lifestyle

"Somehow, I just assumed I'd never get old"

Rosemary in her 20s

by ROSEMARY LEONARD

Someone took some photos at a dinner I was at. I saw the photos and the ones that I was in. I looked again and I thought, I look so old.

I am so old, of course. But I am so used to the image I make in the mirror as I do my hair and clean my teeth and slot in my earrings, that I don’t really see me anymore.

Even in the magnifying mirror I need to use to put on my makeup, I manage to focus so well on my eyes that I can avoid the total picture and the lines that are, in another language, wrinkles.

I remember when I was so much younger and people of the next generation would say, in jest or in lament, “I don’t feel old!” and I would think but you are. Old.

My mother could say things, sadly, about how she’d lost her beautiful and flawless skin, or how she hated looking at herself in the mirror and seeing what she’d become, and I would think, but you are. Old.

Once I read a Charmian Clift essay where she noted the startling difference when her daughter’s hand was next to hers. Many times I have remembered her words about her own ‘old’ hand and the smoothness and youth of that of her daughter’s. When I have seen my own hand in comparison with my own daughter’s, I have thought – and sharply felt – the very same thing.

Rosemary today

The daughter of my friend is whooping it up in New York City as I write. Before she left, I couldn’t resist sending her some tips about the Big Apple. I told her about the extraordinary helpfulness of the people there, that was both unexpected and a fine surprise during my recent trip. We were helped generously and often, and felt as if people went out of their way to put us right. And even as I wrote this, the thought lit my brain like a fluorescent light being switched on. It was because we were old. Two women for whom 60 looms as the next big O birthday. Poor things! With their maps opened out and their worried (and wrinkled) brows.

But I don’t feel old, I think. Well, not all of the time.

And I don’t wish to turn the clock back and be that young again. It is the mistakes I think of when I think this: the hard times, the bad decisions, the vulnerability to pain, the feelings that something awful will never be over, the inexperience and naivety. The lack of courage and the missing assertiveness. How hard learned and hard-earned what wisdom I’ve gathered is.

But here’s the thing. In the once upon a time of my youth, I thought old people knew everything and felt superior and relaxed and nothing ever got to them or bothered them or ruffled their feathers. They had lived. Their skin was thick and their knowledge of life secured them.

And it’s not like that at all. I’m still looking for answers to questions big and small. I’m still unsure about myself and what I’m supposed to do now and next. I still make mistakes reading the play, I can still hurt and be hurt, still agonise over saying the wrong thing, still have trouble accepting that this too will pass. Still cringe and shudder when I see myself in a photograph that I simultaneously believe is my true self and not really me at all.

Our younger selves just don’t get it. But they will. They will.

Rosemary took a redundancy 12 months ago after 17 years managing a library in country Victoria. Since then she has travelled to New York, dislocated her shoulder, had surgery, read, gardened, blogged and tweeted.