In my early 20’s, I had the pleasure of sharing a train car from Manchester to London, England with an elderly woman who taught me, in that short ride, quite a bit about being a woman and aging gracefully. Lately, I have found myself thinking of her often and smiling. She is surely not alive any longer, but lives on in many, many hearts, I suspect.
Her name was Hazel, and she was magnificent. Beautiful, rosy skin and a full head of vibrant white hair. A lilting accent that might have been Irish or could have been Scottish (I hadn’t been in Britain long enough to have developed the ear). She was perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed (albeit our styles were decidedly different; it was the Grunge era and I can only imagine what she made of my tatty bell-bottoms and oversized hoodie…). She clearly was a woman of taste and style and quite an advanced age. I would estimate she could have been no younger than 80.
Our conversation started innocently enough — she was interested in what a young American girl was doing on her own in Manchester, and she shared with me her stories of touring the States as a young woman with her family and friends. As Hazel spoke, she was animated and bright and witty, and I wondered to myself what she must have been like as a younger woman… and I decided that “dazzling” probably best captured it. Even at her age, she had a lightness and brightness to her that I’m sure would make her the center of any gathering. But she was not, in any way that I could perceive, a show-off. She wasn’t brash or loud; oh no, she was lady through and through.
At Birmingham station, our fellow passengers emptied our car, leaving us alone, our dialogue shifted as the dusk fell and we pulled out for London. Hazel eyed me for a moment and then asked me, “What do you think of the fact that someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll be as old as me?”
I was struck dumb. This was England and people didn’t ask such direct, personal questions; this much I had learned. I squirmed in my seat. I had no idea what the appropriate response to such a question was and I felt quite certain that I would never, in fact, be as old as her. Twenty-five seemed a lifetime away; 80+ was simply preposterous!
She smiled at me as I opened and closed my mouth a few times, searching for the proper answer. Then she said, gently,
“You will, my dear. Someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll grow old. Your skin will wrinkle and your hair will grey and your body will fail you in ways you cannot possibly imagine right now. The question that interests me is this: You will still be alive, but will you be living?”
In my youthful overconfidence, I replied strongly in the affirmative, and she chuckled kindly at me.
Then she leaned over, took my perfectly unlined hand in her crinkly one, and told me this:
“At some point, most women go grey. No, no, I’m not talking about their hair color. I’m talking about them. Their soul. I’ve observed it my entire life and it makes me sad. So many start out young and vibrant — like you! — and they let it go… just let it go, later on. It’s a terrible shame because nothing is as amazing as a splendid woman.”
I thought for a moment and then told her I honestly wasn’t entirely sure what she meant about going grey.
“Oh, you’ve seen it, too, I’m sure!” she exclaimed. “They stop caring about themselves. They stop exercising their bodies and minds. They lose touch with the things that make them sparkle and shine. They settle into routines and ruts and start saying things like ‘I couldn’t possibly do that, I’m too old!’ long before such a thing is actually true. And trust me,” she whispered with a grin, “I know what too old really is. No, they give up and surrender to mediocrity and boredom. They lose their natural curiosity about the world and the people in it.
And it affects how they look, even. Haven’t you ever noticed, my dear, those middle-aged women who are grey? They have got so lost in mothering and wife-ing and working, that they have forgotten that first they are women. Amazing, wonderful women. With bodies still capable of so much movement and minds still capable of so much wit and brilliance! But they have given up. Surrendered their sparkle to the mundane chores of daily life. And it is a shame. A real shame.”
Her words were sad and a little depressing to me, which she must have noticed because next she said:
“But it doesn’t have to be that way, my dear. It really, really doesn’t. As you age, never forget your brilliance. Hold onto your sparkle. Love your life and the people in it. Remember that it’s not over until the last breath is drawn. Until then, the game’s still on. Embrace your femininity, remember to be a lady, and don’t ever sell yourself short. There will be people who will try to tell you that you don’t sparkle anymore, but don’t believe them. Just because they can’t see your brilliance, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Trust me on that.”
She sat back, smiling at me. “So that’s it, then,” I said. “That’s the secret to keeping your sparkle?”
Her eyes twinkled and she laughed before saying,
“Yes. That, and lots of really terrific sex. With orgasms. That part is vital.”
I’m sure my jaw dropped at this point. Until that moment, I’d been pretty certain that women her age didn’t think about sex or know what an orgasm was. She laughed again at my discomfort.
“That’s right, my dear. I said it and I meant it. Every word I’ve told you is true and you can take it to the bank. And you know what? You will always remember this conversation. What you do with it will be up to you.”
With that the train pulled into London and we scurried to disembark. I helped Hazel to a waiting black cab and turned toward my destination. When I looked back, she and the cab were gone.
I knew even then that Hazel was right. About all of it.
As I’ve moved into my 40’s, I’ve witnessed some “greying” in the people around me, and felt the same disappointment Hazel expressed. Certainly, as we advance in age, and particularly with the advent of menopause, bodies change. The lovely estrogen-infused glow fades, hair texture changes, and gravity attacks. But Hazel’s magnificence wasn’t about a tight body or hormone replacement therapy. It was about the lightness in her soul, the curiosity in her mind, and the gentleness in her manner. Those things have no expiration date. Brilliance comes from within; the rest is a just a beautiful frame for the perfect picture.
How many of us have allowed our brilliance to become tarnished by the “mundane chores of life,” as Hazel called them? How many of us have begun to surrender our lightness and brightness under the weight of people who can’t or won’t see it? How often are we truly aware of our own magnificence?
She was right. I’ve never forgotten that conversation. And what I do with it will be up to me.