two years ago, and I’m 47 years-old. I found you through the Schleroderma Foundation. I love your posts! I’d like to ask you if this disease worsens the sunken eyes. I’ve always had sunken eyes, but they have become more sunken in the last years, and I’m sure they make me look older. I don’t want to dye my hair yet (I have some white hairs now), so this issue of “looking older” is starting to be increasinly important for me.

    • Hi Ana Luisa,

      Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy my blog. I can’t speak to whether scleroderma worsens sunken eyes. This has not been my experience, but the disease is so unique in each individual. You might ask your dermatologist about this. What happened to me was a general tightening of the skin on my face during the active phase of the disease. At its worst, I began to have some discomfort blinking. But this eventually reversed itself, thanks, I believe, to the medications I was on at the time.

      However it manifests, scleroderma, when it affects the face, does tend to age you prematurely. That is one of the most difficult aspects of the disease, emotionally. I’ve wrestled with this for years, trying to come to terms with how my appearance has changed. I’ve made my peace, somewhat, but not entirely. I think the biggest frustration is how you have absolutely no control over it all, and the mask-like transformation can be quite stark, as well as uncomfortable. Skin can loosen again with time, but again, this varies from individual to individual.

      I hope you are doing well, managing your disease and that you have good care. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I say take the discounts!! If they want to insult you then let it cost them a couple of dollars 🙂 I had multiple organ failure due to Scleroderma a few years ago, and the doctors said that if I came through I would need 24 hour care. That thankfully turned out not to be the case, however my muscled atrophied severely after being in a hospital and then a nursing home for a total of 2 1/2 months and I’m very unsteady on my feet. My weight dropped to 89 pounds but I have gained 40 pounds and pretty much look the way I did before my “episode”. My biggest problem is that I don’t “look sick”. I’ve been confronted while parking in handicapped spots, and was once accosted by a drunk amputee while sitting in the handicapped section at a concert, berating me for taking up space in the handicapped section. I’ve gotten the stink eye for sitting in the handicapped section on the bus. People, like in your case, need to stop making assumptions about us based on the way we look.

  7. You’ve been through quite an ordeal, Jeannie. How ironic that you don’t “look sick” enough for people to understand you need access to handicapped seating! Looks can be deceiving in so many ways. I hope you continue to get stronger and fully back on your feet.

  8. First, I am so happy to see people with scleroderma are living long enough to have age misperception be a concern. My Mom died from complications in 1989 when she was 63. At the time , she was considered to be a unique case due to her age and we took some small comfort in knowing that all kinds of folks in the field wanted to see her because her age was so unusual. As far as I remember her, she was brave, kind, loving, encouraging, funny and extraordinarily beautiful to the end.

    I write a blog called parentingwithoutparents.wordpress.com be cause I lost her (and three other in-laws) before my daughters were born. I think there is a blog post in all of this. Hopefully, through how she influenced me, my daughters can learn about her.

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