This evening I attended a summer party hosted by Mary’s Woods, the continuing care retirement community next door to the university. The event, the theme of which was 1945, took place on campus, and when I arrived five minutes before the time the event was to begin, I found ancient folks in period attire milling around enjoying cocktails while a big band played historically appropriate music. I was wearing my ubiquitous summer hat but I received many sweet compliments as if I’d worn it as part of a costume so as to be festive for the party. I accepted a whiskey sour from a waiter and then made the rounds, greeting guests and looking out for my Mary’s Woods friends.
I first spotted a woman whom I’ve interacted with many times over the past several years and with whom just a few weeks ago I had ambled slowly hand-and-hand all over the Marylhurst and Mary’s Woods campuses, chatting about our lives, past and present. Tonight when I walked up to her and greeted her she looked at me without even a flicker of recognition. At first I thought it was because I was wearing my hat and thus I appeared unfamiliar, but then I remembered that I had been wearing my hat when we last spent time together. I sat down next to her and began asking her questions about how she was and what she was up to this summer, but she couldn’t converse with me. She smiled almost apologetically in response to my questions and after a time I wished her a lovely evening and continued my rounds, feeling mildly shocked by the changes in her that had taken place in just a few short weeks.
The next familiar elder friend I spotted happened to spot me at the same time and he jumped up out of his chair and came toward me with a huge smile on his face, calling my name. We hadn’t seen each other since last year, a fact which he lamented as we shook hands and then hugged, acknowledging that we are both extremely busy with our various commitments. He then mentioned that he’d just been talking about me, that my name had come up in a conversation about Buddhism, and that he had enjoyed setting straight one of his Mary’s Woods friends who thought all Buddhists were Asian. We had a charming exchange and promised to be in better contact. I left him and continued meandering between beautifully set tables around which sat mostly old women enjoying their cocktails and trying to hear each other speak over the quite loud swing tunes. I pecked a few gals on the cheek, wished bon appetit to others, and worried that some of my closest Mary’s Woods friends didn’t seem to be at the party. I made my way to the table reserved for Marylhurst staff and sat by myself for awhile, wondering where my colleagues were.
After a time, one of my colleagues whose mother lives at Mary’s Woods came over and invited me to sit with them at their table. I was introduced to his mother – he forgot we met two years ago at the winter holiday party. His mother and I remembered that we had already met and sat down next to each other and began chatting. We made small talk and she complimented me on my hat. She reminisced about dancing with her husband. And then she asked me what on earth qualified me, someone so young, to be a gerontologist. Actually, she didn’t ask me as much as demand an answer. And I gave her one – I said that gerontology isn’t only about what it is like to be an older person, which I couldn’t know about until I was an older person, but also about the experience of being a human being aging throughout the life course and becoming an older person. She responded by saying, “Oh, you are justifying your position.” I was stunned by her brazen response, and I said so. I said, “Wow, well, that’s one way of thinking about what I said, and I thank you for being honest, but actually, I don’t need to justify my position. What I am saying is true. And what you asked me is really important to ask gerontologists, especially younger gerontologists – why do we do this work? What do we think we can know, and what can’t we know until we are ourselves old?” She laughed and said she was mostly teasing me (and I thanked her and said that it is important to be teased as it prevents one from taking one’s self too seriously). And then this amazing thing happened – she admitted that now that she’s old she says whatever she wants to say and doesn’t hold anything back. Being that I am a Gero-punk I couldn’t help but ask her when she began un-censoring herself, when in her later adulthood she began speaking her mind. I didn’t say so to her, but I wanted to know if it was an intentional decision or if it was an emergent phenomenon, I wanted to know if she had a strong image in her memory of herself the first time she let go of notions of propriety and just said what was on her mind. Alas, she didn’t remember when it began; she said that she just realized at some point that she was no longer holding back her thoughts and opinions.
Two more of my colleagues arrived and then an unfamiliar woman was brought to our table to join us as she didn’t have anywhere else to sit. She wasn’t someone I had met before – I wondered if she was a new resident at Mary’s Woods. My table mates and I began chatting her up. Her responses to our questions were mash-ups of what would commonly be referred to as “appropriate” answers, on the one hand, and completely bizarre answers, on the other. She laughed as if everything she said was a joke, and we laughed with her. At the next table I watched as my friend who didn’t recognize me earlier ate her dessert first but left untouched her salad. And across the way an old couple danced to the music of their youth.