My last significant boyfriend before my husband came from small town New Zealand. His parents had married young, raised multiple children (I think 5, from memory, but there may have been more), and lived a simple, working class life. My boyfriend’s father worked in the same company from the day he started work, until the day he retired. I can’t really remember whether his mother worked. If she did, it was in the local supermarket or similar, but I may be confusing her with one of his sisters.
Their house was simple, their ambitions were simple. They’d had children young, and their children had children young, so they were relatively young grandparents. By relatively young, I’m estimating their age, at the time, as being about 50. Which I guess, by historical standards, is not terribly young to be a grandparent.
But they were old. I’m not sure that life had been especially kind to them, or that it was especially easy to get by. They looked old, or at least, far older than my parents who were the same age.
It was more than how they looked. It was how they were. They behaved old. They believed they were old.
It was as if at the moment they became grandparents, they adopted old age.
My own grandparents did the same thing, particularly my maternal grandparents. In their case, I know life had been hard. They were born and raised in Scotland, my grandmother in Glasgow, my grandfather in Edinburgh. Grandad went to war (WWII) when he was 17. Grandma worked in a factory during the war, then she and Grandad married, hardly knowing each other as was the way during the war years. During the course of the war and in the years following, they had 6 children, one of which died in infancy. Another died in his early twenties, newly married, after being hit by a drunk driver while crossing the road.
Grandad went missing during the war. I’m not sure for exactly how long, but he contracted something nasty, and ended up in hospital on an island in the Pacific for something like 2 years. Grandma had no idea where he was, whether he was alive or dead. No one told her anything.
After the second World War, Grandad went on to fight in the Korean War. Later, when the British tested atomic and hydrogen bombs at Christmas Island, Grandad stood on the deck of the HMNZS Pukaki, in a white radiation suit, and watched the mushroom cloud go up. He died from cancer.
They moved to New Zealand in the early 1950’s. While Grandad served in the navy, Grandma and the other women in their neighbourhood prepared the land for their new houses to be built in a fresh new suburb in South Auckland. She worked hard.
The lives my grandparents lived, the times they lived in, the impact of rationing, of limited income, the mental and physical challenges of war all took its toll. My grandmother was the ultimate Scottish grandmother, tiny, grey haired, always in the kitchen, always looking after us, never herself. She didn’t like to make a fuss. She died from largely undiagnosed diabetes at 70.
At 70 my grandmother was a very old lady. By today’s standards, she looked closer to 80, or older. She walked with a pronounced limp, she couldn’t walk far, her body was letting her down. But amongst her peers, she was old. My grandfather was the same.
Although my grandparents ultimately suffered physical afflictions, again, a significant contributor to their old age was mental. They believed they were old.
If I ask my parents how old they feel, my father will say he feels the same as he did in his thirties. He’s fit, he exercises regularly, gets regular check ups at the doctor and dentist, and rarely gets sick. My mother isn’t having such an easy time of it health wise, but she makes sure she has her hair and nails done regularly, still plays sport and goes to the gym a couple of times a week. They travel at least annually, go for weekends away with their friends, live their lives. My in-laws are the same. Although they love their grandchildren, they’re living their lives for themselves, not their families. And it keeps them relatively young.
I don’t feel like I’m in my late forties. I find it hard to believe that I’m that old. Mentally, I feel like I’m in my thirties, the same as my Dad. I went through a mid-life crisis in my early forties, where I felt like I was in my twenties, but that’s just too young. Thirty something is pretty accurate. Old enough to have experience on your side, to be responsible, but to have energy, enthusiasm and excitement.
My body is letting me down occasionally, but not enough to make me feel really old. I have my days when my back is stiff, my hormones are making me gain weight I could do without, I don’t bounce back the way I used to. They’re all things I feel like I can fix with a bit more sleep, a healthy diet and enough exercise.
I’m fortunate to have never have been through a war, to never have experienced famine or hardship, to have had access to modern medicine, to be financially secure. I have the luxury of being able to ponder my age, in a superficial way, via a blog post, without having old age thrust upon me by the ravages of an untenable life.
I feel young. And lucky.