Being old is so liberating. While one might live another quarter century, one might equally drop dead any day without surprise. No one says “75? How sad, that’s so young.” They say “She had a good innings.” So I feel it’s time I had the last word.
I was ten years old when my friend Tina in class suddenly turned on me, adopted another BF and started putting me down. She made snide comments audible to all, was rude to my face and unkind to a degree that took my breath away yet nobody tried to stop her, including me. I went home and cried to my mom, who advised me to stand up to her. But how do you stand up or appeal to someone whose instinct and delight is to wound another’s heart?
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “Why inflict unkindness on one who never wronged you? Do you feel powerful, and how is it working for you? How’s your happiness level? Do it again and I’ll punch you on the nose.” (I sound a bit like Doctor Phil but I didn’t know him then.) It might have worked but she was a tough one and bullies can always spot a victim.
Fast forward ten years or so and we met at a church social. Tina had married a teenage lout at 16 and had three children. She introduced us. You couldn’t take him anywhere. My date was the handsome editor of a county newspaper in his late twenties, and I was between trips abroad. It was small of me to feel such pleasure as I introduced him. But it was good.
When I was 17 I had a platonic relationship mostly by mail with a young man who was studying to become a priest. We shared many interests and values, and corresponded thoughtfully. He was attractive on every level, and sang to a guitar. One day I had a letter from him saying he’d discussed me with his confessor, who advised him he must either give up me or the priesthood, and what did I think? I replied that the priesthood was far more important than I was, and if he had a vocation he should go ahead.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “I love you with all my heart and I’ll never find another like you. I feel connected to you in body, mind and spirit. If you feel this connection too, give up the priesthood and let’s be together. I’ll love you till I die.” Alas, I was too young to speak these words or know the future.
The day he became a priest in another country I went to Mass and wept. Our letters were confined to one every Christmas for fifty years. I saw him once more when he visited us for a short holiday when we were middle aged, shocked to discover I still felt the same. The contrast between him and my husband was painful. He loved the children and they responded. It broke my heart when he left. I knew I could never see him again. He said he was troubled by a dream that he couldn’t understand, that he had killed a lamb. Six months later we both had nervous breakdowns. I know he’s dead now because the Christmas letters stopped a few years ago.
I was married to a man for many years who thought he was licensed to bark. He routinely snapped at me and the children. If he’d been a woman he’d have been classed a nag, but men escape that label, I don’t know why. Dependent on him for our food and shelter, I bit my tongue and tried to keep him happy. I know now that was futile. Eventually we freed ourselves from his surly presence even as he protested he didn’t want a divorce.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “What possesses you to oppress your whole family? It’s our job to see that the children we brought into the world are well and happy. It would help if you read them a story, gave them a bath, even said hallo to them. Be glad that your dinners are ready on time and delicious, and that you don’t even know how to work the washing machine. I cater for your every need without your kindness. Stop it now or I’ll sue for emotional abuse and take you to the cleaners.”
In fact we had little of value apart from the house, which we later sold. I settled happily for half the assets and all the children. The children and I lived happily on a shoe string.
In retirement my second husband and I had a holiday home where friends visited us with their two teenage children. The boy sat about reading, looking bored, not making conversation. He examined the food on his plate with the quivering nostrils of a thoroughbred racehorse about to buck at an apple containing poison-edged razor blades. The food was fresh, tasty, organic, locally grown and lovingly cooked. Much of the time he grunted and said he’d prefer toast, which his mother meekly made him. I’d have suggested thirty lashes or abstinence until the next meal to enhance his appetite, but I didn’t want to offend our friends.
When it was time to leave he walked out wordlessly with a finger marking the place in his book. His father said encouragingly, “Say goodbye to Anoni.” He barked “Goodbye.” With a full stop you could hear a mile away. “Say goodbye nicely,” said his embarrassed father. ‘Goodbye nicely,’ said the boy insolently, and got into the car, reverting to his book.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “Now listen here, you little sh*t. You’ve had a week’s holiday in a beautiful place, warmly welcomed, royally fed. We’ve taken you places you never saw before, and not once did you express appreciation. I treated you nice, kept my temper while you were a lout. I’d like you to know that although I love your parents and they are welcome any time, you should not come again unless and until you exhibit some grace and better manners.” I kept quiet then but I’m noisy now.
Once in a GYN appointment two doctors chatting approached me as I lay on a gurney for examination. Without introducing themselves or greeting me, one of them said peremptorily, “Knees up little girl.” I fumed and withered. I considered voicing my protest, but in that position one does not feel empowered.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “You are gratuitously rude! Would you address a 35 year old man, ‘Knees up little boy’? You’d be sanctioned by the hospital at his protest. You’d be squirming in the local press. You show no respect for your patient. You’re not fit to be a consultant. I shall complain to the Hospital Board.” I said nothing and he got away with yet another demonstration of his misogyny. That attitude is never a one-off.
Now, when I meet attitudes in my seventies I speak up. Last year at Kennedy Airport on my way to Europe passengers took a shuttle bus between terminals. A young Indian woman in a sari was last to board the bus with two small children, a toddler and a babe in arms. She was the only person left standing on the bus.
Here’s what I said: aloud so all the passengers could hear, “There are thirteen men in this bus and one woman standing.” Six of them were in airline uniforms; half an hour earlier saying ingratiatingly, “Thank you for flying with us.” Even they ignored me. I apologized to the woman. I’m not steady enough on my feet to give up my seat. Later she approached me at the airport terminal and thanked me for my kindness. I said I was ashamed that there was not a single gentleman in that bus. She said mildly, “It happens all the time.” Could it be racism? That’s a step worse than chauvinism.
Yesterday: Have you heard from the recorded voice who telephones, “There is nothing wrong at the moment, but you should talk to us as soon as possible to lower your credit card rate…” She phones me about once a week for the last year or two. I’m on a Don’t Call list but this one slips through the net. I’ve tried pressing the call back number and reasoning with the real person who’s eager for my business but they put the phone down when they realize I’m not buying. I’ve tried leaving her off the hook in the hope it fouls their telephone line for half an hour. It certainly fouls mine. This week I again pressed ‘one’ to speak to a supervisor. I told him crossly that I never owe money on my credit card so they really don’t want my business, that this is the ninety-seventh call they’ve wasted on me and that I’m tired of being woken up during my nap by their nuisance calls. He was insolent – said “Go on, I’m listening, do you have a money tree in your garden that you never need credit?” I said I want to speak to the supervisor. He said, “I am the supervisor.” (There used to be jokes about “I am the vicar”, remember those?) And then he put the phone down.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “Now listen here, you little sh*t…”