The French Do it Better
Growing older has received bad press. It takes a brave spirit not to feel dismayed on an 80th birthday. We may feel fine and look fine, but there is an uncertain aspect to the years ahead that makes us uneasy.
Know that demographics are on our side. The number of people in this age bracket has more than doubled since 1980. There are more of us than ever and that gives us clout.
Facts are one thing. Image is another. Those of us who think words are important do not need to wait for legislation to improve our lot. We can begin at once to campaign for a positive attitude toward older people. “When youth goes,” said a French woman, “we must replace it with something better.” Away with the “little old lady in tennis shoes.”
At a college reunion some years ago, a classmate and I rediscovered each other with joy. “Dorothy, let’s be old ladies together,” said my friend.
I stopped her there. I had lived in Paris. “You may be an old lady if you wish,” I said, “but don’t ask me to join you.”
I explained that in France, there is no such thing as a little old lady. A young girl is a jeune fille. A young woman, a jeune femme. In her 30s, a woman is encore jeune (still young). In her 40s, jeune toujours (ever young). What are we, at over 80? We are éternellement jeune (eternally young), that’s what. The French are polite.
What are we like in our 80s? My own network may be typical: four widows, two married women with husbands living, two divorced (three counting me). We have known each other for upward of 60 years, no bagatelle.
How do we look? I recall the famous passage in Marcel Proust’s The Past Recaptured (the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past) in which the hero, after many years’ absence, goes to an afternoon reception given by the Princesse de Guermantes. At first, he thinks he has stumbled into a masquerade party, in which the guests have disguised themselves “with powdered hair, in a way that completely changed their appearance.” The passage of time has altered the people he used to know in such a way that “they were recognizable but not good likenesses.”
Nowadays it is a shock to me to catch sight of myself in a mirror. I say, “This can’t be me. Someone has waved a hand and transformed me into a woman of 80.” For the truth is, I look my age. When I meet my friends, I am invariably shocked at first glimpse. What wicked fairy has changed Sarah, Julia, and Vivian into aging females, to whom one’s first impulse is to offer a seat on the bus?
Then something magical happens. I call it “the second look.” The mask of age falls away, and there are Sarah, Julia, and Vivian as they have existed for me always, young, smiling, and the dear persons, unique and irreplaceable, that I remember down these many years. I cannot explain why this should occur, but it does, and then everything is all right.