This week, I will be the new 29. I’m perfectly willing to believe that 50 is the new 30, and if that’s true (and I don’t want to know if it’s not), 49 must be the new 29.
I believe aging is preferable to the alternative. Forty-nine doesn’t really stick in my craw (“craw” is the kind of thing you say when you get older, right?), so I have no problem telling people how old I am, but I don’t see any need to regard myself as middle-aged before it’s absolutely mandated.
My mother’s mandate came early. She had three kids and a husband with fragile health before she was widowed at 44, and all of that undoubtedly contributed to her perception of herself as middle-aged.
I have a specific memory of watching “Mission: Impossible” with my mother. Cinnamon, played by the lovely Barbara Bain, was assuming the identity of a European princess who was under threat of assassination on the eve of her fiftieth birthday. Cinnamon was required to age significantly in order to play the princess’s doppelganger. I asked my mother, “Is that what you look like when you’re 50?”
My mother, who was 49 at the time, replied, “God, I hope not.”
She looked considerably better than the European princess, but matronly and middle-aged all the same. Frosted hair was in, and she tried it once or twice, but the process involved using a crochet hook to pull strands of hair through holes in a rubber swim cap, which, not surprisingly, gave her a headache, and my mother quite reasonably didn’t care to suffer for her beauty. It was also the time of hairpieces and falls. She considered herself too old for a fall—and given her general appearance, it would have been incongruous—but she did have a hairpiece, which made a big bun on the back of her head. To me, it looked like a cow patty, but since hairpieces were popular, maybe I was the only one who made that association.
Usually, my mother sported the middle-aged Southern woman hairstyle, circa 1970 or so: On a weekly visit to a beauty parlor (not a salon), her hair was washed and rolled, and she was placed under a hairdryer so the hair would set around the rollers, and when it was dry a beautician (not a stylist) would comb it out, tease it, and sculpt it into a helmet, which would be heavily sprayed into place. The helmet was covered with a hairnet at night to preserve it, and it was carefully revived each morning and sprayed again. The helmet lasted all week—until her next trip to the beauty parlor. Periodically, there were perms to ensure that the weekly wash-and-set would conform.
Conformity and a small Southern town go together like mayonnaise, white bread, and homegrown tomatoes. Recently Girlfriend (my best friend of 40 years) and I were talking about the mom of one of our elementary schoolmates. This mom did wear a fall, or her hair looked remarkably fall-like—long and dark, with a wide hairband or scarf tied around it. She was younger than our mothers—younger than most of the other mothers in town. She wore hip-huggers and boots and big Jackie O sunglasses. For Union, Mississippi, she was glamorous.
The other mothers—including Girlfriend’s mother and my own—shunned her. It was intimated, if not said outright, that she was trashy. Girlfriend and I never witnessed any trashy behavior, but the other mothers concluded she was trashy because she was younger and obviously more free-spirited (that hair! those hip-huggers!). She didn’t conform to Southern mama-ness, and nonconformity is the kiss of death in a small Southern town, or it was then.
What, I wonder, would my own mother make of me now? What if she were to have known me not as her daughter, but as a contemporary, both of us 49?
It’s a pretty sure bet I’d have seen her as intolerant, judgmental, staid, and sad. It’s just as sure a bet she’d have seen me as trashy—the red hair! the cleavage! too much makeup! And no one needs to wear heels that high. That last would have been said sotto voce for extra emphasis. As an ad campaign of the day said, if you want to get someone’s attention, whisper—and Southern mothers know how to whisper.
She never would have dug deeper than the superficial indicators of what she deemed as trashiness to get to the real indicators: my politics, my language, my worldview. The judgment would have been made, and I’d have been shunned.
Physically I know where I came from, but psychologically, mentally, emotionally, where did I get my own sense of true north? How did I manage not to conform?
Maybe the answer lies partly in an awkward, unhappy adolescence, which made me develop an inner life much richer than my outer life. Maybe it lies partly in the books I read, the music I listened to, and the television shows I watched, which portrayed racism as deeply wrong, which showed war as hell, which showed women as the equals of men. Maybe it lies partly in the example my conformist, judgmental mother set by being strong enough to go to work when my father died, strong enough to raise me on her own. Maybe she was socially conformist because of genuine beliefs, but maybe it was to fit in. As a working widow, maybe she already felt nonconformist enough without having to make a statement about it.
My hair is red because I was meant to be a redhead. The cut of my blouse, the height of my heels, and the makeup I wear reflect not a desperate need to remain young or appeal to a man, but my own perception of myself. I am the new 29.