I was sitting outside at a pool party chatting with a woman from Switzerland — soft-spoken, impassioned, about 80. Her husband of 50 years, she explained to me, had died seven years before. She’d played a very traditional “wife” role for five decades, but when he died, she had to learn to live independently. She had to learn the practical things, like how to manage finances. She had to learn the harder things, like who in the world she was, if she wasn’t busy being a wife.
She told me she wanted to develop courses and teach other widows to grieve and heal. I thought to myself, “I’m so proud of her for still dreaming, still creating, still listening inward to her desires.” Then she said, “But there’s no way I can do that. I’m too old. Who would want to come and see an old lady like me?” She made a gesture with her hand – as if shooing away the possibility.
If you had asked me a few years ago, I’d have told you that “I’m too old” was something no one worried about anymore. I thought that with all the news stories about how we live longer than ever, with all the Oprah shows about ninety year-old body builders and activists, with all the “I can do it!” notions in our culture, that, “I”m too old” would have edged its way out of our speech.
But in passing elevator chats or longer dinner party conversations or all the time in my work, I hear women say it, again and again. They aren’t saying: “I’m too tired, too frail.” They are saying, “It would be inappropriate. I will be laughed at. No one would buy it, show up for it, support it.”
Sometimes I think they are testing me, because they usually look down as they say that – but then their eyes dash up to mine, as if to ask: do you agree?
I don’t. I don’t think you are ever too old, but I certainly understand why you’d end up feeling that way.
The people who keep telling you you are too old are terribly afraid of your power — your courage, your grit and your light. They know that grandmothers, unbridled, shake things up.
I speak not just for myself but for all of us younger women, when I say, your visibility heals us. You, speaking up, being visible, doing your activism or your writing or your art or whatever it is – you heal us from the crazy images of women we see on every billboard and magazine cover and advertisement. You remind us of who we really are. You remind us of what it is really about. Your visibility grows us into bolder, freer women — happier women too. And we know your presence doesn’t only empower us, it heals every soul on this planet.
We want you to speak up.
Is there an older woman in your life with whom you want to share this message? Please pass it on to her.
ps. Special thanks to Paola Gianturco and her book Grandmother Power (great holiday gift, btw) for enriching my understanding of this topic.