The strapping blond's smile glinted as he handed me my boarding pass and luggage sticker. "There you go, young lady!"
I gritted my teeth. Paused, holding the tip.
"Look," I said, "that doesn't apply."
His mouth opened, but I went on: "Wait, no, I know you're just trying to be 'nice.' But it isn't nice. It's disrespectful."
"But you look great for your age."
I shook my head. I pivoted toward security, my mind mumbling, Don't tell me that. Compared to what? The age you say I don't look? "Nice!" Harrumph, like, "You poor old thing — let me fill you up with my brimming vitality."
At the conveyor belt, I slowed to organize my newly replaced shoulder before attempting to heave the carry-on bag on the belt. A young woman sighed and passed me by, whipping out her laptop and sliding out of her stylish boots.
"It takes me a minute," I said. "I'm old."
"You're not old," she says. Never mind, I said to myself. Don't get into it. She was gone anyway.
What qualifies as 'old?'
"You're not old" is not praise, I thought, as I raised my arms to display my metal joint. And it's not true. What qualifies as "old?"
I'll tell you what: When the heads no longer turn when you enter the restaurant, when the young people on the subway platform nearly knock you over because they don't see you. When you realize you're invisible. Or an obstacle.
In the crowded aisle on the plane, I scanned for someone who might lift my bag to the overhead compartment. Maybe someone will offer and I won't have to ask. My new dependence fits awkwardly.
I wondered about that polite young man at the counter — Ben, I'll call him Ben. How could I help him understand why I don't want to be called young lady?
"Ben," I imagine saying, as I waited for a family to navigate the three-seat section they'd occupy, "Ben: I am old. I qualify. My driver's license tells me so. My ophthalmologist tells me so. My sex life knows. And you know. So what are you saying, really? I think it's this: "You're old, but I'll be big-hearted about it." As if it's a fault. A failing. You remind me that I am not as attractive as I once was, not as strong, not as valuable in the marketplace.
We need people with time to reflect
I've heard that in Asian societies, and in Latin and Black cultures, too, that the older woman is revered. For what she has given. And may still give. I've earned "old." I have experience. Maybe even wisdom. I'm not ready for the pasture and a patronizing pat on my thinning hair. In a capitalist system, my value has depreciated. My tax bill has gone down. But that's a good thing. It's called retirement.
We need people with time to reflect on where we are and how we got here. Women who have seen a thing or two. We need people with time and some disposable income to invest in curing social ills, raising consciousness. My cohort contains the healthiest, most well-off, old women the world has ever known. We privileged elders are ready to support the newly awakened young as they demand solutions to climate change and mass murder.
Or even just to model life with peace. Life as an appreciation course. Just life itself. Just human being.
So, Ben, skip the moniker referring to age altogether and just say, "Have a good trip."
Karen Grassle, best known for her portrayal of Ma on NBC's "Little House on the Prairie," lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she writes, does plays and develops new material.
This story originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.