From Chicken Soup for the Soul in Menopause

Age Is Just a Number

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because there were giants standing on my shoulders.

Harold Abelson

A few weeks before my fortieth birthday, my husband and I visited a favorite eatery for a late-night snack. For months, my spirits had sagged. Earlier in the week I had confided to a friend my fear of aging. “Age is just a number,” she reminded me, “Nothing more.”

Easy for her to say, but the number wasn’t what bothered me. It was much more multifaceted. The slim figure I had managed to inherit from a long line of skinny ancestors started to turn on me. I learned how tiresome it was to keep the pounds from piling on. Were I not so vain, I would, no doubt, be enormous.

And my arms seemed to be getting shorter. Whenever I tried to read the newspaper I saw nothing but a blur of ink. And my toes, protesting years of being forced into spiked heels, sprouted unsightly corns and calluses—as protective gear, I suppose.

And then there was the way society as a whole viewed aging women. From my observations, when they weren’t patronizing or mocking them, they ignored them. This only irritated me more when I observed that the same treatment didn’t hold true for aging men. Older women were often labeled “elderly,” while men enjoyed words like “distinguished” and “sophisticated.”

As I brooded about this aging thing, our waitress approached and placed tall glasses of water in front of us. I couldn’t help but notice how old she looked. Her hair was coiled into a smooth gray bun, while deep wrinkles spiraled down her face in every direction. The skin on her arms dangled loosely below her sleeves.

Straightening up, she smiled and said, “Hello, my name is Betty, and I will be your waitress tonight. You folks ready to order?”

We ordered, and Betty took our menus, strolling off with a lively step.

She is probably faking it, I thought. She probably hates her job and can’t stand to look at herself in a mirror. With that many wrinkles and that much flab, how else could she feel?

In a minute, I heard rambunctious laughter coming from behind the counter. Turning, I saw a smooth gray bun moving up and down, in perfect rhythm with the loudest laugh. Betty and a coworker were trembling.

Curious, I found myself watching Betty’s every move. Apparently, some of the counter customers were regulars, because occasionally she called out things like, “You need more coffee over there, Harold?” or “Carolyn, your omelet’s coming right up, dear.”

Whenever an order appeared in the kitchen window, Betty lost no time in collecting the items onto a large round tray, hoisting it above her right shoulder and crossing the room in an unswerving manner. I was entranced by the way she rushed around tables, carrying steaming dishes and pitchers of cold beverages.

As she cleared dirty dishes from a table across the way, the cashier called to her. “Betty, Tom’s here.” Quickly drying her hands on her apron, Betty rushed to the front, where a tall man, about my age, stood dangling car keys.

They hugged and stood there, making conversation. In a minute, Tom pointed toward the glass doors. Betty’s gaze followed, and she waved and blew kisses, evidently, to someone waiting in a car.

Their conversation ended, Tom put an arm around Betty’s shoulders, gave her another hug, then walked toward the door. As he turned and gave a final wave, she called out, “I love you, son. Drive careful.” He nodded and disappeared into the night.

When Betty brought our check, I looked into her face more deeply than I had before, and I was somewhat surprised by my discoveries. Instead of the aging body and gray hair, I saw a woman who laughed easily, a woman who enjoyed her job, a woman who liked her customers, a woman who loved her son, a woman who, in my opinion, had plenty of reasons to frown, but didn’t.

I left the restaurant refreshed. Betty had confirmed, once again, that getting old does not mean we cease to influence others. That was evidenced by the smile I wore on my face, as I settled into the car for the drive home.

Dayle Allen Shockley

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