My Mom Was Always Old

The writer’s mother embraced her grays and wrinkles like every other woman of her generation. Her daughter, however, faces her terror with Botox, hair dye, and a healthy dose of denial.

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As early as I can remember, my mother was old. When I was a little girl, I remember asking her, “Mommy were you always this old?” Even then, the concept of age eluded me. Now, frankly it terrorizes me. She offered that disappointed smile, struck a match to yet another unfiltered Kool, blew the result in my face and nodded, “yes, I was born old.”

Even in her high-school graduation picture with the tight 1940s flip and that serious WWII-era Mona Lisa smile, she looked like the oldest 17-year-old in America. By the time she was 30, she’d given birth to and was raising four baby boomers. By 35, she had a full head of gray hair that was set, teased, and sprayed weekly by a white-coated beautician at Bambergers department store. In those days, women who dyed their hair risked gossip. Gray was fine. Silver was for the rich and regal. Being childless, my first gray hair appeared at 40. My first dye job preceded it.

Mom’s whole generation seemed to be on some accelerated aging program. At 40, they actually looked 40. At 50, they looked 60 and it graduated up from there. They wore muumuus over body bras and girdles, and were not above going to the grocery store like that. When they got wrinkles, they kept them. In those days, cosmetic surgery was a science developed for people with hideous deformities. (Of course to most baby boomers, aging is a hideous deformity.) By 1970, my mother was on her way to the 50-year mark, and her avocado-colored refrigerator had a cartoon taped to it: A drawing of a haggard old woman trying to wrangle her runaway breasts into a bra (size 38 long) while the caption said, “Old age ain’t for sissies,” That was my mother’s mantra, more of a joke than a complaint, really.

Mom’s rare smiles were not quite upturned, but she’d shrug off middle age like it was only a flesh wound. She was a tough old broad like the rest of her generation. These women were my role models for aging, and I wanted no part of it. Very early on I decided that I never wanted to have to wear my hair lavender like my Aunt Beth. “I hope I die before I get old” became our generation’s response. Well … now we are old, and nobody’s dying. We are delaying, denying, and bitching.

By her mid-50s, Mom’s silvery hair was thinning, her teeth were manila-colored and loose, and her rump (as she called it) had its own seat. Mom’s skin had gone from silky beige to a taupe nylon mesh, and every time she stood up, she winced in pained silence. I never knew what hurt her, as she would never mention it—nor would she ever complain. It could have been the arthritic knots that her fingers wore like medallions. It might have been her whole life. My mother believed that complaining was like sex: something you did quietly behind closed doors, because nobody really wanted to hear it. Whenever I had the urge, I was sent to my room until it passed. Nothing personal was anybody’s business according to my mother, who didn’t even complain when, at 65, she lost her central eyesight. She developed macular degeneration, a proliferation of blood vessels that takes out your central vision, allowing you only to see peripherally.

Like the rest of her peers, you simply did not let the neighbors know where the crabgrass was on your lawn. And your physical ailments were absolutely nothing to talk about, even with your closest friends. My generation blogs and tweets about how we feel, and what diseases we have. Strangers offer cures.

My parents and their peers were called “The Greatest Generation” because they lived through the Depression, a world war or two, a presidential assassination, and the ’60s (without the Maui Wowie). During the war, the women worked at factories, putting rivets into things the country needed in order to beat our enemies. They went without sex (presumably) while the men were at war while our generation has figured out ways to have sex while men are in the next room! They raised the generation of baby boomers—which may be where their premature gray came from. The Greatest Generation aged as they lived, in quiet desperation, crying on their deathbeds, wishing that they had done better.

My mother died of lung cancer at age 70. She barely took an aspirin for the pain—I can only imagine it was unimaginable. I sprained my toe last week and I called my doctor for some Vicodin. Every time I try to Botox my blues away, I can see my mother frowning at me, something my face hasn’t been able to do since I began injecting my face with the stuff. As I age, I admire mom’s generation more than I would have ever predicted. They were tougher and more fearless about getting older than my peers. They understood the life cycle; they considered themselves “old” at 50, and were grateful to live to be 70. I claim that I am “middle aged,” when in fact I will have to live to be over 100 for that to be true. Yes, we baby boomers are wimps—wimps with very smooth skin. You were right, Mom, old age ain’t for sissies.


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