Monday, February 16, 2004

Fifty Two

Fifty Two and I go a long way back, so far back that it seems a part of me. An appendage. Supernumerary digits. It's the year I was born. (That's 1952. AD.) Which means, mathwise, that last week's birthday makes me a fearfully symmetric Fifty Two.

Fifty was tough. I hadn't yet gotten over turning forty. Honest. But fifty. Ack. Even the word. Say it: fiffffffty. All those F's. Like something exhaling, deflating. Or dust, as in from dust to dust, sifffffting to the floor. For fifty one I concocted a spiffffy if psychotic bit of denial : Fifty ONE ! One ! What a TINY number ! I am in my EARLY fifties ! I swaggered about feeling young for about ten minutes. It worked about as well as Uncle Gordon's explanation of why one should find thunder reassuring: it means the lightning's already hit, and you're safe.

What about the next bolt, Gordon ?

So, thinking about age as I have been this week, I found myself constructing a chimeric woman out of metaphors of bodily decrepitude.

I began at the top with salt and pepper. Or should that be hoarfrost and snow ? Tough call. Moved down through crows'- feet, beak and turkey wattles. No birds were harmed in making this golem And bags. Lower down, dugs. In back, straight from the Sahara, a hump. Chicken legs. Paper skin. Fishscales.

Medicine is more euphemistic. Virtually ecclesiatic. Presbyopia. Presbyacusis. Presbyesophagus. Old eyes, old ears, old throat. Trinitarian and Calvinistic, indeed. And what about rebirth ? Or presbyeverything ?

Gerontologists have a category for the extremely aged. The old old. I've always been charmed by the unusual and honest anglosaxonicity of of that phase.

As usual, the language reflects gender power structure. Presbus: old man. Geri- and geron-: again, old men. Dementing, senile, we also occult an old man: senex. As in seigneur. Sir. Sire. Senator. Senior citizens.

Is there a female vocabulary of age ?

There's hag, of course. Evil spirit, repulsive old woman. From haegtes -- fury, witch. That's a good one. Creative, powerful. Dominant. Nothing "dotage" about hags.

Then there's crone. Withered old woman. From croonje -- old ewe, carcass. (Cf. carogne, carrion.) An economically useless animal, all bred out. Maggot food.

And dowager. Widow, entitled to her husband's estate. From dowry to dowager: the gender economics of marrige.

Who uses "anile" anymore, if anyone ever did ? "Like an old woman, feeble-minded," explains my decrepit Funk & Wagnall's.

What's in a (loaded) word ? The clinic abounds with more mundane examples. Is the 70 year old woman who springs fluidly from the exam table "spry" or simply "agile" ? And is "cute" really the best word to describe that 90 something, tweedy professor emeritus ? And is a woman "sweetie" or "Mary" or "dear" at 85, when at 45 she was "Mrs. Jones" ?

As we age we become Other. Strange, frightening Things. Mementos mori. Young people look through us, look away. Or stare in horror, thinking "Not me !"

"Don't get old," said a 87 year old woman to me Friday, smiling ruefully. "I'd rather get old than die young," I replied. Then paused. "Except I might be too old to die young."

I'm waiting for the next bolts, Gordon. And the last.

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