August 21 was my day. No, not my birthday–I’ll be 73 for another two months. The day I share with the rest of us who had the good fortune not to die young and now have our very own place on the calendar. Unlike mothers, fathers, dentists, funeral directors, screenwriters and many others whose day honors what they are and know themselves to be, our day labels us “senior citizens,” a term that labors to avoid the truth we’ve damn well earned: We’re old.
My grandmother, who favored blue rinses and shawl-collared dresses, used to call herself a “senior citizen.” I prefer the jauntiness of “oldster,” the title of Sari Botton’s lively and illuminating online magazine for those with more years behind than ahead.
The late Jenny Joseph wrote, in a poem widely quoted by a former generation of rebels, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/ With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” I had my fill of purple in the 60s, but on World Oldsters Day I wore my red hat with a T-shirt heavy on Barbie pink. I’ve had a lifetime to discover how well a big hat suits me, especially a red one. Who says red and pink don’t go? They worked for Matisse. Why not me? Tights on the street are what Glamour magazine used to call a “don’t,” blocking out the faces of fashion criminals caught in the act. If I used a cane, I would thump it. Comfort over style, I say.
On World Oldsters Day, as I intend to call it from now on, my smartphone reported summer weather but the breeze hinted of fall. I was having one of those charmed days when nothing hurts and the pavement seems to lift my every step. The absence of pain used to seem like my right; now it’s a privilege and a joy while it lasts. I thought of Katherine Mansfield’s classic short story “Bliss,” which begins, “Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing simply.” Except for the hoop, I was Bertha Young.
A friend of mine, who lived past 100 with various ailments, had a sister who was also on intimate terms with pain. When they spoke, they followed a rule. Each would recount all her symptoms, starting with the feet. Then they’d move on to other subjects, from politics to books. They refused to let pain define them.
During my rounds on Oldsters Day, I loaded up on cherries while I could. Mailed one of my books to someone who’s waiting to read it. Watched any number of bees at work while making sure Casey’s pee didn’t hit the flowers. I served the cherries in front of the TV. During episode three of The Bear, as Carmy and Richie were catering a kids’ birthday party where a bottle of Xanax somehow fell into the punch, I bit down on a cherry with a little too much vigor. I’m still hoping that tooth will settle down.
Back when summer was still a promise, I often walked Casey past a lilac bush with branches that nearly brushed my cheek. I watched it bud, then burst into bloom. This lilac had its own trajectory, some days behind all the others. While they withered, my lilac held its own. Just as the petals turned brown, it released a last wave of fragrance that perfumed the entire corner. You would pick some other flower to stand in a vase. But for pure intoxication just shy of too much to bear, nothing touched the last lilac.