As I sat watching my son’s JV tennis match (a riveting battle not unlike Federer – Nadal in their primes, only slower and without discernible talent), an older couple slowly climbed the metal bleachers and perched themselves beside me.
From the timing of their cheers and commentary, it soon became clear that they were here to watch my son’s opponent. They were dutiful grandparents, sacrificing their Saturday afternoon to support their grandson and see how their youngest generation was faring on the tennis court.
After a few minutes, the woman turned toward me.
“Is that your son?”, she asked.
“Yes it is.”
“I just have to tell you. He’s absolutely adorable!! Look at that face! What a beautiful child.”
“Why thank you, that’s very nice of you to say,” I replied, working hard to conceal the burst of pride flowing through my veins and self-satisfied with my role in producing such a gorgeous specimen.
After a beat or two, she turned back to me.
“So he takes after his mother then?”
This anecdote actually happened a while ago, but I sat on it. Maybe because I wasn’t too eager to share the fact that a complete stranger implied that I was a walking ogre.
Yes, maybe there’s some truth to this. On a scale of empirical attractiveness between Ryan Reynolds on one end and a zombie with open stomach wounds from The Walking Dead on the other, I may slide a little closer to the undead than I should be comfortable with. I am fortunate to have found a spouse who really does seem to find a sense of humor attractive. Also, it helps that she requires a really strong contact lens prescription.
But I realize now that my enormous forehead and facial features that look best in dim lighting are not the true point of the story.
It’s not what this privileged grandmother said to me on the bleachers that day that’s so interesting. It’s why she said it that makes it worth noting. And the reason is…
Because she can.
I can’t quite pinpoint the line, but there appears to be a threshold in which one lives long enough to no longer give a damn about what you say and who you say it to. While not appearing in their official documentation, a senior citizen’s card apparently also comes equipped with a “Say Whatever The Hell You Want” clause that allows the holder to feel immune to embarrassment or social discomfort.
Of course, that might not be how the rest of the world feels about what you say.
Like the day that my wife walked into a scheduled meeting, only to have the older gentleman receiving her exclaim “Oh my god! You’re so short! I had no idea how short you would be!”
Or years ago at a wedding ceremony, when just before the vows my wife’s 90-year-old grandmother leaned over to her grandchildren and proceeded to shout “I THOUGHT YOUR WEDDING WAS MUCH NICER THAN THIS ONE!!!!” Fortunately, her exclamation was only heard by about nine-tenths of the people in attendance, possibly including the bride and the (secretly amused) groom.
I’m sure these lovely people only thought they were speaking truths. But we all inherently know that the truth often hurts others, and that sometimes it’s better to swallow that truth rather than unleash it. As young children, we say how we feel until instructed that it’s no longer always appropriate. We then develop filters, learning how to control our thoughts and think about context before speaking them out loud.
And then, as we hit our 70’s, we start burning those filters with lighter fluid and blowtorches until we feel free to say whatever we want again.
And, after much reflection (and a bruised ego)…this seems OK with me. After you’ve lived enough years and dealt with enough crap over a lifetime, maybe you’ve earned the right to feel the way you feel, and not hide it from anyone. That’s freedom, in a way. It’s kind of refreshing to think about reaching that point.
So despite the insult, let me declare here and now that I don’t reject the utterances of that grandmother. Rather, I celebrate her spirit, and the fact that she’s reached such a point of release in her well-lived life. Insult on, dearest elder!! Enjoy your new-found freedom! Unleash your true spirit on an unsuspecting world!
And I eagerly await my own later years, where I’ll feel free to tell her what I really thought about her choice of pastel hair coloring, and the overdone plastic surgery that didn’t quite take.
(Whoops, that just came out. My bad.)