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How did I form my opinions and expectations for aging? Why do I hesitate to admit I am aging, and why do I have such trouble even saying the word “old”? Could it be that my fear began to develop years ago in my youth when I observed my paternal grandmother?

My father’s mother was the oldest person I knew when I was a child. I do not mean she was actually the oldest in the number of years she had lived, because I knew others who were older, but in my mind she epitomized old. Her clunky, black old lady shoes, her thick stockings rolled to her knees and held by garters, her drab, long formless dresses, her granny hair bun, and her ever-present mouthful of snuff all combined to form old in my mind. 

Grandma Fields also had one other penchant that strongly contributed to my opinion of old people. My grandmother loved to go to the hospital. I suppose that after raising 14 children it seemed good to her to have someone take care of her for a while. My father was a good son and always felt that he should visit his mother when she was hospitalized. This was all well and good if he had not insisted that my grandmother would love to see me, too. 

Grandma Fields was always housed in the old woman ward in the hospital, six or eight sick, decrepit old women housed in one large room with only curtains separating the beds. The smell was the first thing I noticed as we entered the room, bodily functions somewhat disguised by disinfectant. As soon as one or more of the old ladies spied me, a healthy young girl, they grasped at the opportunity to acquire some type of assistance. Fetch a drink of water, get an extra blanket, call a nurse and even help with a bedpan were some of the requests I received. 

I now realize that these women were in the ward because they were poor and could not afford a different room. I now know that the care they received was insufficient, but then I was merely appalled and disgusted. Unfortunately, this became an image of old that lodged in my mind. Old meant sick, needy, and helpless. My grandmother seemed to expect no more of life than to take her place as one of these old women.

Fortunately my adopted grandmother, Granny Trivette, provided me with an altogether different and more positive picture of aging. Granny Trivette was a Renaissance woman. She had actually journeyed from our small, rural mountain community and experienced life in other places when she was young. Her chosen professions were varied, and I thought her the coolest person I knew. 

Granny Trivette had once owned a florist shop and a seamstress shop in the big town of Johnson City, Tennessee. When I knew her, she had moved back home, owned a B & B and was active in all aspects of our small community life. Her voice was heard and respected by all who knew her. 

Granny Trivette’s attire was absolutely not old lady attire. She favored large, flowery hats, long strands of pearls and had a pair of shoes to match each outfit. Granny Trivette’s attitude toward life and aging, however, was what distinguished her. She was in her seventies as she ran her B & B, tended an overflowing garden, served as a part-time wedding consultant, and cared for her two young granddaughters.

Granny Trivette was also the person in our church who was called when anyone needed help. Once when my mother was complaining about being old when she was in her sixties, Granny Trivette exclaimed, “Why Lord have mercy, Mary Lou. When I was in my sixties, I was in the prime of my life.” Granny Trivette lived on into her late eighties, working hard every day and embracing life as it happened.

As I look back at these two women, I see glaring differences in their lives. Grandma Fields was totally illiterate, never learning to read or write. She married young and lived a life in poverty. Granny Trivette was born into the same mountain community, but her family was quite different. The Holtsclaw family that Granny Trivette was born into was rather wealthy by mountain standards, and her father was a respected businessman. She did not attend college but did finish high school, which was quite an accomplishment for girls during the early 1900s. Was it circumstance or attitude that made the difference in their approach to life and aging? 

As I consider my own life, I realize that I have been afforded many opportunities that neither of these women enjoyed. Yet, I am forced to admit that sometimes it is a struggle to leave behind the negative images of aging that have infiltrated my life. I endeavor each day to remain engaged with my world, to enjoy life and those around me, to laugh and have fun, to project an image of a strong woman embracing aging with strength and determination. 

My daughter gave me a print for Christmas that shows three generations of women together and says, “Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” I strive to live a model of strong in aging as in other avenues of life.

Barbara Painter

Barbara Painter is a retired school teacher and counselor.

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