It wasn’t an elderly friend of my grandmother thanking me for bringing the coffee or a lady with blue hair at the parish Bingo game patting my head.
It was a very short chirpy salesclerk wearing stiletto heels and a pants suit behind the counter of a chain store body lotion shop in a local mall. Wide-eyed and perky, she looked 12 to me, but she must have been 25.
“Is that all, dear?” she said in a loud voice, as I brought my items to the counter.
“Dear?” I thought. “Who is ‘dear’?” The store was almost empty.
I turned to see who she was talking to, but the only other customer was in the back, browsing.
“I still want to look around,” I said, piling on-sale bottles of lotion on the counter.
“Well, you go right ahead, dear. We’ll just hold these for you until you make up your mind.” Did I appear uncertain?
Was I a “dear”?
“Dear,” as I recall, is what you call children. It implies smallness, “Dears” are sweet, harmless, cuddly even, and powerless. From friends it’s a term of affection. From strangers it means, “This person needs help.”
I loomed over this tiny person. Had I dropped something? Was I mumbling to myself?
Then I got it. In the eyes of the young clerk, I had come from “geezer land,” the limbo of the feeble where American culture files older people, especially women, and cements them deeper with each passing year. Despite my ignorance of the fact, I had entered that country and become a “dear.”
At a gathering a few days later, I polled women friends from 50 to 65, tall, short, dumpy, chic, gray-haired, blonde, beautiful, plain.
“Have you ever been called ‘dear’?”
Heads nodded. Eyes rolled.
“Sure. It means you’re old and you’re stupid,” said the beautiful 63-year-old with the head of thick, blondish curly hair. She was laughing. “That’s the way they see us.”
“They perceive us as old and therefore incompetent,” said another. “It’s obnoxious, but what can you do?”
Who are “they”?
In other countries, “women of a certain age” receive appreciative nods from passersby. And, especially in Europe, couples of all ages display affection. I recall an elegantly dressed Parisian couple strolling on a quiet street, arms around each other, the woman’s graying head resting comfortably on the shoulder of her attentive, silver-haired companion. I was struck by their attractiveness, the ease between them, and their age. They looked positively un-American.
“How can they be so sexy and contented looking,” I wondered, even as I stared in appreciation. “They’re old.” My ingrained cultural responses had surfaced.
A few years ago I interviewed an athletic woman in her 80s, recently returned to the USA from several years in Spain and reeling from a local encounter involving age. A master swimmer with a wall of awards and a schedule of international competitions on her schedule, she been stopped for a minor traffic infraction on the Peninsula. Instead of giving her a citation, the officer sent her to the DMV for a hearing to determine her mental competence. Apparently being elderly and claiming to be on her way to swim practice at 6 a.m. was, in the officer’s view, reason for suspicion.
She kept her license and flew to Australia for the swim competition. But she had been shaken. “All the perceptions I had about myself were called into question,” she said later. “Maybe there was something wrong with me because I was 85 and in a car.”
In Spain, she said, life was viewed as a continuum. “But in the USA age is a line. Over a certain age, you are classified as ‘old’ and are considered incompetent on the basis of your age.”
In the great scheme of things, being called “dear” by a kid who may have thought she was doing you a favor is among life’s least important irritations.
But I thought of the swimmer. According to news reports, “ageism,” the “process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old” survives in employment and in health care.
My recent encounter reminded me that it’s also alive and well at the mall.
“Encountering ‘Geezerland’” by Joan Aragone was originally published in the San Mateo County Times in 2007