The first time I realized I was invisible I was 44, arriving at the Spanish border from France. At the age of 20-21 I’d spent 18 months living in Spain. Then I was blonde and foreign, and young Spaniards acted like fruit flies around a ripe peach. It was good for my ego and I got the message that Spaniards like women. I was English and Englishmen look the other way as often as not, out of shyness and ineptitude.
In Madrid in 1957 I had my pick of all the men I met. Every evening half a dozen would telephone the pension where I lived, inviting me out and I would wait for a call from the one whose activities appealed to me that evening. Some would take me to dinner in a restaurant, others dancing or walking in the park, or on a tour of bars in Old Madrid, where wine cost a penny a glass and one could get drunk for ten cents. There were noisy, sociable bars open until 3 a.m. and in nightclubs we danced paso-doble on tiny dance floors to a Latin band. Flamenco.music was accompanied by guitars and nasal singing voices. Tapas were served everywhere: tasty hors d’oeuvres lined up on the bar in tiny dishes with olives, anchovies, rations of egg and Russian salads, Manchego cheese and tripe Madrileño in a rich dark sauce served with cocktail sticks, grilled eggplants, serrano ham and chorizo. And everywhere I went the men ogled and on occasion breathed deeply while their nostrils flared. And that was standing at the bar. It made me smile but it was good for the ego. Once I met a bull fighter named Jesus (pronounced Hay-soos).
In the fifties, half way through Franco’s dictatorship, men and women were socially deprived and repressed. Couples could be arrested for kissing in the street and every screen kiss in the cinema was cut by the censor: one could hear a collective gasp of frustration when his scissors had been busy on William Holden’s “Picnic” dubbed into Spanish. Young women were not allowed out without a chaperone, so this enhanced my appeal. I never got too involved with any of them, but 1957 was my best year of my life. It was also my first year away from home, living in the Spanish environment which I relished, and I was learning Spanish a la fuerza, enriching my entire life.
When I returned to London, to the pubs where the men in our group played darts and ignored the women who huddled at the other end of the bar complaining about lack of attention, I missed the Spaniards. Having my ego boosted, if only for 18 months, had done wonders for my self-esteem. Englishmen brought me back to earth.
There was a gap of more than 20 years between my last visit to Spain and my return in 1982 in a camping van with husband and five growing lads. As we approached the Spanish border guards who checked our passports, I braced myself for the searching eyes and focused voracity of the average Spanish male. To my surprise, they were indifferent, looking through me. While I’d been away I’d become a nonentity, a has-been, unworthy of their lust. I was taken aback. I learned that Spaniards are not responsive to women in general, just in particular to those under 30.
The next time I became conscious of my invisibility was at age 48, when I got divorced and suddenly I was back on the market. I had always been faithful so it was quite a challenge and a change of gear to get into the dating mode. I thought, won’t it be awful if I never kiss another man as long as I live? I need not have worried. There were acres of men in my age group suddenly free to date. It was early in the explosion of divorce, and the match-making scene was not yet on line, but beginning in small ads. Initial contact was by letter and I’m good at letters.
But about that time I realized that Invisibility is the lot of a woman over 50. I had several women friends whom I considered fabulous company, rich in character, sparkling in personality, yet sorely neglected in romance. Re-launching themselves required an effort, especially for those not good at writing. I wrote an article entitled “Hallo, I’m Invisible,” and sold it to Cosmopolitan magazine for 75 pounds, which was quite a lot of money in 1987. Although I cashed the check, they didn’t publish my essay, and as a writer I would rather they had published it than paid for it.
Match.com had not yet materialized. We relied on a sober monthly publication called “Singles Magazine” delivered by mail in a plain wrapper. It was full of ordinary folk looking for a second chance. Every month I scanned it for possible partners. I did not want to grow old alone. The biggest barrier was that 95% of them specified ‘slim’ as a requirement. I have not been slim since I was about 11. I’ve always been ample and cuddly, but apparently thin and bony was de rigeur. This severely limited my options. It also cut out a lot men I could have made happy if they hadn’t been so blinkered. But I did attract sufficient dates to sustain a social life and eventually I connected with a man who was more cerebral than picky.
He described himself as an iconoclast, which I had to look up in the dictionary. He certainly was a debunker of idols. He had a good sense of humor, was fluent in four languages, widely read and traveled, provocative in discussion and a man of energy and adaptability. Eventually we married and eventually we divorced, but I spent a dozen years in his engaging company and emerged unscathed, enriched by our joint ventures and travel. In our retirement we had renovated cottages in France for six years (he built and I painted) which was enjoyable and profitable.
Getting divorced a second time at 65, one’s prospects were inevitably confined. For the first time in my life I had to adjust to living alone. My family had all matured and established their careers and families, mostly abroad. I was lonely but most men seeking a 65 year old woman are in their eighties. I didn’t bother. I was out of sight.
But here’s the truth. Being invisible when one is old is liberating. It means you can always wear comfortable shoes. You no longer own, never mind wear, high heels. You don’t have to shop for new clothes – you have accumulated sufficient garments to fill a goodwill store with clothes for every occasion and your social life has shrunk to the point of few occasions. No one cares if you’ve put on a few pounds. The freedom of living alone, pleasing oneself, is intoxicating. Reading, eating and sleeping when you feel like it without reference to anyone, is deeply enjoyable.
Now you are seen as an interesting old lady, and if you make them laugh or they feel touched by your concern, it’s enough. There is even deference because folks are seldom rude to oldies. By now many of your acquaintances no longer have partners for one reason or another, so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb if you’re single.
Grandchildren notice your expression, not your wrinkles, mere topographical contours on your face. If your demeanor is kind, your eyes sparkle and you obviously love them to bits, you are their hero. They have nothing against grey hair. Their love is genuine because they rate personality over looks. They love hugs and warmth, welcome your admiration and respond to your encouragement. They’re engaged by your stories and are proud to tell you about their lives and school. Sometimes they tell you secrets. Their perception will astonish and delight you. Your hugs are top quality and they hug you back. They love your calm acceptance, your engagement in their games, your happy reminiscences about their dads when they were their age. They want to climb in bed with you and cuddle in the early mornings. They blossom in the warmth of your love. They look into your eyes and they like what they see.
You’re not invisible.