Americans often tell jokes or sing songs that make fun of “little old ladies.” Have you heard the one about two little old ladies who were traveling in Europe? Have you heard the folksong called “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”? These aspects of popular culture demean the intelligence, behavior, and conversation of older women.
I think that these jokes and songs reveal more about the prejudice of the speaker than they do about the reality of little old ladies. In fact, I believe in the wisdom and competence of little old ladies.
When I was a child, I believed that women who had grey hair might be witches because books and television portrayed witches that way. Now, I’m 58, and my hair gets greyer every month. Does that make me a witch?
Women who are older than I am impress me with their intelligence and vitality. My mother is 81, but she swims and walks every day, reads books and newspapers voraciously, and gives advice based on eight decades of experiences. Until arthritis and cancer incapacitated her, my grandmother volunteered at a hospital, helping to deliver mail and flowers and guide visitors. She loved being a “Pink Lady,” especially peeking at the new babies of all races. Her commitment to volunteering has been passed down to the younger generations of my family.
Older women in their seventies, eighties, and nineties are very active at my synagogue. They help younger people with useful advice. When I got elected to my synagogue’s Board in 1998, Joy Rappoport, the first woman president of the congregation, wrote me a beautiful note welcoming me to the Board and offering her assistance. She urged me to become a committee chair, which I did. Joy also mentored other officers and Board members, both men and women.
Little old ladies have awesome survival skills. My mother lost both her twin brother and her husband to cancer within a span of fourteen months. But she went on with her life and did not wallow in self-pity.
Old women in literature often do not get the recognition that they deserve. For example, people consistently underestimate Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple because she is a little old lady. But her conservative attire and modesty hide a brilliant mind. Miss Marple solves crimes that baffle everyone else.
As I age, I’m keeping in mind the little old ladies who have served as my role models. I hope to grow into a little old lady whom other people will respect.
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