Beginning my summer “re-runs” of pieces I’ve published elsewhere. Here’s an essay from Changes in Life, 2013:
Retail nicknames, those adjectives you hear when you order something, buy something, borrow something. To butter you up, these service workers call you “Hon” as a cozy gesture to win you over, make the sale, grow their tip.
This begins as soon as you are old enough to order from the menu. Waitresses call you “Hon” though you’ve never met.
Cashiers who call you “ma’am” when you think you’re still a “miss.” You’re well beyond your co-ed years, but you cling to the Junior Department though the clothes are too high-waisted, the bust too flat.
When you’ve finally acclimated to “Ma’am” along comes her evil sister “Honey.” Ma’am, you think, sounds like an adult persona you’re not ready to embrace, such as your mother. “Honey” means crow’s feet have landed and cheetah spots infest your hands. Honey means you’ve crossed into Red Hat territory.
Young professional men resemble your nephews. The cardiologist introduces himself as “Dr. Needleman—you can call me Jeff.” You’ve advanced a generation. You don’t want the man in charge of your circulatory system to be called “Jeff.”
Honey drags into middle age, when you invest in reading glasses and magnifiers to discover a piano-wire whisker on your chin. How long has it been there? How long have people noticed? You pluck the whisker though more will return.
Skin on your forearms takes on the texture of yesterday’s meringue. The wicked age fairy has done a number on your skin.
Somewhere toward sixty you are infuriated to encounter Sweetie. I didn’t hear that right, you say. Sweetie? Sweetie is what you call doddering aunts, blathering old ladies who hang their glasses from neck chains. It’s how nurse’s aids referred to your mother when she moved into assisted living.
You walk into the department store on Tuesday to a sea of gray hair and pastel wind suits. It’s Senior Day and this is a new world. Do you skip the discount or admit you’re old?
You can’t afford a facelift. Don’t want to endure it and grow out your Botox bumps. You know you should invest in turtlenecks, buy shoes that accommodate bunions, make an appointment with the chiropractor where the receptionist will call you Sweetie like the rest of their clients.
You purchase baby clothes for a church project. “Won’t this look cute on the grandchildren, Sweetie,” the clerk says as she rings up your purchase.
Your name isn’t Sweetie. It appears nowhere on your driver’s license, Social Security Card or tax return. You resent the name because it reminds you of Great Aunt Mattie who wore orthopedic shoes and hid dollar bills in her bra. But you don’t correct them. You might upset the pharmacy tech filling your prescription. They might slip up and you might not make it to “Dearie.”
Dearies are survivors who are glad to be alive in the land of slip-on shoes with elastic gussets. They’ve endured. They offer wise advice. They flaunt seniorhood, grateful to spout off-color comments to ingratiate themselves to grandsons like Jordan and Jacob who have made it through graduate school on a shoestring, that figure of speech referring to the narrow strand of life that separates you from the dead. You have never been this old before though you can no longer tie your shoes or remember what year to write on your checks.
You still write checks because you like tangible things, but you slip up and write “19” for the date. The clerk frowns oh so briefly before she smiles. “That’s all right, Dearie.”