How old is old enough?

Photo of three middle-aged women in the 1950s

Our Grandmother Mim on the right with her sisters Cos and Bim: all middle aged, but perceived as old

Everyone knows it’s best to be young—
or do they? Even a three-year-old knows how
to summon the ultimate insult
to crush a woman in power, a woman of influence
and so when our grandmother Mim
popped little Penny safe on the sideboard
away from the Hoover and away from fun
for at least one awful minute
our little sister knew precisely what to do:
you fan the furnace of your rage and scream,
“Anyway
you’re an extremely old woman and you look it!
So there!” Those words should break her bones
drop her sobbing to the carpet
fuel five ice creams and twenty sorries
so reasoned Penny
from her vast experience of life.
But no, this time the magic curse
was powerless and worse,
she’s cracked a joke it seems.

Mim roars with laughter
and forever after signs her letters
(there were many letters, it was a time of ink
and blotters and postmen riding bikes)
she signs them with a chuckle and a flourish:
“Yours sincerely, An Extremely Old Woman.”
It seems old age can be benign
for anthroposophists—or maybe just for Mim
who was frequently amused.
A three-year-old is old enough
to mimic ageist attitudes.
A woman in her prime is old enough
to find the label of “extremely old”
incongruous and comical and true.

Audio file (mp3)


This is the first recorded instance of ageism in our family, and its goodnatured rejection by our amazing grandmother Mim. Our other grandparents might otherwise have given us a generic impression of the old old as not so sprightly, but Mim was the antidote. Did ageism rear its head in your family, I wonder, and if so, how…

Alternative audio file (m4a) in case the first one doesn’t work for you


Photo from the Taylor family archives, poem and recording by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. That means please do share and reblog, but always name me as writer.

 

37 thoughts on “How old is old enough?

  1. Dan Antion says:

    As long as you can still laugh about it, you’re ok.

    1. Very true!

  2. Love this, and I’ll be sharing this ^_^

    1. Thank you! I’m glad the poem hit the spot.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Loved the poem, the picture, the sentiment. My three year old granddaughter told me calmly one day, “You old.” Yes I am. I loved it. Then she followed it with “you will leave here before I do because you got here first.” A true understanding of the mortality of us both said with calm certainty.

    1. How perfectly logical, and how perfect.

  4. cedar51 says:

    I remember thinking when I was in primary school that Miss Bain was old – imagine my surprise when I turned up to a school reunion a decade or so ago and found Miss Bain was still around, maybe a lot older but definitely not in her grave… (I suspect Miss Bain may just have left teachers training college in the 1950s)

    1. That’s classic!

  5. I loved your reading. When I was young, 30 was old. Then 40. Then 50. Well, you get the picture. Now old is 20 years older than me no matter how old I am.

    1. I think that is an excellent rule of thumb.

  6. A lovely capture of the awe held by the old of the young and vice versa.

    1. That’s a thought!

  7. Margy says:

    Love the poem! It captures the sentiment I used to use to sign emails to my daughters – ‘Attila the Mom’. To my son-in-laws – I signed emails ‘Smother-in-Law’.

    1. They are terrific signatures!

  8. Love the poem! Mim was very wise to answer a child’s insult with laughter. And, what a great family story it made!

    1. Oh yes we love a good family story.

  9. lifecameos says:

    I was convinced I was grown up when I reached the age of seven. I thought seven was a wonderful age to be. I had just left the “primer” classes and was now a big girl in the “standards” classes.

    1. How gorgeous. It makes me think of A. A. Milne. When I was one I had just begun […] But now I am six I’m clever as clever So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.

      1. lifecameos says:

        Thank you !

  10. Rachel, my step-grandchildren called me Granny Margo, and I was not quite 40. Somehow that seemed funny to me.

    1. It is funny! Best way to look at it. My mother was a grandmother at 40 and chose to be proud of the fact.

  11. srbottch says:

    What a wonderful story and title. When my father died, my mother was 70, I was in my 30s. I thought, what’s this elderly woman going to do. Well, what she did was live another 22 years, and became an elderly woman. Now, I’m 72 and thinking, ‘when am I going to get old’… I guess I’ll know when I get there.

    1. That sounds kind of familiar to me! Just as well there is plenty to learn after the ripe old age of 30.

  12. rummuser says:

    I am the oldest active member of our alumni association and with much affection am called as Bhishma by the younger members. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhishma

    1. That is an honourable nickname indeed, with the opposite effect of what little Penny tried to achieve. Wonderful.

  13. Robyn Haynes says:

    I like Mim’s spirit. I, for one, will not deny my age. I wear it like a badge as a gift to my grandchildren who must be taught that old age comes to the lucky ones and can be observed with curiosity and worn with dignity.

    1. Robyn, write that in the sky and inspire a city, a country—it’s not just your grandchildren who need this glorious attitude.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        Love that idea! I’ll get up there myself and splash some paint around. I believe if enough of us extoll the advantages of being old we can change attitudes. This is not to deny the disadvantages – every age stage has those.

      2. Keep us posted!

  14. Joared says:

    I like the poem and photo reminds me of family when being 50 or 60 was old, most assuredly 70 was. I was never aware of any ageism until my decade older brother unwittingly voiced the attitudes of the time admonishing his two young children they should “…be nice to your old maid aunt…”. I was unwed and in my early twenties. He had no idea how insulting that was.

    1. That was a brutal label and I remember it well. As if a woman only existed by virtue of having a husband. It was expected that we marry not too soon and not too late.

  15. lbeth1950 says:

    Your aunts look quirky and fun.

    1. That’s true! (Great aunts though.)

  16. Anonymous says:

    I wrote a blog recently for Age Concern about terms used for older people. So many of them are negative, but your story shows that straight description is hard to beat- relative age.

    1. “Extremely old” appeals to me too but I don’t think I qualify yet.

  17. crissouli says:

    I loved your poem, and the photo of those young at heart ladies…I’m sure I can see a twinkle in their eyes. You might like this…
    http://thebackfenceofgenealogy-crissouli.blogspot.com/2016/01/when-i-grow-old.html

    1. I am glad you liked it, and it’s true about the twinkles.

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