Deborah Paul on Aging Gracefully

Just because you feel youthful doesn’t mean you look that way.
Few experiences are more cringe-worthy than watching old people make fools of themselves. Now that I am on the other side of young, I have learned this phenomenon is more difficult to avoid than one might imagine. Just because you feel youthful doesn’t mean you look that way, especially to those who are.

Let’s start with language. It is not okay to imitate teenagers, even if you have googled today’s cool words and expressions. By doing so myself, I have learned, for example, that PAP means “post a picture,” and TBR is “to be rude.” Including these abbreviations in a text makes you appear to be trying too hard—like laughing at a joke you don’t understand. I may now know that “dope” means good, not stupid, and that “deadass” means seriously, not deceased. However, using such terms doesn’t work for us oldsters. I once told someone not to “get up in my grill” and deserved the ensuing laughter. Of-the-moment expressions won’t make you hip any more than cosmetic surgeries reduce the number of birthdays you’ve celebrated.

Same goes for dancing. Remember Paula Deen’s failed imitation of Madonna on Dancing with the Stars? Need I say more? No good can come from cavorting in ways your body no longer allows.

Public embarrassment is one thing, but actual injury is another. I learned this the hard way on a playground basketball court, where my husband and 6-year-old grandson were shooting free throws. Unable to resist, I hoisted myself from a nearby picnic bench and joined them. I know something about the sport, given that my childhood home featured a full-sized backyard court. My older brothers hosted full-on tournaments out there, which my sister and I watched intently from a second-story window (and not just to see the guys without their shirts). We learned the rules of the game, when to holler “dee-fense,” and what it took to win. Of an evening, my brother would stand me on an imaginary free-throw line and teach me how to shoot. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad, either.

When I first showed my grandson proper dribbling techniques, things proceeded nicely. I bounced the ball lightly and ducked around my husband as he pretend-guarded me. I could tell my grandson was impressed. And then, for no reason other than inflexibility, I tripped over my own feet and landed—thunk!—on my side, where I lay, moaning, “I broke my wrist! I broke my hip!” The pain was searing and immediate, and as my husband bent to retrieve me, I saw my sweet, caring grandson, his hands on his head, muttering, “Oh, no. Do we have to go home?”

I broke neither body part, although I wound up with a bruise the size of a Frisbee on my right backside, the excess padding having saved me from a more serious fate. (I gave up my no-potato-chip diet the next day.) Had I heeded the decree to act my age, none of this would have happened. I wouldn’t have fallen like an old codger, nor would I have had to sleep on my left side for a month.

This injury came right after cutting my fingers twice with a paring knife and then slicing off the end of a pricey Williams-Sonoma rubber glove when I determined that covering my digits might protect them. In the same year, I had already burned myself on a plastic bag of brown sugar hot from the microwave, fallen off the curb and sprained my ankle, and lost a bloody slice from a fingertip thanks to a run-in with a gas pump nozzle. Those experiences should have taught me I’m not as nimble as when I was young and must be more careful, especially on the basketball court, where I ought never to have been in the first place.

After she and I read the jokey Facebook posts the next day, we agreed that the activity would hardly have evoked attention at all had the participant not been a 73-year-old grandma.

My sister, who has a few years on me, also suffered humiliation when, after much prodding by her adult daughters, she joined in a game of beer pong at a large family gathering. If you don’t know my sister, you might not appreciate what a farcical proposition that was: She is the consummate lady, sophisticated and elegant, always demure. Nevertheless, she followed instructions, arcing the ball overhead, where it missed the plastic cups on the other end of the table—but not by much. As if that weren’t enough, she lifted a half-drunk beer bottle to her lips, tipped back her head, and, to the woot-woot of bystanders, took a long swig. They were thrilled to see her play against type: the ultimate good sport. But after she and I read the jokey Facebook posts the next day, we agreed that the activity would hardly have evoked attention at all had the participant not been a 73-year-old grandma.

Later, as we discussed the sporting events of the preceding days, she nursing her wounded pride and I the painful bruise on my hip, we decided once and for all to act our age. We don’t sit in rocking chairs on the front porch, but neither do we wear neon orange sneakers, stumble around a dance floor, or conceal Finstagram accounts. We’re plenty “dope” just as we are.


Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Clare Mallison