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National Public Radio aired a lovely story recently about a woman named Miss Lilly, age eightysomething, who sits on a bench in the most beautiful park in Paris with a sign that says, "Hello! Let's talk."
On most days, Miss Lilly, a former interpreter, waits for the curious to approach her. Most of them leave charmed because Miss Lilly has no agenda other than to practice her many languages. A small community of happy chatters has built up around her.
She says she is the perfect conduit for conversation because of her age and her gender . A younger woman holding a "Hello! Let's talk" sign runs the risk of drawing unwanted and perhaps unsavory attention. A man of any age might seem too threatening.
But an older woman? An older woman is not a threat, says Miss Lilly, and so she can do something that seems innocent in public because what she is doing is exactly, delightedly, that: innocent.
What she means is that an older woman is not a sexual threat.
For this and so many other reasons, I love women like Miss Lilly. In a youth-obsessed culture, it is a powerful and freeing thing to land on the far side of cute. Although it is heresy to do so, Miss Lilly shows us that age has its benefits beyond early-bird specials and senior discounts. It's why the Red Hat Society is going great guns, in the United States and abroad. That's just the womenfolk saying "Up yours" and cackling all the way to the tearoom.
In the last month, my son turned 21, and my husband turned 50. These are two heavily weighted stops in the road of life that ends with, well, death. One can now legally drink, and one just received his AARP card in the mail. As for me, I dwell directly in the middle of middle age -- provided I intend to live to 92.
In my 30s, fine lines began to form around my eyes, and I comforted myself by saying as long as the band Journey was still recording, I was still young. The day I heard a Journey song on an oldies station, I had to pull off the road and stare out the window for longer than is healthy.
But you get used to the passage of time. You pretty much have to. It's everyone else's discomfort with it that is disconcerting. Save for two cards, every birthday greeting I received this year bemoaned the passage of time. Go ahead. Wander down the card aisle, and just try to find a meaningful greeting for an adult that doesn't mention the passing of youth.
It is just one of the scourges introduced by my generation. Back when we frayed our own jeans and tie-dyed our own shirts, we boomers vowed never to trust anyone over 30. And then the rivers ran and the pages turned, and we turned 30 ourselves.
And then what? We'd used the sheer weight of our purchasing power to turn the tide in favor of the youth market, and now we were standing in the muck and the brine, powerless to turn it back. And so here we are in our 40s and 50s and 60s with no touchstone to recognize the wisdom that comes with age, no one to congratulate us for making it this far, and no reason to look to the future.
Instead, we've nipped, tucked, waxed, coaxed and turned cosmetic surgery -- once the enclave of people with more money than brains -- into a multibillion-dollar industry. Botox, anyone? A little chemical peel, perhaps?
Riding up in the elevator recently, a woman near my age whom I don't know well asked me if I thought her skirt was too short. What she wanted to ask was whether her legs were too old. I said no. I said she looked great. I was thinking of Miss Lilly. I can't imagine she would ever worry about something so silly.
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