There was a time in my mid-fifties when the idea of aging seemed as remote to me as the concept of a ‘quark,’ something I’d heard about, but didn’t comprehend. I first grew conscious of my aging when somebody suggested that I looked old by offering me a senior discount without even asking my age.
It was about twenty-five years ago when I drove to Maine to visit old haunts where I’d vacationed as a child. It was an informative trip.
I arrived at a State Park and at the entrance a park attendant greeted me cheerfully announcing that, since I was a senior, I was entitled to a courtesy discount. At fifty-five I didn’t think I was a ‘senior’ and her offer offended me. What I found more irksome was how, without even asking my age, she assumed she knew how old I was. Did she know something about me that I didn’t?
My consciousness of aging grew slowly, step by step; each incident heightening my awareness until the evidence was undeniable.
I had a vague sense of aging when my mother died. I was thirty then. My father died years prior to her and all my uncles and aunts were long gone. With her death I felt it was the end of an era. I’d always thought of myself as the child but now I was the adult, the oldest surviving male in my family. I didn’t feel old, although a little lonely, a feeling I learned later often accompanies ageing.
One day I received an unsolicited copy of Modern Maturity in the mail, the popular rag for seniors. I understood that you received your first free copies when you were sixty although I learned later it was at fifty. I was miffed that the publisher assumed I was old enough to qualify for a seniors’ magazine. Again I had the uneasy feeling that people saw in me something I couldn’t.
I moved the Eastern Shore in semi-retirement, that is, I remained working a few hours a week teaching at Loyola. As most people know, semi-retirement is actually a mind game retirees play so they can maintain a familiar identity and not admit they don’t have a real job. It’s like an infant’s transitional object, that old shredded blanket the baby clings to as he’s growing older. It helps provide him with the comfort of familiarity as his world changes. Many people, more men than women I suspect, have trouble with retirement and don’t like using the “R” word. I continued working a few hours a week, although I had actually retired, and so when anyone asked me, “Well, George, what do you do?” I could reply, “I teach at Loyola,” thus skillfully avoided using the “R” word while not feeling as if I was lying.
I was confronted again with my aging when, at sixty-two and still working a few hours a week, I drove to Cambridge and applied for Social Security.
The office was small and above the counter hung a large portrait of the then president, Bill Clinton. He looked remarkably young, like a boy, with a cherubic expression on his face that cast an aura of youthful vitality around the otherwise sterile office. Soon a beautiful young woman (I want to say girl) appeared, introduced herself cordially and asked how she might help. “I’d like to apply for Social Security,” I replied. She nodded while asking me, ” How old are you Mr. Merrill?” I told her sixty-two.
I remember the moment vividly. Her eyes remained on the form as she wrote. As I answered my voice sounded hollow to me, distant, the way people describe the sound of their own voice shortly before they pass out.
The number sixty-two sounded much too old for me and I expected the young woman to protest and say something like, “Oh, no, I would have thought fifty.” Instead, she treated my disclosure with a professional nod, as though she had no reason in the world to think otherwise and then she looked up at me, and smiled. Her face revealed not a hint of erotic interest but only of respect and perhaps, even sympathy. The large portrait of Clinton hung just above where she was standing and I thought at the time that this pretty young woman and the portrait of President Clinton in his prime, an attractive man whom women found interesting, both conspired to be for me a sign from heaven. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything under the sun,” or maybe Yogi Berra put it even more succinctly: “It ain’t’ over ‘til it’s over.”
I understood that day that my youth was over. Narcissistic wounds help us cut to the chase like nothing else.
I think of myself now as an elder. I like the thought. Elders are old, but they are also eager to learn new things. Near sunset, when the sun is low on the horizon, I can see the landscape in far greater detail than I ever could at high noon. At the latter days of my life, I see the world in sharper relief and what I’ve seen can sometimes be of use to others who know the world only by the light of the noonday sun.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.