I have reached a certain age. In fact, if by that expression the French mean menopausal, I have reached past all that into PMZ— post-menopausal zest. It is a season like blue jays in June, when they have stuffed the maws of their young so thoroughly and for so long that the young are bigger and fatter than their parents, who, worn down to scrawniness by reproductive success, have enough sense to turn their backs on the importunate presumptions of their overgrown progeny and fly off to find some berries for themselves. It is an age when, having committed our energies for years and years to partners and family and career and everyone in the world besides ourselves, we become the chief focus of our own affections.
We are sick and tired of being nice. No more will we pick other people’s socks off the floor, no more will we spend days organizing dinner parties to ingratiate people we don’t really like; no more will we stifle ourselves when someone shows us disrespect, but get right up on our hind legs and talk back. We career women get bored with competition for rewards we see no earthly use for, and, in our workplaces, we no longer suffer fools gladly. Hankering for quirkier alternatives, we indulge in long, raucous evenings together, sharing food that we like and our heart’s deep stories, whooping it all up with laughter.
Far away in India, when women reach this “certain age” they are suddenly considered genderless, a view that would send western women scurrying to plastic surgeons, but which suits our superannuated Indian sisters just fine. Free at last from onerous family servitude, they band together in happy flocks chattering under the village Banyan tree, letting it all hang out and telling bawdy jokes. Then they go off on pilgrimages, wandering the countryside in dusty saris, carrying only little bundles for luggage.
We western widows, who have been down in the valley of the shadow, find our way back into the sunlight much the same way as our Indian sisters do, by travel and laughter.
A year after my husband died, I set out on a trip to Cape Cod to visit women friends who had offered me ten days in a cottage they rent on their place. I had flown every week for my career and was stick to death of airplanes, so I took a bus from Dearborn to catch the midnight sleeper from Toledo, sporting a small green knapsack and a shoulder bag with computer. Walking out to the bus gate at in Boston’s South Station, I was hailed by a woman my age.
“You are one of us!” she announced “I’m Betty.”
“You are one of us!” she announced “I’m Betty.”
“How do you know?”
“You have one of the signs—travelling alone, with only your knapsack.”
“I’d love to be one of you,” I said, as another woman joined us on the bench, “but I’m not a part of your group.”
“Oh I didn’t mean that,” she replied. “It’s just that I’ve discovered women everywhere, these days, who recognize each other by certain signs, and travelling with nothing but a knapsack is one of them.”
“That’s right,” said the newcomer, “I’m Linda. I’ve been on the road for three weeks with just what I’ve got in here. Are you widows too?”
Then, while we waited for our bus, Betty and Linda and I sat and talked about our husbands’ deaths:
“Henry was in denial,” I explain, “maddeningly cheerful for months in intensive care—I didn’t know what to do about grieving.”
“Oh, Peter and I were both that way about his heart condition: he was a cardiologist and neither of us believed that he could die.”
“George died of a massive stroke,” says Linda, “one moment he’s weeding the garden and then, at lunch time, when I took him his tuna fish sandwich, he was out flat by the fence, already gone. I cried for a year, but then I took to travel”
“Me, too,” says Betty, “I’ve just been to my 50th college reunion and then an elderhostel in Philadelphia. Now I’m off to Nantucket; in the fall, it’ll be Ethiopia, then Fiji!”
“I’m on the road every month!” said Linda, “but you’ve got to learn to get it all into one knapsack—just a change of clothes, and washable underwear.”
“So you get bored with how you look,” said Betty, who was wearing a pair of light weight trousers that zip at the knee to make shorts, “but, honestly, who cares anymore?”
“Have you heard the one,” asked Linda, “about the little old lady and her granddaughter with the see-through blouse? The girl is going out on a date, and comes downstairs in a gauzy blouse you can see right through. When her grandmother objects, the girl says
“Oh Granny, get with it! When you are my age you get to show your rosebuds!”
So, the next evening when her granddaughter’s date rings the doorbell again, the old lady is sitting right there, stark naked from the waist up. The girl is horrified.
“What’s the matter, dear,” asks Granny. “If you get to show your rosebuds, why can’t I display my hanging baskets?”
And we were off on our pilgrimages, boarding the bus to Barnstable, telling joke after joke all the way out to the Cape, healing our lives with cleansing peals of laughter.