I was young and now I’m old

Ann French

When I was growing up, girls were taught to cross their ankles when they sat down. The point being, I suppose, that no wayward boy, passing by, could pretend to pick up a dropped pencil and look up their dresses. Even if there had been such a youth, all he would have seen were bloomers of such ugliness and immensity that he could have hoisted them as sails on the Jolly Roger and sailed away to China.

Elegant underwear and Victoria’s Secret were utopian dreams, veiled like Salome, although not to say, undreamed of. I yearned for lacy, silk drawers and a brassiere that uplifted yet was constructed so that it revealed all. It didn’t happen and instead, my mother, who was of strict Presbyterian stock, bound my already large breasts with rough calico so I resembled her ironing board – flat and uncompromising.

Sex was never mentioned in our house, and had I not listened in to the conversations of other girls at school, I could have been opinionated enough to believe that I was the second immaculate conception. I never saw either of my parents naked – they were always dressed and even when we went camping in a small tent together, they went to bed fully clothed and in the morning were the same.

The girls I knew, and who were much wiser than me, whispered and giggled about ‘dicks’, ‘willies’ and ‘blow jobs’. For all I knew they could have been talking about car parts and exhaust systems, and it wasn’t until I was about thirteen that a kindly teacher, who must have realised my ignorance, explained the ins and outs (literally) of how things worked.

I was gobsmacked and amazed – and quite keen to try it out. But that didn’t happen until some five years later and was every bit as good as I thought it would be. By then I had ditched the calico breast binder and scratchy, woollen bloomers and invested in cotton knickers and a bra for the princely sum of one pound and fifty cents, or in today’s coin, two dollars fifty.

I never swore in those days, although there were times when I desperately wanted to due to the frustration I experienced on learning that a woman’s opinion was rarely worth consideration. Even if she could prove she was an interesting and intelligent human being. Men were the major breadwinners, and women like my mother spent their days at home – cleaning, cooking and waiting for their husbands to reappear at six o’clock. Like genies levitating from some mysterious and magical bottle they would arrive home, where dinner was served, presented on a white tablecloth with gleaming cutlery.

My mother yearned to go to work and eventually got the opportunity to work in an office. She had to take two buses to get there but loved the freedom it afforded her. My father hated the fact she had a job and set out to make life as difficult as possible. She still managed to have his meals ready on time, but now he complained that they were tasteless, contained too much salt, too little salt, and on and on it went. He sulked, my mother wept, and eventually it all became too much and she resigned. I was only fifteen but I remember grinding my teeth and making a vow I would never be restricted like my mother if I ever got married.

Life ate me up and spat me out, then chewed me up all over again. But I survived and learned that laughter and a good man can fix anything. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse called in occasionally, and the deaths of parents, both mine and my husband’s, made us recognise our own mortality. We made the discovery that we were at our best and strongest when our backs were to the wall and when dark days came upon us.

I had never thought of getting old until one day my daughter, not known for her subtlety, informed me that I was. I was shocked, shaken to my core and spent some time over the next week gazing in the mirror, looking for wrinkles. I couldn’t find any, but my neck was no longer swan-like and my hands had age-spots. My belly, arms and breasts were certainly gravity driven, heading downwards, and the word ‘flabby’ crossed my mind. Being over seventy was no walk in the park, and the expression ‘getting old is not for the faint-hearted’ struck a chord.

There was worse to come! I had always been listened to as an adult, even as a woman, and was under the misapprehension that my opinion mattered. I’d become used to being regarded as intelligent, a woman of substance, someone who had been around the block so to speak, seen some of life, its ups and downs and whose opinion was worth listening to.

Suddenly that changed. Maybe it had been like this for some time, but after my daughter’s mind-blowing observation the shades came off, and I realised I was delusional. Now, when I went to offer a comment, I would be talked over as though I was not there; invisible. My experience and expertise counted for as much as a bag of blunted chisels. In a group, people would stare off into the distance, and I became used to being ignored. It’s called ageism and it’s despicable, and after a time I decided I’d had enough of it.

A spark of rebellion grafted its way up from the roots of memories of my childhood. I was no longer naive, innocent nor ignorant. The feeling was empowering and I realised that, far from getting depressed, crawling into old age, pulling a shroud over my head and waiting to succumb to whatever dreary fate awaited me, I could step out, step up and be the rebel I’d always wanted to be.

I became a writer, not of children’s literature, as most people presume dear old ladies turn their hands or pens to, but horror and short stories. It was wonderful; my imagination ran riot and I sold stories by the bucket load, which was even better. People, I discovered, loved gore and bloodshed.

I also took up swearing, which proved to have an even more interesting reaction than saying in a roomful of people that you write horror stories. The first time was at a dinner party where the conversation turned to abortion – always a controversial topic, but better than the tough meat and mashed potatoes that were on offer. The women were quiet on the matter while several of the men were anti-abortion and said so. A woman’s job, once she was pregnant, and irrespective of her circumstances and wishes, was to do what Nature (and men) intended and give birth. That was what God in his wisdom had intended and ipso facto that was the end of the matter. I remember waiting for some form of rebuttal from the other three women at the table, but none was forthcoming.

Ever since I was a small child (and a redhead) I have maintained an Early Warning System when about to lose my cool. The roots of my hair tingle then blaze – a most uncomfortable experience, although at times it has saved me from making a complete ass of myself. Not this time! My hair burned as though it was on fire and then I opened my mouth.

‘Oh, fuck off,’ I said.

‘What a load of rubbish. Do you even know what you’re talking about? Do you know the statistics for women who have backstreet abortions and put their lives at risk or die?’

I think I lost them at ‘Fuck off’ as no-one, certainly not women and certainly not women in my age group or social circle, ever, ever said ‘Fuck.’ I had crossed the line, and after we’d had dessert, which was only slightly superior to the meat and potatoes, we went home.

 ‘That went well,’ said my husband and gave my hand a squeeze. He had always understood my staunch views on abortion and euthanasia, and stood firmly, and against all odds, in my corner. Which is why then and always I have loved him.

After that episode some people avoided me, my reputation having preceded me, while others in the writing groups I belonged to lauded my audacity. Some of them even included the odd ‘fuck me’ in their conversations, which, I have to say, sounded appalling considering they were such gentile ladies. However, freedom both figuratively and literally is everything in this world. I have noticed that people no longer treat me with disdain or as though I am invisible, and it pleases and feeds my soul.

My grandchildren are not shocked by me and speak freely and openly about a range of subjects that I would never have dared mention in front of my parents and their generation. It is liberating and the word ‘fuck’ has had a lot to do with that. It is, after all, only a word. But as a wordsmith I treasure it and bring it out for display, like a unique jewel or ornament, only on special occasions so it will not lose its lustre or impact.

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