60 is the new 20
Nana was old. She was old when I was born and she was old while I was growing up. The whole time I knew her (she died when I was 18) she was a gray-haired matriarch who put the fear of God into my boyfriends and had an unnerving habit of flicking my skirt up to make sure I was wearing a slip. Nana was of a generation that believed in hard work and making do and not complaining. I loved and respected her enormously, but she was ancient. I couldn’t imagine her ever being young.
It has only recently occurred to me that Nana was 54 when I was born. Only 54. Nineteen years younger than Cher. She hadn’t even turned 60 and she had been old for ever.
Of course, that was the way it was in those days. Fifty-four was old. Fifty was old. Good grief, 30 was old. Friends of mine who planned to become stewardesses (the term “flight attendants” had yet to be invented) knew they had 10 to 12 years to meet a rich, eligible bachelor on a flight from New York to Paris and charm him into marriage. Thirty was the cut-off for stewardesses – hell, it was the cut-off for life. Anything really interesting – modeling, traveling the world, writing the Great Canadian Novel – had to be done before you turned 30. Even having children, which wasn’t all that interesting but was, after all, expected, had to take place before you turned 30.
Something happened to women after 30, something sad and hormonal and inexplicable, that apparently didn’t happen to men. Men, like fine wines and old books, improved with age. They took on a rumpled, leathery sheen that was only enhanced by a few wrinkles. Cary Grant was pushing 60 when he romanced Audrey Hepburn in Charade – she was 34. Did we throw up in disgust? We did not. Would we have been aghast if the tables were turned? Absolutely. Did we think there was something “sick” about relationships between older women and younger men? Of course we did. It went against the natural order. Older men, younger women – we didn’t necessarily like it but we didn’t question it. Like the annual spawning of the salmon, it was the way it was and had been that way, verily, since the dawn of time. I have no proof but I’m willing to bet God created Eve a good five years younger than Adam. Just because He could.
There’s a story, maybe apocryphal, about Marilyn Monroe at a party the year that she died. “Thirty-six,” she kept saying, “it’s all over.” Because it was. Blonde and beautiful and over the hill – that was the way it was.
If only Marilyn had been born a little later – well, quite a bit later, actually – she’d be facing 40 with new lips, new breasts and a baby on the way. As for her sex life – the best was yet to come.
I know this because I recently started writing for one of those new seniors’ magazines. This is what freelance writers do, by the way – if this is a career that interests you then listen up, sweetie, here’s a tip. Take stock of yourself every 10 years or so, and figure out what interests you now that would have bored the socks off you ten years ago and write about it. Ten years ago I was all about teenagers – teenage dating, teenage curfews, teenage angst. Now – phooey on all that! (Does anyone actually say “phooey” any more? Did they ever?) Let the teenagers take care of themselves – they’ll survive somehow – they always do.
These days I’m all about retirement communities – reverse mortgages – vitamin supplements. You know, geezer stuff. And there are, conservatively speaking, a gazillion magazines out there catering to geezers. They have all kinds of cute titles: The Good Life, Living Well, Active Adult – these are code words for “reading material for old people” without really calling a spade a spade.
According to these magazines, getting older doesn’t mean what it used to when my grandma was alive. Now it means continuing to do everything you always did but doing more of it – traveling, dating, having sex. Especially having sex. If these magazines are to be believed, there are sexual gymnastics going on in those assisted living apartments that would rival a frat house toga party. (Okay, okay, I know – nobody has toga parties anymore, I know that – this is what we writers like to call making a humorous allusion. Play along with me here.) One of the articles, in fact, shows a picture of an elderly couple “romping” in the bedroom – having a pillow fight, if you can believe it, as a playful prelude to “doing it.” It also includes a section on “safe sex”, which I assumed had to do with being careful not to do anything strenuous that might put your back out, but turned out to be about STDs.
Well, good for them. Although, I have to say, I can only imagine my husband’s reaction were I to pick up a pillow and bash him over the head with it. I don’t think “playful sex” would be the first words that would come to his mind.
Although it never came up, thank goodness, I can assume my grandmother’s sex life was pretty well a thing of the past by the time I was born. Back then it was fairly commonly accepted that one of the compensations for aging was the ability to settle down at night with a good book and not have your slumber interrupted by a randy partner. Sex was for young people.
And now it seems that every retiree in the Western world is having sex. Who knew? I suppose it’s Viagra that’s done it – and now they’re working on something similar for women. Pretty soon there won’t be a single good excuse left not to have sex, and those of us who aren’t rolling in the hay with our partners every night are going to feel guilty as hell about it.
What I want to know is, who are these sexual athletes? Do you know them? Because I don’t. I have single girlfriends who haven’t dated since Clinton left office (just a coincidence, I’m sure, but still…) I’m relatively certain they’re not having sex. And my married friends are preoccupied with the usual stuff: jobs, grandchildren, aging parents, the economy. When we get together we talk about mortgage rates and house prices and how it would be great to get away for a couple of weeks but who can afford to take the time off anymore? Sex just never seems to come up, as a topic of conversation. The people I know may be having hot sex and keeping it to themselves but I doubt it. Our generation was never terrific at keeping secrets. The only thing better than having great sex was talking about it afterwards. In fact, come to think about it, the talking was often better than the having.
I think Winston Churchill and his wife had the right idea. They had separate bedrooms, so he could sit up late drinking scotch and planning the war while she got a decent night’s sleep. If he was interested in a little fun, he wrote her a note suggesting they get together and waited for her response. That seems to me the height of civility. No bashing themselves around with pillows, no playing hide the sausage, not for Winston and his beloved Clementine. Nothing kinky about their sex lives.
Although there is a quote attributed to him about “rum, sodomy and the lash.” He was referring to the British navy.
Listen to my podcast of Chapter 14: “Friends Like These”