Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Invisible (Old) Woman

One of my favorite "older woman" bloggers is Judith Boyd who calls herself the "Style Crone" and is, like me, in her seventies.   She just published a blog post called "The Orange Jacket and the Concept of Erasure".  Her post and her orange jacket were inspired by an essay in the Feb. 2nd New York Times Magazine, written by Parul Sehgal , on "Erasure"  in which Sehgal says: “Erasure refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible.”  Judith, the Style Crone, said: "Sehgal’s focus on older women at the end of her essay was profoundly powerful.  'There has been a blank around the lives of older women, who report feeling invisible as they age – which is, as it turn out, more fact than feeling.'”  Judith concluded: "I learned that no amount of orange could change the fact that older women are not 'seen' in our culture."

 Reading this inspired me to re-post an essay of mine that first appeared on "A Rolling Crone" on July 19, 2011 called "The Invisible (Old) Woman"  Here it is:

 A couple of days ago, my husband and I were staying in an antique-filled small hotel in Chania, Crete, which had, in the parlor, a wall of books in many languages discarded by previous guests.  (This is one of the delights of staying in small hotels.)

I picked up a paperback by Doris Lessing called “The Summer Before the Dark”, published in 1973, and I finished it as we arrived in Athens on Sunday night.

Briefly, it’s the story of a 48-year-old British housewife and mother, Catherine (or Kate) Brown, married to a doctor, who takes a summer off from domestic life, because her husband is at a medical conference in Boston and her three teen-aged children are traveling with friends in different countries.  She lets their house for the summer and begins working at a job as a translator at conferences around the world.  (Luckily, she’s fluent in four languages.)

When her well-paying work is over, Kate takes an American lover who is much younger—in his early 20’s.  They travel in Spain, he becomes very ill from some never-specified disease, then she becomes ill and returns to London alone, staying anonymously in a hotel. 

By the time she’s well enough to get out of bed, Kate has lost 15 pounds, her clothes hang on her, her dyed red hair is coming out gray at the roots and her face has aged dramatically.  As she weakly walks around London, even passing her own house, where her best friend doesn’t recognize her, Kate realizes that, by suddenly aging from an attractive, stylish, curvy redhead into a skeletal old hag in baggy clothes, she has become invisible.

Several times she plays this game: she walks past a group of men who ignore her or goes into a restaurant where the waiters scorn her, then she goes back to the hotel, puts on a stylish dress and ties her hair back, adds lipstick and returns to the same places, where she is coddled and admired.

I admit that it’s plausible for a 48-year-old woman to transform herself at will from an invisible hag into a noticed and admired woman, but when you’re sixty, or seventy (as I am) you’re permanently in the “invisible” category, unless you’re, say, Joan Collins or Jane Fonda.

I’ve been noticing this “invisible woman” phenomenon with both amusement and consternation over the years.  Haven’t you had the experience of walking into a coffee shop or a department store or a cocktail party where everyone looks right through you and you start searching for a mirror to make sure you’re actually visible?

Yesterday we checked into the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, one of the grand old luxury hotels of the world.  We arrived a bit out of breath because there was a taxi strike and we came via subway, dragging our suitcases up stairwells when there was no escalator.

My husband walked in first and I was greeted on all sides: “Welcome back Mrs. Gage!”  My suitcases disappeared. Cold water was provided.

A couple of hours later, I came down to the lobby to ask a question at the concierge desk.  There were three concierges and no other guests waiting.  The white-haired concierge was on the phone confirming someone’s dinner reservations.  The middle one was explaining to the youngest one about the book where must be recorded all cars and busses and pick-up times. I learned a lot about the hotel business, standing there 18 inches in front of them, until finally one of them noticed me and said “Oh hi!  How can I help you?”

A more fraught episode occurred Saturday in Crete at the magnificent wedding reception of a very prominent Cretan family.  Nick and I passed through security and into the estate, up some stairs where we were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne and a world-class view of the sea below.  Lit by the full moon was a football-field- sized clearing by the seaside, filled with flower-laden tables and lighted by candles and lanterns. I stopped to admire the view, then turned toward the swimming pool area where the family was greeting guests, but my husband had vanished into thin air.

For half an hour I walked around the pool area, even wandering into the nearby yard where I thought Nick might have gone to escape the crush.  As I circled, I kept looking for a familiar face, but the only ones I recognized were from TV and the newspapers. The predominant languages were French and Greek, which I know (far better Greek than French), but I couldn’t imagine plunging into one of the groups surrounding a prime minister and blurting out in any language: “Hi, I’m the wife of Nicholas Gage”.

At the far end of the swimming pool, on a white banquette, was a young woman in a long brown dress completely absorbed in her cell phone.  I decided to take the other banquette and watch the parade of Parisian fashions pass by. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at the hotel.

Eventually my husband re-appeared.  He had gone with friends to find the lists for our table seating. After we clambered down to the sea and found our table, I had no trouble talking to the Greek jewelry designer on my right and the elegant Frenchman across the table, but that first half hour of invisibility wasn’t fun.

But sometimes I delight in being invisible.  Yesterday, I repeated a summer ritual. I walked from Constitution Square down Hermou to a tourist shop just below the Cathedral on  Mitropouleas Street to  deliver another batch of my Greek Cat books for them to sell.  Then I went to a small restaurant called “Ithaki” where every summer I get a really good gyro and some chilled white wine. I sit at the same table every time and watch the owner charm the passing tourists into sitting down to eat.  I’m fascinated by the man’s ability to know each person’s language. He’s way more skilled than the usual restaurant shills who try to lure you in with the two or three sentences they know.

Yesterday he charmed two pretty girls from South Africa into sitting at the table at my left, treating them to a piece of his “famous spinach pie” as an appetizer.  Then he gathered a rollicking table of Italians and told them which beer to order.  Directly in front of me were two American boys who had befriended two girls whose accents suggested that they came from someplace once in the USSR. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to see America,” I heard one of them say.

Wrapped in my cloak of invisibility I could hear the South African girls complaining about their parents: “If my mother ever found out!”  I could watch the American boys rather awkwardly courting the much more sophisticated Slavic girls.  I reflected that every young person should be required to take a year off before the age of 30, to tour the world with a backpack and sit in a taverna like this one, listening to the owner speak a medley of languages and learning about the world.

When he brought me the (very modest) bill, I tried to tell the owner that I come back every year because I enjoy watching him speak so many languages so well, but he just shrugged and rushed off to greet some Japanese tourists.  I think he didn’t hear me.


World Costume Dolls said...

That was so interesting to read. Thank you for sharing it! I love "people watching" and I am always amazed at the ability of some people to speak several languages. I know some people who can speak anything from five to nine languages, which puts me to shame by only being able to speak one, and just a little from my school French. Maybe it is time for me to start learning a new language. You have got me thinking!

Joanna DeVoe said...

Bravo! Such a fantastic post, Joan!