Even as a young girl, I always had the sense that I was going to be an awesome old lady.
Perhaps a weird thing for a 10 year old to think, but after my mom died, my primary female role models were my two grandmothers, so that was who I spent the most time around, other than my school friends and cousins around my same age.
It’s probably telling that “woman” was not really a phase of life that I ever much considered or aspired to. It was like, in my brain, I would go straight from being a little girl (or maybe, if I really strained the limits of my imagination, a teenager) to being elderly. The whole vast range of experience of being an adult female was invisible to me.
It just goes to show how ridiculously formative family-of-origin issues can be. I was obviously surrounded by plenty of adult women—aunts and neighbors and teachers and my dad’s friends’ wives—but I never thought to imagine myself into their shoes. There was just enough distance between us that I couldn’t fathom it.
Of course, in many ways, I had already fashioned myself into some kind of juvenile burlesque of a grown woman. “Mature for her age” or “wise beyond her years” or whatever other euphemisms were used to describe the fact that, without an awful lot of consent on my part, I was thrust into the position of being a confidante for my father and a mini-mother for my siblings. Strongly empathic long before I’d ever even heard the term, I instinctively “knew” that I had to help out, had to pitch in, had to keep the routine of daily life running as smoothly as possible.
As the years progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to find much common ground with girls my age. I faked it well enough, and was never exactly lacking for friends, but there was always a weird shadow dogging me that made me question the veracity of my own emotional experiences. Getting upset about a boy or a snub from a popular girl, or coveting some then-stylish brand of clothing or shoe that we weren’t really able to afford, I could hear a whisper in the back of my mind, “Isn’t this a little ridiculous? Isn’t this kind of beneath you? Aren’t you supposed to be better than this?” So I taught myself to deny my feelings as frivolous or inconvenient.
And I know that so many other girls felt this way too! Patriarchy does not exactly allow a lot of room for displays of “girlish” emotion . . . or grown women’s “shrewish” emotions for that matter.
Nevertheless, perhaps this is why I longed to project myself into an early old age. Even though my own grandmothers were hard-ass bitches in their own ways, I still though of them as essentially mild, beyond reproach for their occasional outbursts of frustration. They’d seen it all and then some, so if they were mad at us—or at anything—surely they had a good reason for it. But they were also representative of surpassing softness and indulgence and mirth.
My childhood vision of what I’d be like as an old lady was probably something like the Chinese figure of Budai, the Laughing Buddha, all giggles and potbelly. There’s freedom and wisdom to be had in this guise, of course—but I know now that the sweetness of it can only come after genuinely experiencing, feeling, and learning from the extravagant messes of being a woman, through and through, first.