Stormy weather, scary birthday

Lena Horne died May 9 in New York. She was 92. Later in life, she had a revival of sorts.

Bettmann / Corbis

I was thinking about Lena Horne at the time. “Stormy weather, since my man and I ain’t together,” which just about sums it up for me. She came to Toronto and sang that at the Prince George Hotel, which belonged to my first husband’s parents. That hotel was levelled to make way for the Toronto-Dominion towers so we could all spend lifetimes in a Hades of underground parking. Now Lena’s dead, I’m three marriages on, the sun never stops shining on my stormy weather in this subtropical state—but Lena did live till 92 and had a revival of sorts later in life.

The man on the gate phone who interrupted this train of thought said he was doing the census. I had no way of knowing who he was because the gate is miles away and it was dark out anyway. “I’m not a U.S. resident,” I replied (no point telling him the IRS says I am resident and so does the CRA—too much information), “I’m just visiting,” which I thought was polite when what I really meant was, stick it, I’m not going to fill out your damn form.

“But are you staying in the house?” That was enough for Maya and Arpad, who began their hounds of Baskerville number. “I can’t control the dogs,” I stuttered because actually both of them were licking my face in between barks, thinking perhaps this was the chicken delivery dinner they have come to anticipate whenever the gate sounds in the evening. The voice hung up.

The point is, I’m about to reach a scary birthday and I’ve had it with forms. If you put the forms I have filled out end to end they would circle the world. (That’s a statistic that defies repudiation because no one actually knows what the earth’s circumference is these days—what with shrinkage and tectonic plates moving, not to mention Iceland’s problems.) I told my husband I was not looking forward to said scary birthday with him behind bars and he gave me one of those very today responses about our golden years that lie ahead. Which is how I got to Lena Horne’s 92 years, if you were wondering where this is going.

Being an old woman is no plum assignment, and all of the 88-year-old Betty White’s swearing on her guest spot last weekend for Saturday Night Live can’t change that. But speaking of White, as I was, there certainly is a teeny vogue for female golden oldies, and I’m not referring to Carmen Dell’Orefice, the exquisite-cheekboned white-haired model, rail-thin in her late 70s with skin as perfect as airbrushing. (Is her last name for real? Or is it nudging us with some gender secret?)

Men have always enjoyed better shelf lives, and God knows I have suffered through enough old excruciating crooners that turn up in Florida for just one last song. However, seeing 70-year-old Lily Tomlin on Damages was bracing, and I have a very soft spot for Mary Wesley, my role model, who published her first adult novel at 70 and then went into what Wikipedia describes as an “intensely creative period,” writing nine more, including The Camomile Lawn, before she died of gout at 90—no picnic as an illness but so very Jane Austen.

There is, however, no getting around how ghastly this time is. (If you are under 60 stop reading here, should you have bothered to get here, because being young or what’s now sociologically classified as “young elderly,” you will not yet have experienced the following humiliations.) Being called “dear” by policemen and all members of the male sex who used to call you “darling”; trying not to mumble your words, one of those weird sensations like pins and needles. I open my mouth wider and wider as I ar-tic-u-late while trying to avoid looking anatine, because my mouth muscles seem to have stuck and it’s not Botox. I’ve self-diagnosed with Google’s help and decided I have a condition called dysarthria, which has to do with aging that causes “abnormal sequencing of the muscle movements required for producing speech sounds.” Everyone around you seems to be speaking at fast-forward speed. Coordination is equally bizarre. Why I am sent medicine in bottles and containers I can’t possibly open without putting them in the door jamb? And on days when you tart up and go out, the benefits are arguable.

I get telephone calls the next day from middle-aged women I have always wanted to be friends with asking my views on publishing and fonts and suggesting we get together to discuss politics, and I know what they really want to find out is not my opinion on the Middle East but what procedures I am using by whom to keep looking okay. Well, I suppose it is a compliment of sorts.

Back when I attended some whiz function at Toronto’s Four Seasons opera house, I bumped into Margaret Atwood looking pretty damn good herself. She narrowed her eyes at me warmly—I add the incongruous “warmly” because the woman is dangerous and I’ve had it with being vilified in fiction—and stared at my face. “How do you look so good?” she asked, which had the virtue of being frank. “Packing myself up in dry ice each night,” I replied, which had the virtue of being, for me, quite fast.

Fortunately, her dream partner Graeme stepped in very gallantly and I was spared the Atwood comeback. Just as well. I was wearing four-inch Blahnik heels from the old days and if you think memory and hearing go, it’s nothing compared to balance. The voice fades, allure flees, creativity withers and as Germaine bloody Greer said, we become invisible, but high heels—there are just some bits I’ll never give up.

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