We have a bridal shower coming up this weekend and my sister Bev and I were discussing what to wear. She had been rummaging through her closet for something suitable and had narrowed the choices down to three, which she brought out on hangers to show me. It needed to be something reasonably dressy, but not too fancy, and something not too warm given that it’s going to be really hot out.
“I’m wearing that long dress I bought a few weeks ago, the sleeveless one with a shirred top,” I volunteered. “It should be fairly cool, and so what if my old lady arms are exposed and flapping in the breeze. We’re all in the same boat.”
When her husband asked what we were talking about I explained that my upper arms had become dewlapped as I’d grown older. “I thought I should probably have a flag tattooed on them,” I continued, “so that I’d at least look patriotic when they flap in the wind.” And then we all laughed.
It is what it is, and what it is is a fact of life. You get old, your skin starts to sag, and gravity pulls everything south. You need to just suck it up and learn to live with it.
And then, inevitably, we started talking about our mother, a lovely lady whom we all loved dearly, but who could never take the aging process in stride. “Look at these arms,” she would say.
“What’s wrong with them?” I would ask.
“They look old.”
“They are old,” I would reply, but she’d just keep rubbing at them in disbelief, as if they were a personal affront suffered by no one else in the world.
I remember going to pick her up one blisteringly hot summer day when she was well into her 80s and out she came, as impeccably well-groomed as always, but wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. No amount of pleading was going to make her change into something cooler. Those arms would remain covered in public no matter what.
Not long afterward, on an equally hot day, I happened to be in church when two ladies in her age bracket filed into the seat in front of me, both of them wearing sleeveless blouses, and looking totally at ease in their own skin. What a contrast! That moment has stayed fixed in my mind ever since.
And then there was the time when Mom was almost 90 and had finally decided to have cataract surgery. She had been blind in one eye since a childhood accident and had been understandably nervous about risking her one good eye to surgery, but had finally reached the point where she could scarcely see anymore.
She recuperated at my sister Gail’s house that first day, then my sisters and I brought her back to her own home the following day. We were all standing in the living room when the shrieks suddenly came from the bathroom.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“What’s the matter, Mom? What is it? What’s wrong?” we all asked, concerned about what the heck was going in there when she finally opened the door and came out.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” we asked again.
“It’s my face!” she gasped.
“What about your face?”
“It’s all wrinkled, and the skin is just hanging.”
“Mom, it’s been that way for a long time.”
“And my neck!”
“Yeah, that, too,” we replied. It had been years since she’d seen her face clearly and she wasn’t prepared for what had been happening to it while she wasn’t looking.
As Bev and I continued our conversation, laughing about how we had all recently been discussing the whole saggy, baggy skin thing with our knitting group friends, I suddenly came to a stunning realization.
My mother, who lived alone and whose nature it was to keep pretty much to herself, had only casual acquaintances, but no real peer group, not just in old age, but not ever. No one to just routinely let her hair down with, and to compare notes with as the whole aging process was taking place.
And so, unlike my sisters and I with our Stitch-and-Bitch group, for example, where we freely commiserate with each other as the slings and arrows of old age keep hitting us, my mother never seemed to realize that the indignities of aging were a universal thing and not merely random unkind acts of nature aimed solely at her.
Note: To all my family (who are like friends) and to all my friends (who feel like family), if I have never said it before, please let me say it now. Thank you. I have just realized even more deeply what a difference you have made in my life.
Rhea Bouchard Powers is a writer from Cumberland.