Sandi Dollinger is a playwright, actor, theater director, visual artist and teacher living in Albany, New York. This story was first published in N 21—Nursing in the 21st Century, a peer-reviewed mobile journal for nurses.
As a child, one of my most special memories was sitting around the record player with my father and my brother and having Dad play all the 78’s on a Sunday afternoon, followed by the 45 RPM’s.
The record collection ranged from cowboy songs to Polkas to Perry Como, with everything thrown in between: Hank Williams Jr., Irish music, Sophie Tucker, Kate Smith, and a host of others. We would sing along with the records, Dad leading us in his best off key Bing Crosby. Gene Autry was invariably our favorite. Why? Not only because he had a horse named Champion, but because he yodeled. Yodeler from Tulsa, his albums read. He yodeled and we yodeled right along with him. “Old Lady Who!” we’d sing out, in imitation of his yodel. “Old Lady Who!” We also liked the word Lady, it was the name of our pet dog. After the record session with Dad was over, we’d call out Old Lady Who and our little runt would come galumphing out. We’d saddle her up for her Sunday afternoon walk to the field across from Mr. Hayes’ grocery store on the corner of Bissell Avenue and East Ferry Street.
That the expression “Old Lady” would ever come to mean anything other than a child’s yodel or a call for a beloved dog never occurred to me. It would be years before I was to realize that there was a new connotation to this phrase. A stigma even. To understand the why’s of this growing phenomenon, let’s backtrack a little. It seems that a male can be called Sir from the day he is born into this world till the day he takes his leave of it. It’s different for a female, however. A woman starts out with Miss, quickly becomes Ma’am and then enters the realm of Sweetie, a euphemism for Old Lady or just plain Old.
But I am getting ahead of myself here.
An early encounter with this terminology occurred some years back when I was cat-sitting for a friend in Rensselaer, New York. A snowstorm had whipped up outside and I found a shovel in the garage and went out to keep up with the snow, piling high in the drive. Now and then I’d stop to take a hit of my asthma inhaler. A guy in a service truck pulled up to the man next door, also shoveling away, and said in his loudest stage whisper: “Do you think the Old Lady needs a hand?” What the young man didn’t count on was the fact that though I may wear glasses, I have hearing like a dog. So I called out in response: “This Old Lady does her own shoveling.” His head spun around, and then he called over to me that he’d be glad to give me a hand. I said if he wanted to earn $20.00 that would be fine, but he quickly said “On the House” and we had a deal. The truth be told, I was glad for his help. He just needed to ask in a slightly different way, that’s all.
Sadly, this little encounter signaled to me that there was a new creature out there to deal with, a new Grendel, if you will. Old Lady Who no longer emanated from a child’s misinterpretation of the sound of yodeling. Ultimately the expression, once fun, dwindled down to the word Old, which society has been cleverly advertising for since 1938, when the phrase Senior Citizen was introduced into the pedestrian vocabulary. People began ooh-ing and aah-ing about all sorts of discounts, though no one was quite sure at what age one graduated from Junior Citizen to Senior Citizen. Were individuals Seniors at 70, 67, 65. 55 or perhaps younger? In other words, when and where does Old begin?
This past spring, a friend I was vacationing with suddenly began making noises which I can only describe as sounds from a barnyard or a bedroom. Stunned, I asked if something was wrong or if she needed help, but she replied she was simply making “Old Lady noises.”
“Why are those called ‘Old Lady’ noises?” I wanted to know.
“Well, they’re the noises I heard Old Ladies make when I was a child,” she replied. Quite honestly, neither my grandmothers nor any of my great aunts or neighbors ever made comparable sounds. My friend and I, though roughly the same age, were not “aging” on the same page.
In the spring, I flew off to Warszawa, Poland, where I had a gig at a private university teaching Speech and Theatre classes to English and Business majors. As I have friends and relatives in Warszawa, my evenings and weekends were spent visiting. First of all, Polish friends and family all wonder why I am not a Pensioner. At my age, in Poland, I am entitled to free rides on any public transportation. So why work? Aren’t all Americans rich?
On my last Saturday in Warszawa, my friend Mariola invited me to have dinner with her mother and her son, Wojtek, at their flat. After dinner, Wojtek wanted to take a walk with his grandmother. Mariola argued that it was all right for his Babcia to cook dinner, but after that, Babcia must sit.
“Because Babcia is Old Lady!”
There it was again. That dirty word. Later, Wojtek, Mariola, and I took a tram to Francziuska Street and sauntered for miles through a park. Wojtek told me he was impressed with me that I was such a rigorous walker. Why? I put miles plus on my legs each day, and I am talking genuine walking, not footing it on a treadmill.
It seems these little anecdotes beg that question of when and where does Old start? Oddly enough the word itself is part of the youngest birthday.
“How old is she?” someone will ask of a newborn.
It is a natural process to be growing Old. It is part of aging, which is a healthy thing. No one can stay a baby forever. Human beings are meant to grow into a more mature physical and spiritual self as they intermingle with the world outside. A world which offers relationships, a world which awakens Passion.
It is this very word Passion which provokes the sounding of alarms. For what the maturing human may Desire and what the outer society Desires for that human, may conflict. American Society seems to operate on its need for us to stay young forever, needing for us to always to be needing new things. Society may even trick us into a perpetual state of coping in order to achieve these ends. We run with the herd, we buy what the herd buys, we think like the herd.
At what Age, then, in this system of Forever Young, does Old Lady begin? Sometime into my early 30s, I met a man who told me he could get me some film work, but warned me not to tell anyone my age. I was 34.
When I was 39, I landed a job in publicity at Viking Penguin in New York City. The following July they were throwing a birthday party for me
“How old?” inquired Marcia.
“Forty years old!” I beamed.
Marcia almost fell through the floor. Not long after, I found myself in the unemployment line.
Almost a decade later, I moved to upstate New York and was applying for work as an adjunct professor at a local college.
“Be sure not to tell anyone you are 47 years old,” advised a technician from Human Resources.
It seems the Forever Young demand that society places on women is quite powerful. It can distract people from pursuing their own Passion because we must buy the right clothes, wear the right makeup, have the right cosmetic surgeries to appease and participate. And for what? To be dropped like the proverbial hot potato the minute a liver spot occurs or a breast begins to sag? It’s a race we will never win.
Unpursued Passion results in numbness. Too much following and a deadened state of coping ensues. It takes great courage to allow for Passion to rise from the smoldering embers of deadened states. We are here, though, those of us willing to hold a torch up high and beckon the dazed herd back to life.
My Meta-physician recently mentioned to me that his young daughter, Mia, sees a woman Doctor who is 94 years old. Mia’s pediatrician has always loved her profession. It is her Passion and she has no plans of abandoning those who need her care, no matter what number is assigned to her years.
It is a struggle at times not to follow the herd, but I, deemed an Old Lady since age 34, have chosen role models as Mia’s Doctor to keep me on a path of my own making. I choose not to buy the largest television set to babysit me or the most comfortable La-Z Boy rocker to hypnotize me into a permanent state of dullness, along with the prescription drug of the day. I choose not to investigate every Mature Adult Living Center in preparation for Assisted Living and Nursing Home facilities. I choose to mingle with ALL of society. I choose to be led by my Passion.
Earlier in the year I heard that there were auditions for a play named “Angel Street.” It is a play that has always fascinated me, especially the character of the maid Elizabeth, who is described as a woman 50 years of age and ample. A number of generations ago, I saw fifty. But it did not stop me from auditioning. And I did! I even auditioned wearing glasses, and, lo and behold, I was cast. If I hadn’t showed up, I never would have had the joy of playing Elizabeth.
When I write my own plays, I like to write parts for varying ages, with particular attention paid to older women. Some people have asked me if I wasn’t afraid of older actresses forgetting their lines? I have twenty-something year olds in my Acting class who have a great deal of difficulty learning lines. Does that mean parts shouldn’t be written for twenty-year olds?
Who I am is an Artist/Teacher, writing plays, sometime directing them, or even hitting the boards myself. Like my mother before me, I make art visually, as well. And I serve as mentor for all of the above. One of my former students calls me to keep in touch. “See ya soon, Babe!” she always says before hanging up.
A friend in her early eighties teaches an Art class through a University in St. Petersburg. There she met a man eleven years her junior and they began to see each other. She told me she never thought she’d fall in love again after her third husband died. “Now Steve wants to move in” she exclaimed, “but my canvases come first.” Old Lady Who?
Every now and then someone will ask when I plan to retire. They will ask it in a whisper. And I whisper back, “No Old Lady for me.”