Recently, a twentysomething girl on an airplane called me “Ma’am.”
I was on my way to Chicago for a reunion with a wonderful group of women who dubbed themselves the Dowagers years ago in graduate school, when they were far from dowagers. I was more of a dowager than they were. I was one of the oldest in our program, though at the time I was only in my 30s.
Still, no one called me “Ma’am” back then.
But on the plane to Chicago, many moons after grad school, this scrub-faced blonde with her taut, flawless skin thought “Ma’am” applied to me.
I’ve been called “Ma’am” before, but there was something disconcerting about her polite yet offhanded deference. “Excuse me, Ma’am,” she said as she carefully slipped past me into her window seat, as if she presumed she shouldn’t nudge my brittle bones too hard.
I wasn’t invisible to her, the way I am to some people these days. But I was someone potentially fragile with age, someone part of a different world, a different generation.
I laughed about the incident at our Dowager reunion that weekend. I posted about it on Facebook and Twitter. Can you believe it? Me, a “ma’am.” What a silly girl, so young she perceived someone middle-aged as old.
But my gut tightened when I thought about it or when I looked in the mirror at my reflection with its hollows and furrows and slightly wattled chin. That’s not who I see when I imagine myself. In my mind’s eye, my face is unlined and rounded by collagen; I’m still thirtysomething and learning how to be in the world.
Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am.
I felt old in graduate school. I had at least 10 years on many of my classmates, some of whom were straight out of college. Most were taking their first significant step on a professional path. They were following their dreams, pursuing a goal they’d set as children to become writers.
I was following my dream too, but it was a dream born in adulthood, after I’d admitted my career as an entertainment lawyer was a huge mistake.
The Dowagers formed during my second year of grad school. They weren’t much younger than I was, and we’d all had prior lives as ad and record industry executives, management consultants, journalists, nurses, lawyers, academics. Most were married. One had a child on the way. They were funny, smart, talented, generous.
Although I was a fringe member due to my constant traveling between Iowa City and Los Angeles, where my fiancé lived, I felt more myself with these women than with anybody else in the program. We weren’t dowagers because of our age; we were dowagers because we were a bit more experienced and seasoned than our classmates.
Years later, in Chicago, we were a few steps closer to earning the dowager moniker. Our hair was grayer, our faces more lined. We had become writers the way we’d dreamed, but we also were wives, mothers, teachers, editors, consultants. We had experienced more successes and failures. We had succumbed to some fears, conquered others. We were more worn down by time, more wary of the world.
But the shimmering brilliance of each woman, her essential goodness and humanity, shone through, unchanged.
Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am.
The encounter shouldn’t still visit me at night when I wake up sweaty with a racing heart.
But it does.
I don’t wish for youth. I enjoy being older. I enjoy not caring as much about what I look like or what others think of me. I like letting my inner crotchety bitch emerge, uncensored and irreverent.
But the insecurities of youth. The doubt that I’m good enough, that I’ll ever figure out what to be when I grow up. The yearning to make my parents proud by achieving success in something they understand and respect. The need for my mother’s embrace, my father’s guidance, when I’m feeling lost or alone.
That’s all still there.
I never thought I’d be this young when I got to be this old.
Those earlier selves still swirl inside me: the little girl who thought she could stop her parents’ fights by being perfect; the teenager and twentysomething who kept demanding perfection of herself, who couldn’t see outside of that demand until it proved to be her undoing; the middle-aged woman who gave up on perfection and abandoned a safe career to pursue one that doesn’t pay the mortgage, who married a strong, silent, kind man tolerant of her imperfections; a woman who gave birth to a boy who hugs her when she’s tantruming about undone chores and says to her, “Let’s start the day over, Mommy.”
Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am.
The nights I wake up sweaty and anxious, I think about that weekend in Chicago. I think about the way we Dowagers compared notes on parenting, love, career versus family, but also shopped and gossiped and drank as if untethered by obligation. We giggled and swooned through Magic Mike XXL like teenagers. Afterward, another Dowager and I who are both raising sons talked about how hot the actors were, how fun it was to watch them dance, but how we never, ever want our boys to see XXL because of the message it sends about what “no” means, what women want versus what men think they want.
Then we all went back to a Dowager’s house and swooned some more over YouTube clips from the original Magic Mike. Since, you know, the dancing is so much better in that one.
The good and bad of youth and age: They’re both here to stay. I can’t sweep away unwanted bits of either and declare good riddance. Every day I have to contend with the different layers of my childhood, my youth, my middle age and of the actual dowager years to come.
Maybe that’s the gift of age: Accepting that the totality of our years will always reside within us, making us more, and less, than we ever thought we’d be.