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Overheard In A Cafe: 'Now That She's 70, She'll Have To Be Nice'

Years and another age bracket later, Barbara Beckwith is still bothered by a comment about an older woman. (tanya petrova/flickr)
Years and another age bracket later, Barbara Beckwith is still bothered by a comment about an older woman. (tanya petrova/flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Years ago, as I eavesdropped on a conversation at my neighborhood café, I overheard a remark that irks me still. One woman was talking to another about a third they both knew, declaring: “Now that she’s 70, she’ll have to be nice.”

At the time, I was a mere 60. I nevertheless felt insulted on behalf of my future self. And now that I’m nearing 80, the remark feels even more offensive.

You see, I’d always thought that by age 70, I’d no longer have to be nice. There’d be no need to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own. I could be free at last not to dress up, content with my 20-year-old outfits. I'd no longer feel compelled to “fix my face,” wear Spandex (I’d spent my young adult years squeezed into body-shaping girdles), or color my hair.

Must septuagenarians and octogenarians cede control to the next generation? Must we swallow our crankiness and wheedle for what we need?

I’d feel no pressure to do what my decades of experience have taught me to not do. I’d still say yes to swims in woodsy lakes, but no to spending the day on sunny beaches, having learned (via surgery) that I’m susceptible to skin cancer. I’d go hiking, but only on solid trails, since foot pain has taught me that walking on soft sand makes my plantar fasciitis flare up.

In other words, by now, I know who I am.

I also know what I like. For instance, I’m a movie and theater buff, but wisely refuse invitations to classical music, opera and ballet, which put me to sleep. I deeply value print books and won’t give them up for e-books. I like to read maps, don’t mind getting lost if my map-reading fails, and won’t resort to GPS. I will press others to examine their gender, race or other stereotypes, and I am willing to be called on mine. I don’t care if I’m called P.C.

I’d always thought that by age 70, I’d no longer have to be nice. There’d be no need to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own.

That woman in the coffee shop: What did she mean, anyway, by “she’ll have to be nice.” Did she think that her aging friend ought to lose all rights to be critical, fussy, demanding or simply sure of herself? Must septuagenarians and octogenarians cede control to the next generation? Must we swallow our crankiness and wheedle for what we need?

I want to go back in time and interrupt that conversation between those two women. I’d give them a look at what it’s like not to be nice. I’d stand in front of them, open my coat, and display my 78-year-old torso, revealing my 1970s-era T-shirt that’s emblazoned with words that ought to apply to women of any age: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

And then I’d hand them a list of women such as Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Grace Lee Boggs, Maggie Kuhn, Dolores Huerta and Gloria Steinem, who now and in the past, have agitated for justice well into their 80s and 90s. Nicely -- or not.

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Barbara Beckwith Cognoscenti contributor
Barbara Beckwith writes articles and essays on topics ranging from white privilege and prejudice, to body basics, bliss and blues.

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