Saturday, May 10, 2014

Aging’s Real “Tell”

My girlhood friends and I looked forward to the summer carnivals in a nearby town, especially the man who guessed your age. Like many girls in their teens, we wanted to appear older. The man always pegged us to within a year (the agreed upon window for him to be correct). I couldn’t understand how he got it right. Looking back, I suppose it was easy. A group of giggling girls had to be about the same age. He probably scanned our faces, threw out the high and low estimates and went with the average.

Now at the opposite end of the age scale, I prefer to be gauged younger than I am. The older I get, the less often that happens. At first, I blamed this on my graying hair, so I started dying the roots. That helped for a few years, but gradually, the knowing looks and the polite “ma’ams” started again.

At that point, I assumed it was those stubborn age spots on my face and the backs of my hands. I tried using Porcelana cream for awhile. (I got test formulations for free while I was on a consulting project for the company that marketed it.) After a few months with minimal fading, I lost interest (and patience) and used some makeup concealer instead.

As I applied the cream to my hands, I realized that my knuckles were getting that craggy look that comes with the advent of arthritis. A sure sign of aging. I remember someone telling me that the hands were one of the ways the carnival age-guessers pegged the older women.

Then there was the pooch under my neck. As I aged, I gained weight. With the weight came more of a pooch. A pooch in and of itself doesn’t make you look old. What’s left behind when you lose that weight does. Now that I’ve shed 35 pounds since last year’s shock-inducing physical, my neck pooch has turned into an out-and-out wattle. Wattles make you look old. They need to be covered with things like turtlenecks and scarves. Or necklaces with fat beads. Or multiple strands. Or multiple strands of fat beads.

As I took inventory of these signs of aging over the years, I thought I had accounted for everything that would give away my age. I didn’t have a plan for hiding all of those “tells,” but I could do a passable job of camouflaging most of them. I thought I had my appearance under control. Until a few weekends ago.

Sunday mornings are the time we lollygag around the bedroom for awhile before we head down to watch the political talk shows. For those who are snickering, “lollygag” is not a code word for sex. I’m using it as the around-the-house equivalent of puttering in the garage or workshop.

One recent Sunday, my lollygagging led me to clip my toenails. That’s when the real “tell” about old age hit me. I always had cute feet; small feet; delicate feet. The beginnings of a bunion, perhaps, but not that prominent. My arches were pronounced from years of wearing high heels in Manhattan on my walk from the Port Authority to Park and 50th and back every day. But that just made them look cuter.

I need to take a step backward for a moment and tell you about what happened to my mother as she got older. She visited a podiatrist every few months to have her toenails clipped. I thought it was because she wasn’t limber enough to clip them herself. To that end, I do stretching exercises every morning, making sure my toes stay well within reach. But without my reading glasses, they’re just a blur down there.

When I put on my glasses that Sunday the better to clip my nails, I was stunned by what I saw. My feet are not cute anymore. I now have old feet and ugly-ass toenails. I recognized them almost immediately. They’re my mother’s toenails, the ones that forced her to prevail upon a podiatrist for pedicures. Perhaps the reason she made those trips wasn’t because she couldn’t reach her toes. Perhaps it was because she couldn’t bear to look at her nails close up.

There it is. The hard, bitter truth. The real “tell” of aging isn’t gray hair. It isn’t age spots. It’s not wrinkled knuckles or a neck wattle. It’s those ugly-ass toenails and I have them.

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