I see myself as I was, as I am, and as I may be
My husband and I have a game we play at the town pool. It’s based on the “Idiot Paparazzi” segment of the comedian Spike Ferguson’s short-lived late night program “Talk Show.” Spike and his entourage would pretend to be Hollywood paparazzi and chase after people who resembled celebrities, yelling famous names aloud and trying to take photographs of mystified citizens going about their business. So far this summer, we’ve seen “Jeff Goldblum” swimming in the deep end, “Kim Kardashian” escorting a small child to the toilet, “Alfred Hitchcock” napping upon a shady chaise lounge, and “Vladimir Putin” haunting the snack bar. I see, but do not speak about, other men at the pool, the ones who remind me of lovers lost and not found.
There’s an extreme vulnerability to wearing a bathing suit in mid-life. Given stretch marks (and in the absence of liposuction and botox) I cannot deny where I have been (the delivery room at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center). One must accept reality, a process akin to those stages of mourning described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and postulate what the future may hold. Will knees endure, instead of requiring replacement? Shall hips refrain from breaking? A good fifty-something friend, a youthful grandma and the most stylish woman of our town pool, wears new bathing suits and cover-ups with tremendous pride. A buff tennis friend, who walks her dog with evangelical zest, annually rocks her bandeau bikini and makes time stand still. My faded swimsuit is an odd echo of the one I wore thirty years ago, the summer I met my husband. That one piece, comprised of black, lacy material, suggested a hint of lingerie and attendant discovery of pleasures skin to skin…My current suit has been stained by tan lotion but I refuse to stop wearing it. Aside from being flattering, it links me to that earlier time, when being middle-aged was something like becoming a mother – highly theoretical.
Bodily changes and struggles with aging are bearable as most younger women aren’t at the town pool. The women who could technically be our daughters have moved away from home, are in the city working, or overwhelmed by the demands of their children. Stay at home mothers spend their time sequestered beside the baby and intermediate pools, busily keeping babies and toddlers from drowning and presiding over conflicts involving the ownership of toys. We, of a certain age, rule the walking lane of the main pool, a protected space for adults who wish to pace endlessly as enormous clocks attached to nearby bathhouses tick away. In the “Walking Lane”, when we are not condemning the current president and speculating about the onset of domestic fascism, we speak of diets and workouts, the waistlines and upper arms which seek to betray us no matter what we do. When it comes to the dissolution of democracy and our bodies, there’s a sense of helplessness and resignation. Yet we persist in marching across the pool for hours at a time. Aging is different for each of us. For some, there is freedom in relinquishing attachment to a once supple body that is no more. For the survivors of life-threatening illness, gratitude for life trumps all. These days, I’m among the somewhat immature, silently wishing that I had appreciated how truly spectacular my curved fifteen year old body was, instead of comparing adolescent thighs with those of my shorter best friend who weighed a mere one hundred pounds. If only I could remember myself as the lovely young woman I was…
When it comes to wearing swimsuits, it’s all about building basic trust in one’s ability to occupy public spaces in a world that judges women on the basis of physical appearance. It’s about how to conceal and mitigate flaws while fighting gravity on all fronts. My summer fashion progression floats before my eyes, a procession of bathing garb across the decades: White bikini, Red Halter, Green Polka Dots, A Ruffle Navy Blue…From Camp Ramah to Jones Beach, Fire Island to Cape Cod, purchases made in the company of my mother and alone at Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, and via Land’s End. Perhaps my final frontier will involve ordering from Talbot’s? What I won’t be wearing: a multi-colored floral plastic swim cap with a chin strap or a purple one-piece (“the grape”) worn by my mother. My brilliant, diabetic, and dangerously overweight mother believed in the soul, not the body, and neglected her health accordingly. Perhaps that’s part of why she died unexpectedly at the age of seventy-six?
After contemplating swimsuits, one must consider the annual seasonal accessories: a faded baseball camp from my former tennis partner, prehistoric Ray Bans, and Teva sandals – the same ones for multiple summers. Raised by Depression Era parents, I don’t dispose of or replace an item until it rips, breaks beyond repair, or dies. This perspective also applies to marriage. It seems that I’m still loved so therefore I remain. Am I loved precisely the way I need it? Am I loved enough? What’s understood: I am loved as a life companion of three decades, akin to a Witch’s familiar, a manifestation of Dutiful Wife. Yet, if properly summoned, I could shed these identifies in a moment…Along with my clothes.
The bulk of my aquatic companions are over seventy, a mix of the widowed and partnered. There’s a fellow supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, “Left-Wing Gert”, age ninety-two, known for her bright red lipstick and trailing Shalimar perfume. There’s straw-hatted “Amy the Artist”, with B.F.A. from Cornell, teaching collage in her studio as she inches towards eighty. This year, we’re missing the Irish brogue of recently widowed Evelyn, the unofficial “Mayor of the Walking Lane.” Chemotherapy for breast cancer has denied Evelyn what she loves best – hanging out at the pool and savoring the simple pleasures of suburban summer. I’m missing her company and that of my former tennis partner, Stan, who stalked the walking lane for an hour and a half each day. At age eighty-one, my bohemian tennis ace has relocated and now, improbably, calls gated communities (in New Jersey and Florida) home. The demographics of our town pool are changing – most of the wealthier families have decamped to beach clubs or acquired Hamptons second homes. There are more Asian-American families with young children who’ve come in search of “The American Dream” and fewer older, retired folks. We are a pool of immigrants, speaking Russian, Hebrew, Farsi, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish…Conversations among the longtime residents echo The Clash – do we still belong here, should we stay or should we go? The increased diversity makes me feel more, not less, at home. In my view, there’s still no better place than my town to be an Old Jewish Lady. But, if I live, I may not be truly old for twenty or thirty years…We moved here for the public schools, to give our child grass, trees, and a better life. That child has become a young man of twenty-six. Now, I ask, what about my life? And I wonder, is all this preoccupation with bodily deterioration utterly ridiculous? Surely those polo-shirted tiki torch bearers will be coming for me, my savings accounts and jewelry, brick Colonial, and used cars…What does it matter what I look like in a bathing suit, or where I live, if my country moves from a serious flirtation with fascism to a full embrace?
Pacing the walking lane for an hour and half each day makes me stronger. Painless laps confirm substantive recovery from a horrific fall at the end of October. In my middle age and during this return to the Middle Ages, I’m preparing for hard labor, the task of defending what remains of our democracy. There’s incredible gratitude for my gray-haired colleagues in chlorine-dipped dissent, especially the ones who turned up at our neighborhood rally (“Reunite Migrant Families, Send Trumps to Elba”, “Remember The White Rose”, “Only Fascists Put Children in Cages”) against the separation of families. As cars honked in support of our modest demonstration, we stood in the hot sun dressed in white, our protest signs raised skyward beside the local post office. We’ve found empowering suits of social armor that fit us properly, the ones enabling us to stand out, stand up, step into the public square, and seek justice.