By Leslie Hill
Somewhere in mid-life, I read Jenny Joseph’s poem, ‘Warning’, and laughed out loud.
‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple. With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.’
It’s a joyous ode to the freedom old age brings, a shrugging off of other people’s expectations. I understood it immediately.
As a young girl I just didn’t think about old people. My grandparents were the only seniors I knew. With them I was outwardly respectful but uninterested. If I thought about them at all, I might have felt pity for the limitations they lived with, physical frailty, near-invisibility, a limited future.
My own future, shining with possibility, absorbed my attention.
I am not sure when the horizon began to shrink. Puberty, perhaps, when boys and relationships with boys seemed to cloud everything else. I was young for my age, awkward and uncertain. I watched from the sidelines while boys looked past me to pretty, confident girls.
Jenny Joseph writes of making up for the sobriety of her youth. My years from puberty to middle age weren’t so much sober, as they were cautious, spent in servitude to the notion that men ruled the world, that women had to please or at least accept male judgements. I had to be pretty, pleasant, deferential. As long as I was in relationship or seeking relationship, I smiled a lot, thought too much before I spoke and censored what I said aloud, to make sure I didn’t threaten men’s egos. And I accepted the idea they all seemed to take for granted, that their views and opinions mattered more than mine.
To be fair, they may not have known I had opinions, because I hid my mind and personality behind that pretty, vacuous, deferential persona.
My mother fit the mold of a 1950s housewife, an attractive woman who stayed home, raised children, cooked nourishing meals, and took care of my father like a combination of wife, secretary and PA. He made us watch ‘Father Knows Best’ every Sunday night on TV. Perhaps because I loved them so much, I absorbed both her example and his lesson without question. My mother died at fifty-two of a brain tumor. On one of my last visits, she said, almost as if I weren’t there, ‘I think I helped your father in his career.’ I heard the unspoken words – ‘at least I did that’ – and was horrified. She didn’t seem to hear my stammered protests. She’d done so much for me and my brother and sister. But maybe that wasn’t the point.
My father remarried within the year, to another pretty woman with similar attitudes. I was fifty-five when he died. I grieved both my parents, but their deaths freed me.
I never really expected anyone to want to marry me. But a charming, good-looking older man lured me into a live-in relationship and an engagement when I was in my twenties. I lived in a brief fairy tale bubble before my prince dissolved into a violent frog and I fled. For the first time, I saw relationships as potentially lethal. Commitment frightened me so much I didn’t date for four years.
Not until I met Paul.
Paul introduced me to equality in relationship. It was a revelation. He assumed I would have a life of my own, not drop everything to follow his lead. He was interested in what I thought, and unperturbed when we disagreed. It was like taking off a straight-jacket I hadn’t realized was there. I expanded like a flower. Love, laughter, adventure beckoned.
When he died – I was thirty-nine – all the colour drained away.
Without Paul, my father became the only significant male influence in my life. He expected me to be sad for a few months, and then marry again, just as he had. I didn’t have the words to tell him that something in me had broken. The barren moonscape of my inner world wasn’t something my stiff-upper-lip, just-get-on-with-it father could accept.
Meeting Paul was one turning point, his death another. Two years later came a third. An acquaintance had persuaded me to accompany her to an outdoor psychic fair, where I wandered without much interest until I was tired, and looked about for a place to sit. Lulled by sunshine and warmth, I landed on a stool in front of a psychic, who said: ‘When I look at you, I see a woman without a mouth.’
Anything I might have said then died unspoken. I was forty-one. A woman without a mouth!
I couldn’t speak of that moment but I couldn’t forget it either. I moved through the days and months on automatic pilot. No one seemed to notice.
In the end I survived suffocation. I escaped my father, quit my job and sold my home. Left Canada and all expectations behind. I joined an intentional community in Scotland. No one there knew me and I could start fresh. Grief and anger, repressed for so long, first bubbled, then boiled to the surface, and my voice emerged at last. Croaky, but my own. I began to write. When my visa ran out, nearly six years later, I was in my mid-fifties. I returned to Canada, to the west coast, more than four thousand kilometers from my father in Toronto.
At last I discovered the freedom that old age can bring. Though it’s not just age. I live alone in Vancouver, which means not answering to anyone. That helps. Outliving parents makes a difference. And freedom is never absolute. But the escape from deference to others’ expectations? It feels incredible. I understand the sense of joy Jenny Joseph describes in her poem.
At seventy-three, I’m sometimes lonely but I’m independent. My interactions with men are generally friendly and undemanding now that I’m not looking for love. I like purple and red as a combination and the only one I answer to is my cat.
I feel free to ignore all the advertising designed to make me look younger; I laugh at the idea of cosmetic surgery, and dismiss ever-changing fashion trends. If I feel comfortable and look nice in my own eyes, it’s enough. Women’s invisibility after fifty doesn’t bother me; it feels safer. My mind and heart are what matter.
Now when I choose to speak, I intend to be heard.
When I first listened to the Holly Near song, 1000 Grandmothers, the line – ‘An old woman holds a powerful force, when she no longer needs to please’ – seemed to resonate inside me like a gong.
Sloughing off decades of early conditioning doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes involves collateral damage. Recently I saw a pained expression on the face of a male friend in a meeting as I railed at him over a presentation we were preparing. His concession to gender equality seems to consist of being willing to spend much more time in order to get his own way, and I’ve lost patience along with deference. I hurled words like bricks at him until he backed down. He was the only man present and the other women were much lower-key. Maybe they are kinder people, or maybe I’d been expressing anger and exasperation for them. As I drove home, I thought ruefully that he could have justifiably accused me of abusive behavior. We’ve worked together for three years, we often disagree, but on that occasion, I was lashing out. In fact, I was unleashing on him all the anger I’ve suppressed in years of dealing with men who believed their opinions counted more than mine.
It was unfair. I should respond to the man in front of me, not to a legion of shadow men I failed to confront in the past. I subsequently apologized for the bricks, though not for my point of view.
If I expect to be heard, I need to temper my response, even to those men who think they are entitled to the final word, just because they’re male. I need to speak firmly and clearly, but I also need to listen, find points of agreement and explain my view without losing my temper. If I’m still ignored, then it’s time for the short, sharp verbal jerk on the conversational leash.
I’m over halfway there now. I know what I think and feel and I’m not afraid to speak. I just need to speak in a way that respects other viewpoints.
The awareness required to change is tiring but infinitely preferable to deferential silence.
Physical frailty, near-invisibility, a limited future? All true, I suppose, but the freedom to be and to express who I am is the gift of my old age.
Copyright Hill 2023