I Saw an Old Woman

I saw an old woman last night wearing a loose shift in the lobby of my daughter’s condo building. She was tiny in every direction; her arms the size of my wrists, her head as tall as my chin. She must’ve been pushing 80, both in years and in pounds. Her skin was ivory white under the florescent lights, translucent almost, like it was the color of her bones leaching through and not so much the color of skin at all. Like she was turning inside out. Transforming in her skin cocoon in front of my eyes.

Why are we captured by some people? What is it about a glance at an atrophied arm somehow strong as steel and graceful as snow that enthralls us? Why that lady with her short, short hair and almond eyes the same deep black as the iron rail where she rested her hand? 

I wanted to stroke her skin to see if it was as soft as it appeared, like satin draped over her frame. I looked at my own skin, firm and fleshy, swollen like ripe fruit, freckled with proof of the sun; tougher than hers, but only superficially; new leather that hasn’t had time to fully transition from raw hide to supple luxury.

I wondered if she knows she’s beautiful. Not “beautiful for an old lady” or “beautiful in her own way” or “beautiful in the eye of the beholder.” Just objectively lovely, a crone pixie queen.

I wondered if she was kind. I wondered if she was cruel. I wondered what she knows now that she didn’t when she was young. I wondered what she’d do over. I wondered what she’d never do again. I wondered who her lovers were and about her moments of great passion and crippling grief. I wondered if she’s learned to love others and herself well. 

I wasted my day yesterday. I spent time mindlessly doing things that didn’t need to be done and failing to do the things that did. Self flaggelation and shame had no effect. I berated myself and was still unproductive. Measuring my self-worth by the things I DO and not who I am, you say? Why, yes; yes, that’s it exactly. 

I saw the woman after I tried to get some work done. It was after 7pm, and I was tired of myself, so I’d gone outside to sit by the pool to feel the wind and see the sky to try to write. I made it through a sentence or two about wishing for wings that work and wanting to fly free. I made it a sentence or two about the oddity of being a creature born to fly who must use the earth to launch and land. I made it a sentence or two, trying to somehow capture the sense of what it’s like to long for more time in the air with a simultaneous gratitude for and resentment of the muddy patch in which I stand.

It started to rain.

Then it poured.

Sheets of water on the patio and through the trees and on me with my noble, wistful, drama-laden words.

Two sentences in, and I retreated under a slip of roofline that didn’t quite protect me from the rain, taking cover like the rest of the flying creatures when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our grand plans.

I read a novel.

I drank a beer.

I waited for the rain to abate, and then I packed up and went inside where I saw and old woman wearing a loose shift in the lobby of my daughter’s condo building. 

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
7 comments
  1. Love you work, perspective and that you share it with the rest of us who belong to you!! Keep up the great work my friend.

  2. Such beautiful writing ❤️

  3. Lovely.

  4. I think if this woman knew what you were wondering about her, she would be appreciative. The elderly are not always seen as people who have lived…who have pasts good and bad. When working at a geriatric medical office I learned to ask for people’s stories. Amazing lives most of them led. I was in awe of them. Your writing is beautifully descriptive. Thank you!

  5. When I was confirmed, a much-older friend (actually the priest who had baptised me as a baby and stood as my sponsor at confirmation) gave me a book of poetry. This was the first poem in it, that she had marked for me with a small note in the margin that read, “Do not wait until you are old. Live your life every day with Great Love and Great Joy.”

    “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
    With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
    And I shall spend my pension
    on brandy and summer gloves
    And satin sandals,
    and say we’ve no money for butter.
    I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
    And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
    And run my stick along the public railings,
    And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
    I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
    And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
    And learn to spit.
    You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
    And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
    Or only bread and pickle for a week,
    And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
    and things in boxes.
    But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
    And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
    And set a good example for the children.
    We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
    But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
    So people who know me
    are not too shocked and surprised,
    When suddenly I am old
    and start to wear purple!”
    – Jenny Joseph

    You warm my heart, Beth! Great Love and Great Joy, indeed! <3

  6. I have always dreamed of flying. I like to think that God will let me should I ever get to Heaven. It’s something that’s always escaped me in how to articulate for fear of no one understanding. I watch the way birds fly differently from one another. I am in awe of them and jealous at the same time. I don’t want to fall from high places. I want to soar and swoop and catch the breeze just to rest for a while.

  7. Beautiful. I once had an encounter that reminds me of this and the woman’s face comes back to me again and again, I know we share a connection in another place.

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