As I wander around the REI store looking at Merrell hiking boots, Kuhl pants, and various brands of rain jackets, I feel pretty good about myself, right at home among the lean, fit employees and other shoppers. Yes, I’m sixty-something, but I take care of myself. I exercise, eat healthy (if you overlook the chocolate), and have maintained the same weight from my twenties. I feel—no, I am—young inside.
I think of the beautiful country drive I took a few hours earlier with my husband, George, soaking in the glorious fall leaves, rolling hills, and horses grazing peacefully in the fields. It might be a cliché, but life is good. I no longer worry what the future holds—work goals, marriage, having kids. I’ve done all that. Happily married for over thirty years, kids grown and gone, and retired from my career, I now live a life that involves visiting the grandchildren, writing stories, volunteering, reliving memories through family pictures, and going on mid-week excursions with friends. George and I enjoy quiet dinners at home, reading books, and walking the dog. We love visiting the mountains, which is why I need hiking boots. I also want a rain jacket that fits into a backpack since some hikes are long enough that the weather turns, and I like to be prepared.
Ah! Here’s a nice Columbia jacket, a beautiful blue. I remove it from its hanger and carry it over to a mirror to try on. I slip my arms in, zip it up, and lift my gaze.
Who the heck is that old woman? I look around, but there’s no one else there. I peer into the mirror again and realize it’s only me—with gray hair and wrinkles. My problem-solving brain goes into gear. I should probably reconsider not wearing makeup.
But I’m also shocked and don’t know why. I look in the bathroom mirror every day. Maybe the store uses some other type of lighting and I’m literally seeing myself in a different light. Perhaps I was imagining that I was twin to one of the young sales clerks. It’s a mystery why the image jolts me, but it does. To the core. I look like someone who should be sitting in her rocking chair with a ball of yarn and knitting needles, not taking a ten-mile hike!
I shake my head and turn my attention to the jacket, which fits well but isn’t as flattering as I expected. The blue doesn’t accentuate my eyes because they aren’t the clear blue they once were—irises clouded by cataracts. My puffy upper eyelids half-close my eyes anyway and make me look like I didn’t sleep well. I make a mental note to figure out what’s going on with my body. Thyroid imbalance? Reaction to my moisturizer? Allergy to the cat that sleeps on my face?
Turning sideways to look at myself, I see the size is perfect—sleeves the right length, loose enough to wear another layer underneath, sits well on my shoulders. But why am I leaning forward when my posture has always been ramrod-straight?
Stand up, Karen! You look like an old woman.
When did that happen, the way I’m leaning? A recent doctor’s visit revealed that I had lost another quarter inch in height, down almost two inches from my young adult height. I know bones thin and get compressed with age resulting in shrinkage that, thankfully, isn’t noticeable away from the measuring stick at the doctor’s office. But the leaning is obviously an old person’s posture.
With effort, I lift my shoulders back. It’s an improvement but my torso is begging to be allowed to relax.
Good thing I’ve got some long hikes planned. I’ll have to straighten up to get enough oxygen in me to keep going.
As I unzip the jacket, I wince from pain in my fingers, hold them out in front of me, and flex each one. They don’t curve as easily as they once did, joints swollen from arthritis make sure of that. My eyes close to block the vision. My fingers, my posture, my hair, my skin, my eyes—all deteriorating.
It feels as if something is about to erupt inside of me.
Get a grip, Karen!
I take a few deep breaths, return the coat to its rack, and choose another to try. This time I don’t even think about color, just fit and utility. I turn in front of the mirror with eyes focused on the jacket, not wanting to study myself too closely.
I’m aware I need to adjust my thinking to coincide with my stage of life, to see myself as I am, and to accept that how something looks is not as important as its usefulness. Price is also a consideration since I’m on a fixed income and airfares to visit the grandkids can be expensive. I pause to visualize the sweet faces of my precious granddaughter and grandsons.
Hannah is passionate about books while Josiah is thrilled by creatures in the creek. Carter thrives on doing home repair projects with his dad, while Hudson is running faster each day. Caleb, our priest-in-training, enjoys nothing more than playing church, while Emmaus smiles from his bouncy seat. All these children greet me with hugs and couldn’t care less if my hair is gray and my body, bent.
If I were the young person I imagined I was ten minutes ago, I wouldn’t have all those beautiful grandchildren. Spending time with them is more important than how I look.
My smile sparkles in the mirror and once again I feel I’m looking at an entirely different person. It’s funny how a person’s appearance can be impacted by their frame of mind.
I wander around a bit longer then leave without making a single purchase. My heart is full. I need nothing more.
Karen Curran is a retired accountant living in Franklin, Tennessee. She delights in making people smile through her stories which can be found in Potato Soup Journal, Taco Bell Quarterly, ScreaminMamas.com, storyhouse.org, oldkaren.com, in a short story anthology called The Swimmer and Other Stories of Life, Horse Illustrated Magazine, and at deadmule.com.