My very dark hair started turning gray when I was 16. The bright “silver” strains would pop-up and refuse to lie quietly. It didn’t bother me. By age 35 my hair was officially salt and pepper. People would tell me how beautiful it was. My face was still young enough to make my hair look startlingly and I loved it. But by the time I was 50 my hair was decidedly gray and it made my rapidly aging face look old. Now I am 60 and no one thinks my hair doesn’t match my face, body, or age. Indeed I look like someone who should have gray hair. I look like a grandmother. (By the way, I am not.)
Looking older doesn’t bother me at all as I never looked that great when I was young. What is interesting, however, is that people treat me differently. On the bright side men offer to put my bag in the overhead bin on airplanes and take it down. (I think they are afraid it will fall on them if I try to do it.) Sometimes someone will offer me a seat on a crowded subway. I used to refuse these gracious offers but now, more often than not, I will accept them. I actually don’t need the help (I always try to pack lightly) but I appreciate people’s understanding that life is better for everyone if we support each other.
I treasure my independence as much as the next woman, but I also like to help people and suspect that others do too. The person offering the seat probably does have stronger legs and sometimes the bag is a bit too heavy for me. Our society will work better if we all are used to giving and receiving help.
On my last flight we were stuck on the tarmac for 3 ½ hours. Everyone was getting a bit edgy with crying children and missed flights. I found myself sitting with 20-30 year olds who were understandable impatient, but I felt quite calm, talking about other flights with screaming kids (my own), missed connections, and a desire to be in a bar. At the end of the flight, the man in the next seat to me commented that it was a horrible flight but that I had made it bearable. We all help each other in the ways we can.
I am learning to except that I both look older and am older. That people see me in way that I don’t see myself. It startles me to look in the mirror but I am learning what is meant by aging gracefully – appreciating people’s help and offering help in return. As we get very old and frail, we may not see how we help other people -- but the unexpected smile, the decision not to complain when everyone knows you have so much to complain about -- those things are gifts to the people who care about us.
--Ellen Bruce, President Emerita, OWL