Thursday, November 4, 2021

I'm 51! On Possibly Being a "Junior Elder"


I'm 51! In fact, these photos were taken on my 51st birthday. 51! Amazing! 

Looking at my autumnal outfit in these autumnal photos got me to thinking about the strange reality that I am now in the autumn of my life. 51 years are, in fact, a lot of years!

Do I get to be an elder yet? Though there are many people whom I consider my own elders, young people have started treating me like I'm their elder, with some kind of wisdom to impart. 

So I've decided that I now get to be a junior elder, and this post is about that. It's also about 1970s fashion, the fashion of my childhood, and the fashion I chose to wear on my 51st birthday.

Before I continue, a few notes about why I've been blogging less often lately. First, I've been enjoying the slow return of freedom as Covid restrictions are slowly relaxed. Second, I'm feeling a bit hemmed in by the genre of blog writing, and am itching to move on to more challenges. To this end, I have started writing a book about all the stories I have encountered doing my Jewish genealogy. Finally, Beau and I are looking to buy a house! Obviously, that's taking up a lot of our time and energy.

So rest assured, my friends: I may be writing fewer blog posts, but I'm still alive and kicking. 

And now on to my post about being 51!

Coat: Outlander; Blouse and scarf: Reitmans; Skirt: Joe Fresh; Boots: Ecco; Earrings, necklace, and copper ring: vintage; Opal ring: Kingdom Fine Jewelry

Quite frankly, I'm loving being in my 50s. My 50s fit like a glove. I feel like I'm finally (almost) the age I've always felt on the inside. Weird, I know.

Or maybe not so weird. I've watched a lot of women blossom when they hit 50. I remember first noticing this when I was in my teens. Women hit 50 and they seemed to become stronger, more confident, and more assertive. Sometimes they'd turn their whole lives around and upside down to pursue long suppressed dreams. It was like watching a fire ignite.

Is it something to do with menopause? Am I even in menopause? I think I am. Well, perimenopause, anyway. Doesn't menopause qualify every woman to become an elder?

Maybe not. I asked a cousin in her 90s to tell me about her menopause, and she said, "Well, now, dear, that was so long ago, I can't remember." She said that menopause was a young woman's thing that she'd stopped thinking about long ago. She gets to be an elder. I like her a lot.

I only recently saw this photo of me with my beloved great aunt and her husband. A DNA match led me to connect with their son, now in his 80s, who had always wondered who the little girl in the photo was. Now he knows!

I have always enjoyed the company of my elders, and I have never understood people who think spending time with older people is a dull chore. 

Perhaps because most my abusers were in my parents' generation, while the older generation tended to be kinder to me ... 

Me, at about 24

... I found myself emulating my elders when I was still quite young. I often dressed like them. I listened to their music. I read their books. I watched their movies. And, relatively speaking, I lived a more staid life than a lot of my rowdier friends.

My friends called me Grandma. For real.

My interest in old literature, and older culture naturally led me not just to dress like my elders, but to dress as they did when they themselves were young. In other words, I was passionate about vintage style, and fashion history. I still am. In this photo, taken when I was in my early 30s, I'm doing my best to look like I'm from the early 1940s.

At first, my vintage style carried with it a strong sense of costume and irony. My big joke, when people asked me to define my style, was that it was Classy Grandma Style. 

I almost felt like I was tricking the world into thinking I was something other than the half wild, unsophisticated, hippie kid that I really was. I wanted badly to distance myself from the hippie scene in which I had been made to suffer so horribly ...

Me in my early 30s. I was wearing incredible, four inch, stiletto boots, which, sadly, don't show up in the photo.

... and I did this in part in the way I dressed, even if I still felt that my upbringing did, in fact, define me. 

But, over time, I lost the feeling that I was dressing ironically. I lost the feeling that I was tricking people into believing I was something that I was not. The way I dressed, the way I lived, I realized, really was me. This really was my authentic self.

This is what I mean when I say that I am finally the age I have always felt on the inside.

Nonetheless, reaching this age did still come as a bit of a suprise to me. Beau and I frequent a local café with a very inter-generational clientele, and a fairly fixed, young bunch of friendly baristas. I often find myself chatting with people there, including young people. At first, I was a bit shocked and indignant when they'd say things like, "I know what you mean. That's like my mother..." or when they'd ask me for advice, as if I had some wisdom I didn't feel that I had. I just hadn't noticed that I really was old enough for them to interact with me the way they did.

But that's changed. I embrace it now. Turning 50 really brought me into a full and joyful acceptance of it. Part of this comes with knowing that, at my age, many of my ancestors were already grandparents. Part of it is knowing I am past my fertile years. A big part of this is watching my own stepsons reach adulthood.

I find myself full to brim with a nurturing generosity toward, well, everyone, but especially my juniors. And animals. And birds, especially crows. Food, comfort, support, advice, guidance, knowledge... They're a pleasure to give now. I just have so much more to offer now than I did when I was younger.

I chose not to have biological children, and I don't regret that decision at all, but am indeed looking forward to becoming a bubbe (Jewish grandma), and giving my grandchildren big, squishy, bubbe hugs (assuming, of course, that our boys chose to have children, which I don't take a given).

I'm not interested in hiding my age or trying to mask it in any way. 

I'm proud of my age, and all the life experience and wisdom that comes with it. I'm happy to have made it this far, and I'm looking forward to finding out what comes next. 

But surely my age alone is not the only thing that qualifies me to be a junior elder, if, indeed, I do or ever will qualify to be one. 

If younger people come to me for guidance, or for comfort, what is it about me that leads them to do so? Is it just my age, or is there more to it than that?

I have had one hell of a hard and interesting life. I think that does count for something.

For one thing, I came out of the closet 32 years ago (first as lesbian for several years, and then as bi). 32 years!

Me at about 21, in a Dyke March

Things were very different for lesbian and bisexual women in 1989. Coming out was damned scary. And I fought like hell to change that. I wrote for the gay newspaper, a once monthly, volunteer driven labour of love. I marched in the marches, like this Dyke March, in about 1991. I loved women when doing so put me at risk of losing my job, my home, my status, everything.

I have stories to tell. I might even have some wisdom to impart. I remember as a young, queer woman, looking up to lesbians in their early 40s as my elders. I'm now older than they were then. So, yeah, I guess my having been out for so long helps qualify me as a junior elder.

I've also been disabled for about 15 years (depending on how you count). I'm not new to this anymore. I know about chronic pain. I know about pacing myself. I know about resources. I know about mobility aids. I know about the disabilities community. I know about ableism

And I know I can help other disabled people navigate this terrain. If they're newly disabled, I can help them find their way. If they need someone who knows what they're going through, I do. If they just need a sympathetic ear, I can offer that. (As  they can for me.)

This too makes me an elder of sorts. A junior elder anyway.

I think I'm five in this photo.

And then, of course, there's my childhood as a sex trafficking victim. The odds are very slim on a sex trafficking victim surviving beyond a mere few years. 

And yet, here I am, 34 years after I got out, still alive, and even thriving, in my way. 

Each birthday now feels like a victory.

I feel like proclaiming on a mountain top: Behold, here I am! I'm still here! 

What an accomplishment!

And, in the world of sex trafficking victims, that accomplishment does indeed make me an elder, and not even a junior one. By writing openly about my experiences in this blog, I have opened the door for other survivors to reach out to me (just as others opened the door for me). I find that I really do have something to offer them - some love, some guidance, some understanding - just as they have something to offer me.

But there's more to being a junior elder than just nurturing the whole damned world. I'm nobody's selfless Earth Mother.

What I like the very most about being in my 50s? I feel no obligation to put up with anyone's shit anymore. And nobody expects me to. I've paid my dues. This is mostly what I mean when I say I now get to be an elder.

This was really just an excuse to show you how long my hair is getting. Now that Covid restrictions allowed me to get a good cut, I'm really happy with my longer hair.

(Weirdly still dark hair not withstanding.)

I was born in Mordor, no joke.

And I
got out.

Beau has no idea what he did to the camera to make me sparkle like this.

And into the light.

I've got all the anger and love and wisdom that comes from that.

I'm formidable, God damn it! Don't fuck with this junior elder.

So, yes, I'm quite happy with where I am now. I'm aware that I could live another 50 years still, but I know those years will go more and more quickly. Time is different now. Past and present merge, as do pasts far before my own, and futures far past my own. I see into the future through my kids and potential grandkids. I see into the past through my ancestors.

One of the ways I see into my ancestors' pasts is by looking in the mirror. I know I have the family curls (and eyes, and face, and, and, and...) from old black and white photos of relatives long before the Holocaust. I know I have the family colouring because Holocaust survivors told the younger generations, including me, now that I have found them. One long-lost cousin referred to our family's "chestnut" (ie, auburn) hair as "the family passport."

So please forgive me if I keep harping on my hair colour, but it is a link to a past badly obscured by the pogroms, the Holocaust, and Soviet repression.

Checkout these matching jewfros on me and my father. I knew I got my hair from him, but he never knew where he got it. These facts were lost to us. Now I know.

The past, present, and future merge in such rich details.
Making maple sugar with my father, his brother, my uncle, aunt, and cousin.

This photo was taken on an autumn day in Massachusetts in 1973 ...

... which brings us to the 1970s, which was the inspiration for my outfit. 

Before I continue, though, a note about my size, or to put it another way, the size of my clothing.

Everything I'm wearing is too big. If you read my blog post about my health emergency last year (gallbladder disease), you know that I've lost weight and why (improved digestion once my gallbladder was removed). But, because of Covid lockdown, for nearly a year after my surgery I almost never left the house, so almost never wore nice clothing. I'm only now learning what in my autumn wardrobe is now too big for me (a lot). 

I also seem to be losing even more weight. I'm not sure why. Because I'm no longer very ill, my energy, stamina, and mobility have improved. My physiotherapist, whom I hadn't seen for two years, exclaimed about my improvement when I was finally able to see her again. That felt really good. I guess this improvement and increased movement, as minimal as they are, are the reason I'm losing more weight.

So, a lot of my clothing is now too big. When Covid restrictions and dangers are even lower, I'll go to the lovely woman at the local dry cleaners and ask what alterations she can do for me.

And, on a side note to my side note, this photo of me walking in autumn light in Vancouver ...

... reminds me of this really great photo of a man and his daughter walking to church in Vancouver. It was taken by the late Fred Herzog.

Herzog took this photo too, and it also reminds me of the photo of me walking. It makes sense: Same city, same light, adjacent neighbourhoods.

But back to the 1970s, the inspiration for my outfit on my 51st birthday. Born in 1970, with a keen interest in style, I do remember the fashions of my childhood. The colour scheme of the decade was inescapable, and happens to be one that flatters my own colouring.

Photo by Mark Cohen. The 70s were not a good decade for children.

Given how horrendous my childhood was, you'd think I'd be upset by the memories evoked by 70s fashion. In a way I am. But, in another way, I find them comforting. For one thing, they are the colours of fall, which is my favourite season. But, also, wearing 70s fashion somehow helps me rewrite the decade, or how I perceive it, anyway.

This time, I'm a grownup, emulating the women I admired as a child: career women, feminists, urban, sophisticated, educated women. I looked up to them, and I liked the way they dressed. Now that my body belongs to me, I can dress like them too. 

In putting together my own outfit, instead of slavishly following one moment in the 1970s, I mixed and matched trends from throughout the decade, so I'll share them with you now. They're fun!

I'll be honest: 70s fashion could often be too much of a good thing, especially when it spread into interior decor. Fake wood paneling? Shag carpeting (in bathrooms!)? Avocado green, kitchen appliances? I do not remember these things fondly, and I'm none too pleased when Beau and I find them over and over again as we look for a home.

But, in clothing, this fashion was often pretty magnificent. The oranges, greens, reds, creams, and browns ...

... sometimes reached a level of sartorial perfection that makes me drool to this day. Of course, outfits like these ones were not for the faint of heart. They were not what you'd call understated. Not much about the 70s was. 

But there were toned down versions of the same fashions for the more conservative people amongst us. If they were okay with polyester, which was everywhere, they'd be able to find something they didn't mind wearing. (If they didn't like earth tones, they were pretty much out of luck.)

Okay, so let's talk about the foundation of my outfit, the thing around which the entire outfit was built: my chestnut brown, a-line, corduroy skirt.

Such skirts were a staple of 70s fashion. I always imagine them on 30-something college professors in Massachusetts, where I spent the first six years of my life.

This photo is from 1969, and it's not quite what I imagine, but it's close. It goes without saying that I am not actually endorsing smoking. Instead, I'm remembering how I saw such women when I was a child.

I imagine such a woman in a bohemian café, huge sunglasses on her head, and an elbow on the table, as she leans forward, smoking a cigarette, and looking supremely insouciant and self-confident. Oh to even appear to be that kind of woman, let alone actually be one!

The corduroy skirt was, to me, much more than a mere skirt. Still is. It was a symbol of strength. 

The length of such skirts, and of skirts in general, rose and fell over the decade. (While young women still wore mini skirts early in the decade, older women wore their skirts just above the knee.) Personally, I prefer them just below the knee. I think it's flattering. It doesn't show more skin than I'm comfortable with, but it's also not so long as to overwhelm my relatively small, and decidedly short frame.

However, unlike the skirts in the above photo, which have extra fabric in the v-like gap between the knees ...

... the gap in my skirt is left bare. This poses a distinct problem for me when I'm sitting on my mobility scooter. My underwear shows! So I pinned a matching scarf under the gap.

Crisis diverted. It might not be the most elegant solution, but, until I can get to my favourite alterations lady, this will have to do. 

Please do take note of my delicious, creamy, yummy, chocolate brown, knee boots. They too were a staple of the 70s ...

Note the cloche hats, a revival of a 1920s fashion trend.

... in chocolate brown, tan, and sometimes black. I think they look great with 70s skirts. They're also really practical on my scooter: my ankles and shins get very cold, and knee boots help with that. I'll be more than happy when today's booties trend finally dies a much deserved death. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Hallmark Channel.)

Now let's talk about these women's groovy, patterned tops. Such tops were usually polyester, button down, collared tops, and were worn by women ...

... children ...

... and men alike.

Instead of a button down, collared shirt, I opted for a peasant shirt ...

... in a floral print ...

... with a groovy, sparkly thread ...

I know I keep harping on this too, but I cannot believe how light my brows and lashes have become. Like my father, I used to have very dark brows and lashes, and, as with my father, they have become much lighter and redder in middle age. It still startles me in photos.

... that led to this, ever so slightly racy photo.

(I actually first got a dress in this fabric, but I liked it so well, I went back and got the blouse too. You can see more of this dress in my post, 
Dressing for the Apocalypse II: Covid, Killer Smoke, and the End of the World.)

Peasant shirts ... 

... were a very hot trend for a while in the 70s.

While peasant shirts were perhaps not as common with sharply tailored skirts as polyester shirts were, the pairing certainly did occur in fashionable women's outfits ...

... as well as in the outfits of trendy teens. Three of these girls are wearing peasant fashion. It almost feels like a uniform!

Note the floral pattern on the skirt of the girl on the right.

It's very similar to the one on my blouse. Ditsy patterns like this ...

... often showed up ... 

in peasant styles. I remember owning a few such dresses. Remember the dress I'm wearing in the photo of me with my great aunt and uncle? 

Yup: it was a peasant dress with a ditsy print.

And here I am in another one, on my 10th or 11th birthday. (I'm the tiny one, as usual.)

But what I thought of first and foremost when I got my blouse was the dress worn by the mother in the Sunshine Family doll set by Matel. I had the whole set before we moved to Canada, so a very long time ago, but I remembered the dress perfectly. I've just always been interested in fashion.

Okay, so let's move on to my jewelry.

The pendant was a birthday present from Beau. I think I'd mentioned seeing it on Etsy but choosing not to buy it, so he snuck into my account and bought it for me. 

As you see, it matches one of my favourite, garage sale finds: this copper coloured ring. I found it for 75 cents in Cabbagetown when I was living in Toronto to get my Master's Degree. At the time, I actually thought it was some kind of money clip, but I loved it as a ring. I've since discovered that it was meant to be worn as a ring, and that it was made by the very successful jeweler, Rafael, who also made the necklace. 

Until I saw these photos, I hadn't realized how beautifully his work catches the light. Once I had seen the photos, though, it came as no surprise to learn that he used Murano glass in his pieces.

Prince wore his stuff!

But it was most popular in the 1970s ... 

... when huge, statement pieces were popular even for men.

As I said, there was nothing understated about the 70s. 

My Ethiopian opal ring seemed an obvious match with my outfit, both in colour ...

... and size and shape. Again: not understated.

Now, this Weiss brooch is  probably from the 1960s, but the colours and flowers were such a great match to my outfit, I had to wear it! (After scouring the internet for them, I found and bought the matching earrings.)

These vintage, coppery, hoop earrings aren't rare or "special," but they work well with the outfit, anyway. I wore a lot of coppery earrings in my teens, because I felt they looked good with my then huge hair.

And the outfit's topper? This coat. Of all the things I'm wearing, the coat is probably the least accurate to 1970s fashion. It's too understated!

But it definitely echoes 70s fashion in fabric, plaid print, colour, and cut. Such coats could be very bold ...

... to the slightly understated ... 

... to the more toned down versions of the late 70s.

Though my coat's plaid is still more subdued than any of the 70s ones I've showed you, the mustard, yellow/brown/orange in my coat does add to the overall, 70s feel of my outfit.

Since it's now too big, there is lots of room underneath it ... 

... for my oversized, plaid scarf, which I love. This scarf was a bit of a revelation to me. I hadn't realized that this mustard yellow could work so close to my face.

See, you can teach an old(ish) dog new tricks!

And so, I'm 51, a junior elder, still growing, still learning, still changing, and eminently interested in what the next chapters of my life will bring. 

Stay tuned.