By Margaret Hart.
We hear it said that once you pass fifty you become invisible. Looking back at my own younger years I can remember not being able to tell one older lady from another when they were in a crowd. Grey sausage curls, round wrinkly faces, dull clothing – I really felt it wasn’t possible to tell them apart and I didn’t feel good about it. I was a churchgoer in those days and the vast majority of the congregation fell into the older lady category. Just occasionally one lady stood out from all the rest and as I pondered on this notion of invisibility I cast my mind back to the ones who made an unforgettable impression.
Jane* was ninety. She still went swimming three times a week and dancing twice. She swore like a trooper, told her daughters, both in their sixties, where to get off when they tried to persuade her to slow down a bit and gave her opinion clearly and freely if anyone was brave enough to ask for it. She had driven the lorries that towed the bombers out onto the airfield during the Second World War – she’d been a character then and she refused to stop being a character until the day she died.
Marjorie* was in her sixties. She was elegantly dressed in the brightest of colours. I particularly remember her scarlet winter coat – you could see her coming for miles. She was rather plummy and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to talk to her but when I did I was hooked. She had been the wife of a British diplomat in China and had played the role of the dumb blonde. She was a fluent Mandarin speaker, keeping this secret as she wandered through elegant gatherings of important men, offering plates of food and listening in to their conversations. Basically she was a spy. Now, having dumped the diplomat because she was tired of the role of dumb blonde she was a real force to be reckoned with. When I once bemoaned my middle aged spread to her she looked me in the eye and said, “No-one wants to go to bed with a bicycle. You must learn to love yourself.”
My final role model for refusing to be invisible is my late partner Sylvia. I haven’t changed her name because she would be proud to be in this article. She was fourteen years older than me, and a true radical. She had marched against nuclear weapons and had her phone tapped for doing so. Once she realised this, she had deliberately filthy conversations with her friends to keep the tappers amused. She was an assistant head of a primary school and taught a class called “War Studies”. When I asked why this she said, “If I called it Peace Studies they would stop me teaching it.” If a male assistant in a shop disregarded her in favour of a man who tried to interrupt, she would put on her teacher’s voice and give him a firm telling off. I would hide when she did this – what a wimp!
So I’ve been thinking a lot about this notion of invisibility now that we are into our sixties. Shirley and I like to travel in our motorhome. We can’t seem to get enough of life on the open road. It is currently January 2017 and we have only been at home in our own house for four weeks since March 2016 and we don’t plan to be there again until March of this year.
There is so much to love about the travelling life. We alternate between long periods on the road when we stop for only a night or two in one place before moving on to see what is round the next corner and staying for several weeks on beautiful campsites in lovely places, getting to know the local area. Along the way we meet a variety of interesting people, stop to gaze at beautiful views, read a lot, play games and keep a blog. We travel with our two small dogs, Poppy and Boo, who make sure that we don’t stay in bed beyond 8.30 a.m. and that we walk several miles each day.
Travel is said to broaden the mind but sad to say we’ve met quite a few people on the road who still see the world in traditional ways where men were men and women knew their place. On this trip we have joined two rallies i.e. large meets of motorhomers and caravanners organised by one of the camping clubs. The benefits of these rallies are that the club can negotiate a good price and you get to meet new people. The problem for us at these rallies has been the opposite of invisibility. We become a source of fascination for the predominantly retired, heterosexual partnerships that have the time and the money to travel for months in the winter.
People stare at us when we enter a room, ask us where our husbands are or try to find ways to ask about the nature of our relationship without coming right out with it. One rally steward made a derogatory gay ‘joke’ at a Quiz Night and Shirley took him up on it the next day. He was mortified and genuinely apologetic but it was obvious that if we hadn’t been there it would have been considered perfectly acceptable. At another event someone asked if we were sisters (for this question read, ‘Are you two partners?) and when we simply replied, “No we’re not sisters,” became uncomfortable and said, “You look so very alike.” We don’t. Sometimes I play with the idea of asking an older couple if they still have sex, because after all this is really what people want to know about us.
Being visible isn’t always positive if the thing that attracts attention isn’t your personality, confident demeanour, willingness to speak the truth or your bright red winter coat. If the thing that attracts attention is not who you are but who you choose as your life partner then that’s as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination because you can be sure it isn’t going to cause people to draw in and seek to know you better. It’s a thing that separates people. It divides us into ‘us and them’ and we need to move on from such shallow divisions, just as we need to move on from assuming that an older lady with grey sausage curls has so little to offer that we can’t tell her apart from all the others.
Several years ago I was invited to speak to a very large gathering of ladies at an annual church event. At that time I was still married to a man and he was a minister of religion but the invitation had come to me in my own right as the writer of an academic paper on women in the church. Just before the event began a lady approached me and said she would be introducing me and would like to check her facts. The first thing she said was, “I believe you are married to a minister. I thought I might share that first.” So I pulled up my big girl pants and said, “I would prefer it if you would introduce me in my own right rather than in terms of my relationships, if that’s ok,” and smiled at her. She tossed her head and replied rather snidely, “Right enough. They told me you were feminist.” and stalked off.
I wasn’t invisible that night.
You may also like Turning Gay In Midlife, How Women Change Their Minds also by Margaret.
Margaret Hart retired from teaching, training and writing about mental health and well-being four years ago and is loving life as a free spirit with her life partner Shirley. Together they take long trips in their motorhome, just seeing what’s round the next corner and who they might meet there. Living each day with gratitude and making connections with people and places is their aim and it is proving to be a delightful journey. Feel free to call into their blog and see where they are and what has caught their eye.