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Old age is my territory now. I have sailed past septuagenarian status and landed relatively peacefully in the octogenarian zone.
Here, truly, lies the Age of Invisibility when we disappear – certainly as physical, sexual beings.
“Once you pass 80 they will applaud you just for standing up,” my mother used to say. These days, I get a laugh when I stand up and tell people that.
Becoming an old woman has been a sexually liberating experience for me. It has given me, among other things, a great ability to love generously, since I am not impelled to act out that love.
While it became clear to me some years ago that no one other than my aged, now deceased, spouse was interested in my body, I could feel the passion of my own awareness and a new kind of love of people – enormous love and appreciation of friends of all ages, of their beauty and their ways; of girls and young women; boys and young men; of the vigorous bodies of cyclists and woodsmen; of the open and watchful faces of children, the perfection of their eyes. The warmth and softness of my overweight friend, and the smoothness of her skin. And my skinny buddy with her arthritic thumb, across the table at lunch – the crispness of motion.
I see young women walking down the streets in summer. I love their sexuality, appreciate their bodies both in the totality, the vitality, of the young animal, and the details of curve and line and the glow of skin. This is not desire, but perhaps some chromosomal memory, a generic sexuality, a love for and of the human female.
“They are so lovely,” my mind sighs. I have a hazy memory that says I might also have been lovely a long time ago, had I but known.
There was a young woman at Queen’s University whose bare midriff displayed a plain silver ring in the nest of her navel. What I loved especially was her long and perfect skull, with its shaven stubble of red hair, balanced on the stalk of her neck, and the courage and gaiety and humour with which she spoke and moved.
I feared that she would be cold – winter was, after all, upon us. But she told me her jacket was warm. “You’d be surprised at how warm it is,” she said, opening her coat to show me, radiating her own heat. Of course.
One recent summer, a young man came to rebuild the steps on my back deck. The sun shone on the brown muscles of his arms and the thick, curling, yellow hair at the back of his neck.
For two or three days I sat on the deck and watched him work. I drank iced tea and pretended to read a book. “Giving my hormones a workout,” I called it.
Some memory of sexual desire? Perhaps. But it seemed to me to be the pure adoration of the beauty of a physical being.
At the nursing home, twice a week, I used to read to my husband. One summer it was the Ray Charles biography, a chapter at a time. Brother Ray. Sexy Ray, actually, full of surprises. Travelling with him through the gigs was a comfort to my husband. He had forgotten just about everything, but never the music.
He used to know Ray back in the 1950s in New York. By day, in Manhattan, my guy was the man in the grey flannel suit: pure Brooks Brothers. By night, he was cool in shades in Greenwich Village clubs, blowing a horn or brushing paradiddles. He’d seen it all, done most of it.
And here he was, all those years later, the hippest guy in the nursing home, with a black beret and a soul-brother beard as he watched CNN on TV. Some kind of “body pride” was still important to him, as it is to all of us. We do what we can to hold ourselves together.
Time. It’s all a question of time. Age and uselessness will come to us all. But not yet, please. Not yet. Whether it’s hormones or aesthetics, love or affection, doesn’t matter: whatever makes the blood run warm.
Perhaps it is merely the exuberance of spring, the lushness of every shrub and flowerbed, that prompts another kind of sensuality. The colour of the peonies against the fence, echoing a Japanese print, a lace hydrangea in bloom behind them, is so screamingly beautiful that I am filled with intense love. Buzzing with love. Is this the same love I have for people?
Can the love I have for an old black cat become part of this story? Do I need to draw a line between human, animal and vegetable and say: This is love, that is only affection, and the other is merely the trivial appreciation of beauty?
Oh, but it’s all a great lust in my heart – a great out-flowing to otherness. A kind of detached and limitless affection. It’s one of the joys and privileges of age.
Laurie Lewis lives in Kingston.