The traffic wasn’t heavy, but the intersection is dangerous, and pedestrians as well as vehicles are wise to pay attention. I slowed to a stop at the red light, and watched her set foot into the street.
I put her at late 70s or possibly 80s, though as she pushed her walker at a surprising clip I wondered if my estimate was off. I was thrown by her speed not only due to the walker, but the severe bend in her body and a lamentably large dowager’s hump, her form suggesting the letter C.
Yet as she passed in front of me, my impression changed. Once, I’m certain, she was very beautiful.
Had she assumed, as we all do when we’re young, that growing older would never touch her, and if it did, its traces would be gentle?
Echoes of Beauty
I can still see her in my mind’s eye: her purple blouse fluttered in the breeze, black shorts to the knee fit snugly like active wear, and white walking shoes were no different than my own. Her calves and arms were muscular though her frame was thin. And her hair was dyed a soft blonde and cut into something of a pageboy. She wore no glasses, and her nose was long and fine.
I could imagine her 20 years earlier, and 20 years before that. What sort of life had she led? Had she left a string of broken hearts? Had she piloted a private plane when women were lucky to work a teaching job? Had she started a company, exhibited paintings in a museum, raised a half dozen children to adulthood and gone on to other pursuits after that?
What reward and anguish had her beauty wrought – at 30 or 40, at 50 or 60? Did it help her? Did it hold her back? As her physical glory faded, did she let it go with the kind of grace so many of us admire?
She made her way across four lanes to the other curb, and a green light required that I drive on.
Unable to chase her image away, as I drove from market to bookstore I continued to wonder. Had she hunched over a desktop for years, as I hunch too many hours over my laptop? As a girl in the 1940s or 50s, had her mother insisted she balance books on her head to master poise and perfect posture? At what point was she aware that she could no longer straighten up?
As I finished my errands, I stopped to jot down notes and linger over a cup of coffee. I wanted to feel where I am and who I am – right here, right now – however in-between, and in my own way at an intersection: This is the stage of life when we say goodbye to our most satiny skin, to select ambitions, to our children as they grow into lives of their own; this is the time in life when we’re welcoming our confidence, recognizing what gives us comfort, crafting new goals in place of the old.
For myself, I recognize the importance of persisting in questions, my belief in dreaming, and increasing clarity when it comes to imposing “no” in order to maximize life’s “yes.”
Seeing Ourselves Through the Wider Lens
As serendipity would have it, last evening I was going through boxes and stumbled onto a pair of photographs I hadn’t seen in a dozen years. They show a family smiling brightly for the camera, including myself and my ex-husband.
Studying my face, I realize how little I knew at the time, how resolutely I denied the facts of my marriage, how naturally it came to me to shoulder all responsibility for whatever was going awry. I was wrongly convinced that I could somehow make it “right.”
And then I picture the old woman and the power in her stride, enjoying the sunshine while braving each intersection. I picture myself 20 years from now or possibly 30 and hope time will be kind. I imagine myself with pen in hand, or keyboard nearby, still stubbornly, painfully, blissfully engaged in writing.
Late to my routine, I settle into my usual spot. I ignore the stack of bills, the deck that needs sweeping, the clutter by the kitchen sink. I begin my writing and editing, making a conscious effort to straighten my spine, lift my chin, relax my shoulders, and breathe deeply. I am aware of my age and contentedly so – knowing my good fortune, feeling at peace, and appreciating my strength.