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facts & arguments

Daniel Fishel/The Globe and Mail

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Perhaps only people of my generation, octogenarians, know what mutton is: that tough, gamey meat of an aged sheep. These days, people feast on fresh young lamb, those gambolling spring-time darlings. Lamb chops, not mutton chops.

A long time ago, I used to buy mutton chops from a fine butcher in Manhattan … oh, a very long time ago. I had a recipe for something called Lancashire hotpot, which involved mutton chops and oysters.

Does mutton still exist? There used to be a clothing style with "leg-o-mutton sleeves," but that certainly doesn't exist any more.

One grand day a couple of summers ago, I was at home in Kingston. It was one of those glorious days that none of us can resist. The summer was still young and fresh, and little lambs were no doubt gambolling in the hills. The winter had been long.

The backyard at my friend Jill's place was tidy but casual. We are a group of women who meet for friendship once a month or so, but over the hard, cold months of that winter we had become a bit detached from one another. We usually got together at around 5 o'clock, bringing a few things to eat – dips and chips, things like that, remembering not to bring nuts because one of us is allergic. And a lot of wine, though some of us are drinking soda these days.

I'm the newest in the group, and I'm the oldest; in fact I'm older than anyone else there by a generation.

That Friday in late June was a splendid afternoon. Sunny and warm. A lot of wine, a lot of chit-chat. Helen talked about her husband's health, which hadn't been very good lately.

"We drove out to one of the vineyards last week, near Picton, just for a break," she said. "I had the top down on the car, and we were buzzing down the road singing along to the CD."

All in all, a lovely afternoon, just catching up on each other's lives: the work, the men, the holidays, the houses, the kids. Laughing our heads off, mostly. Loving being free together.

I was dressed for summer gaiety, wearing soft old white linen pants, with a tank top in bright fuchsia, topped by some kind of light shirt covering my bony shoulders. Big earrings, too. I had just recently turned 83 and this was a celebratory summer.

"You look great!" Lucy said. "You make me believe it's not all going to be crap."

Maybe those women liked to have me around because it gave them some positive way to think about their own aging.

When we began to disperse, I walked down the driveway to my car feeling animated and cheerful. But something made me stop. A phrase came to me before I got to the end of the driveway:

"Mutton dressed as lamb."

It rattled around in my mind. "Mutton dressed as lamb."

But no one had said it to me: I had said it myself, I had felt it.

And in just that instant I felt I was a ridiculous old woman, too old for what I was wearing. Maybe too old for what I was feeling.

But I looked great, felt great. Confident, bright, funny, vigorous. So what was it? What was the problem? Which of those people was I? Which one is me today? From one instant to the next, my confidence vanished. Suddenly, at that point in my life, I was beset with this uncertainty.

I don't know when I first heard that phrase, the mutton/lamb phrase. Probably in the 1940s or '50s. The judgmental insult of it was harsh. It was used for post-menopausal women who tried to dress themselves up – "tart themselves up" – to look like younger women.

It was never used for men, though both "lamb" and "mutton" are gender-neutral. Did it refer to women who didn't know their place? Was that it? Did I have a "place" that I had overstepped? Would I ever be able to wear those clothes again? Would I ever feel so great, be so happy again? Would I get my old mojo back?

I think that in the past year I've moved on, moved to a different me, beyond age.

I have been a city woman all my life. I grew up on the streets of New York and dressed for success in Toronto. But my life has changed, and perhaps it is time I caught up with that. As I make preparations to move from my house into a downtown apartment, I have had to reassess my old wardrobe, my "city woman" clothes. I know that I am still searching for this new self, this new old woman who will perhaps wear jeans when she walks in these new city streets.

Perhaps this new self is leaving behind all those old notions of age and time, thinking about being, quite suddenly, old enough to be ageless. I certainly hope so.

Laurie Lewis lives in Kingston.

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