Whenever I visited my artist friend Josie in New York, I knew something remarkable would happen. It always did. Last month, when we’d finished viewing my exhibit of women in yoga postures at a New York art gallery close to the High Line park in West Chelsea, she asked if I wanted to drop in on a nearby friend.
“Sure,” I replied.
While we walked along the old rail track toward her friend, Lisbeth’s, apartment, Josie told me Lisbeth was well known in the music world for her antique violas and occasionally played as a guest with the New York Philharmonic.
“Wow,” I said, impressed. I admired both antiques and classical musicians.
After we’d knocked on Lisbeth’s, door, Josie suddenly said, “Oh, just so you know, Lisbeth is ninety years old.” Before I could digest this, the door swung open to reveal a woman who looked to be in her sixties; strong and vibrant with a welcoming smile.
After an effusive greeting, Lisbeth gushed that her boyfriend had just left a birthday gift for her, a portrait of them together. I imagined an old guy with a walker. She lifted a lovely photo, framed in hand-painted and rough-hewn wood, of her and a black-haired man with lovely smooth skin, certainly not a nonagenarian. When I peered more closely, I detected subtle grey at his temples.
“Well, he’s a cutie,” I said.
She quickly cued me in, “Randy is fifty-five years old and I met him online. He prefers older women,” she bluntly said.
My mouth dropped open in shock. I’d heard of cougars, women ten to fifteen years older than her man, but Lisbeth was the first lady I’d met forty-five years older than her partner. I hoped she represented a trend.
Since she wasn’t shy about her boyfriend, and when my mouth could work again, I asked, “What kind of profile did you post?” I was intrigued because at age sixty-nine, I also pursued online dating.
“Oh, I lied,” she cheerfully said. “I was eighty-five at the time, but who’s going to date an eighty-five year old? So, I said I was eighty.” Josie and I chuckled.
“Hey, check out her violas,” Josie said, leading us to one end of the living room where two instruments caught the afternoon sun where they rested upright on wooden pedestals. We oohed and aahed over the exquisite violas in rich dark walnut colors that resembled scrumptious chocolate. Their sounds would have probably melted my heart.
I couldn’t resist asking more questions about Lisbeth’s personal life. “Did Randy ever find out you lied?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, as I got close to ninety, I figured I should come clean. By then, Randy had proved his devotion and I knew he truly esteemed older women. He’s the real deal. His last girlfriend had been eighty-five when she died. When I told him my real age, he acted like I’d given him the best gift ever. He got excited, really happy that I was older than he’d thought.” Lisbeth grinned at the memory.
I shook my head, astounded that such a man existed. I couldn’t let it go. “But, do you have kids?”
“Oh, yeah, we both do. Our children think we’re weird. My son says Randy’s a gold digger.” Lisbeth giggled, “But there’s no gold.” I looked around at her cozy, modest apartment that held nothing of much value except the violas and neither were a Stradivarius.
“Sounds like a love match. Good for you,” I said.
“He’s younger than my son and daughter and they’ll probably never like him,” she continued with a resigned, but slightly impish shrug of one shoulder.
I nodded, unable to imagine dating someone younger than my twenty-nine-year-old son. I beamed at her in admiration. Up close, I could see her facial skin had become mottled with age, bumpy like old snow on a popular afternoon ski run. From a few feet away, I didn’t notice it.
“You’re an inspiration,” I told her.
I thought about my six aunts as they had aged. In the 1950s, middle-class women “got old”: their faces wrinkled and they tinted their white hair with a purple rinse to balance the natural yellowish hue of age. But the lavender looked worse, a badge that said, “Old Woman.” In their seventies, their bosoms fell to their waists and they wore dresses with miniature realistic floral prints. My black and white photographs of them preserved this quaint, now historic phenomenon.
My aunts were homesteading pioneers who later enjoyed the roaring twenties, survived the depression, and traveled the globe as nurses in World War II. They’d kicked up their heels, worn Vogue fashions (hand-sewn, but from Vogue patterns), had illegitimate and legitimate babies, my cousins and me: smart ladies, as adventurous and rebellious as the women of my 1960s generation, albeit without reliable birth control.
But they aged in the traditional ways, no longer socially acceptable. Today, Victoria’s Secret kept our breasts high, regardless of how far south they wanted to wander. Fifty brands of hair colors disguised our grays and whites. Facial laser treatments meant we didn’t have to get expensive facelifts in order to chase wrinkles away. The “old woman” tiny-realistic-flowered dress disappeared. Now everyone wore fashionable styles, including skin-tight spandex on eighty-five year-olds, trendy and good-looking.
Lisbeth appeared healthy and happy and I cheered her on. She opened me to a new vision: I could be vital and sexually active into my nineties. Why not? Of course, I knew nature’s options for older folks were not always jolly. I worked for hospice, so I comprehended that aging and illness happened. When my time came to pass, I hoped to do so gracefully.
But, meanwhile, “Hurray for Lisbeth,” I told Josie as we left her apartment. “She’s fabulous.”
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.