Ellen Cole, Age 70
First off, I have to make the font at least 14 so I can read what I’m writing, even with my reading glasses on. I must have ten pairs of reading glasses scattered throughout the house. Right now I can only find the pair on my nose. So that’s another story: memory. You all know what they say: CRS disease? Yup, I have that, too. In fact my favorite book this past year, because it was so confirming, was Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing. Run don’t walk to the bookstore to buy it, if you haven’t already. Or download it on your Kindle. I did both, in case I couldn’t find one them, of course. My favorite chapter is the last, “The O Word,” standing for (if you have the kind of mind I have) not what you think. “O” is for “old.” I don’t want to recap it here, except to say the chapter is hilarious, poignant, and ringingly true.
I turned 70 two and a half months ago, on March 10, 2011. It’s taken me this long to sit down and write about it. I believe I needed the distance. It represented a profound shift for me, much like my memory of turning 30. When I turned 30 I realized I was a grown-up. I guess that meant, okay you’re responsible (as in weighty responsibility) now. I told everyone I knew to ignore my birthday, and when they did I was devastated. Seventy felt equally onerous as it approached, but this time I admitted that I wanted a big fuss. My family came through for me in spades, for which I am deeply grateful. But still…70…from grown-up to old lady in 24 hours. I thought it would be a big deal. It was. It is.
Here’s what I don’t like about 70. I already mentioned the reading glasses and the memory thing. (I had a funny conversation with a peer a few weeks ago. I said to her, “Sorry but I forget the question you just asked me,” to which she earnestly replied, “Did I ask you a question?” Okay, it’s funny, but it’s also annoying as hell.) I can’t wear high heels anymore. Many women wouldn’t care about this, but I attend a lot of dress-up events, and host many of them at my home, and NO ONE makes dressy flats that are comfortable, at least for my feet. And speaking of feet, my brother and I both developed two hammer toes recently: yuck and uck. They don’t hurt, but they look hideous. I hike and walk long distances (like marathons), and maybe the hardest old lady problem of all is having to—as one woman put it just this morning—wiz every other second, it seems. I know there are pills for “incontinence,” but I’m not that bad yet, and am medicine-avoidant, to boot. So I’ve become shameless about peeing in the woods and around the corner from everywhere.
The biggest issue for me is work. By chance, my husband’s acceptance of a new job in a new state coincided with my turning 70. Most 70-year-old professionals have the opportunity and the time to contemplate retirement, if it’s not already a fait d’complet, but I didn’t have that opportunity. I stayed in Alaska and kept working for six months after my husband moved to New York for his new position, but in no way did either of us want a long distance (extra long in our case) relationship, and we were both thrilled about this new opportunity for him. So I left a position I loved. I wasn’t ready to leave, and I certainly wasn’t ready to stop working full-time, although it was the right move to make without question. I decided at age 70 and already having earned a PhD to go to graduate school for a year—a GREAT stop-gap decision for me—but it was and is very, very, very weird not to have an office, a responsible position, a title, and maybe most of all a salary. It is very, very, very weird when I’m asked by some receptionist or other either the name of my employer or “Are you retired?” These questions make me want to scream. Or sob.
So those are the things I don’t like. There’s plenty I Love. I mean, life goes on, and I’m Me, and I like that. I’m in good health and I love to play tennis and be outdoors. I love my husband and my kids and grandkids. I like where I live now, a lot, and it’s thousands of miles closer to most of our family. Being a grandma is as rewarding as everyone says it is, and more. When my granddaughter called me a few months ago and invited me to sleep in her spare bed, I almost cried with happiness (I couldn’t do that if I was still in Alaska). When our grandson suggested last night that we see Pirates of the Caribbean, of course my husband and I went even though it would have been last on our list. When another granddaughter wound up getting a mysterious illness after returning from Ghana, we could actually go to the hospital and cheer her up. When our two little grandsons gave us a wind chime to hang outside our kitchen door, our taste or not, you bet we hung it up where we see it every morning, afternoon, and evening. It is fun being geographically closer to grandchildren, even without a career-identity (although I do teach as an adjunct and have several possibilities up my sleeve for next year).
As I look back on what I’ve written I see that in my case, turning 70 and leaving my work, and moving across the country, are inextricably entwined. Yet, no matter where I live or whether or not I am employed, I am old. That part I kinda like. I do like. In two and a half months I seem to have turned the corner to accepting and embracing. Despite the glasses and the funky feet, I’m tickled to think of myself as an old lady. I will never try to hide my age. I’m proud as punch that I look good enough and feel great and have a ton of laughter, love, and beauty in my life.