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I want to apologize for ever referring to someone as a “sweet old lady.” Forgive me, sisters. I wasn’t thinking when I did it, and I hadn’t yet reached the age where I could be described by that cloying pejorative phrase. I’m still not there, but at the far edge of middle age, I’m swiftly heading in the direction of old, if not sweet.
Sweet old lady once actually referred to someone who was elderly and sweet, as in kind, good-natured, and gentle. But in recent years in popular entertainment the label has become ironic. Think sweet old lady and immediately one conjures the Betty White persona, a lascivious old lady with a filthy mouth. Or consider the sweet old lady our children have grown up with at the movies: a white-haired granny driving a motorized wheelchair like a bat out of hell, whipping a pistol out of her knitting basket.
These exaggerated anti-stereotypes further polarize and simplify our ideas about aging. Where are the American screen equivalents of Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith — full-bodied, weathered, dignified, and sharpened by age. Would anyone ever dare refer to one of them as a sweet old lady?
Why can’t popular culture wrap its mind around and celebrate the real women in our midst, this generation who’ve crossed the threshold into old age living rich, full lives? They might be sweet, but may the lord strike me mute if I ever call them sweet old ladies.
What does it really mean, anyway, sweet old lady? It’s an infantilizing term, the other-end-of-the-seesaw from the child who has been shushed into silence. Here’s how Roy Blount Jr. describes it in his memoir, Be Sweet:
“Be sweet, now,” my mother would tell me when I was little and she wanted me to sit still in some lady’s house while she and the lady talked about curtains. Or, “Behave.” That’s a great one, isn’t it? “Behave.” What that meant in fact was, “Stop showing any signs of human behavior for a while.” Why didn’t she just say that? “Negate yourself.”
Behave. Be sweet. Be nice. The ideal sweet old lady in the American vernacular would sit quietly, crochet or embroider, sip tea, and pet her cat. She would wear soft cardigans and slippers and a cotton housedress. She would never make any trouble or venture outside the prescribed comfort zones of silence, immobility and invisibility.
I never imagined myself where I am now — surrounded by dynamic women older than me who are entering their old age with vigor and wisdom and energy and guts and grace. They know who they are. They are not sweet old ladies. They are paving the way toward a place I believed and feared to be a dead end that, instead, looks like a freshly turned field with no straight rows.
These women take off for India at 65 or China at 70. They might have started a new career at 50. They have children and grandchildren and haven’t been bulldozed by them. They don’t live in a soup of regret or unfulfilled wishes.
I had a legendary great-grandmother I never met who, as my mother described her, was a formidable old lady. The mother of nine children, she never married their father because she didn’t want to give up her family’s land. My mother said she wore sturdy men’s shoes and oversaw the work of the farm where she raised her kids. In truth, the grandchildren were a little scared of her. She wasn’t a warm and snuggly grandmother but a stern taskmistress.
When I first heard about her, I was a little thrilled. She didn’t fit any of the pictures I had of old ladies. The ones I had known were soft and powdered, compliant, subservient. They were the antithesis of what any girl growing up in the age of women’s liberation wanted to be. They were sweet old ladies, I thought.
But I misunderstood. I didn’t take into account the gardens they had made, the wardrobes they had sown, the children they had raised and lost, the partners they had nursed, the astonishing changes they had seen in the world around them. How could I judge then or now a woman who had grown up stoking a coal fire for heat, riding a mule to school, or re-soling her shoes with cardboard, who had survived to the internet age, an entirely new world?
So let me be good but not a sweet old lady, either the ironic version or the worn-out ideal. Let me see my mother’s face.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
Kathryn Eastburn is on vacation and will return next week. This column was originally posted on February 24, 2012.