When we came out of lockdown last year and could start socialising again, there was one party that I was more excited about than any other. In fact I was more excited about this party than I had ever been about going backstage at gigs or being ‘on the list’ at events in my twenties and thirties. It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday party.
We had been out for a quiet family lunch to celebrate, but I was also fortunate enough to be one of the youngest guests invited to an afternoon tea party with her friends. I was put to work serving sandwiches and making cups of tea, but I was just happy I could be in that room and hear the stories being told.
It was one of the most glorious and life-affirming days of my life.
The oldest guest, Stella, was 101 – and, incidentally, the one who started the dancing after half a bottle of prosecco. The youngest was my one-year-old nephew, Alfie. The room was full of interesting people who my nan has met throughout her life, and who have become my friends as I have grown up. My nan is the kind of person who gets chatting to people everywhere she goes, so it was an eclectic gang.
She had known Stella and Sylvia the longest, from when they all worked together in London in the 50s. There were friends from her Spanish class, from the singing club and people who she had happened to meet at the bus stop some time in the 70s. There were her friends’ children and one of my mum’s school friends, who are all now in their sixties.
Most of the guests were in their eighties and nineties. They were retired nurses and teachers, mums, grandmas, aunties, divorcees and widows, even a former actress and a concert pianist who still gives lessons.
Hearing their stories and their life lessons, it annoys me deeply that they might walk down the street and be dismissed as just “an old person”. They are so much more interesting than most of the other people I know.
And (selfishly) they make me feel young and sprightly, when that is not always the case with my own peers. I’ve just turned 40 and experienced a lot of very uncool angst about it, mostly due to feeling old without having ticked any of the boxes I thought I would have by this age, such as getting married or having children.
Being in a room with mostly much older women turned out to be exactly the boost I needed.
“Oh, you’re so young!” Sylvia, the former actress, said to me. “Look at that skin! What I wouldn’t give to be forty again.” My nan agreed: “Your forties are fabulous…this is your time. You can do anything you want when you’re in your forties.”
“Do you have a boyfriend, or someone special?” a few of the women asked me that day.
I replied that I did, reflecting that this was much nicer than being constantly asked when I was getting married or why I didn’t have children, which was what usually happened at social events. To many of these women, I just seemed comparatively young and full of possibility.
“Oh, how lovely!” Stella exclaimed. “Just enjoy it. Enjoy every minute.”
It’s something we all need reminding of sometimes, and often can only be pointed out by people who are older and have seen a lot more than we have to put things in perspective.
As we all had a little dance around the sitting room to ABBA (“Dancing Queen”, of course), Stella confided to me that before special occasions like this, she goes to see her doctor for a steroid dose to make her temporarily more mobile and energetic. The flip side of this was that she would probably have to spend the following day in bed recovering.
“Oh, everything hurts at this age – but it’s worth it. Dance while you can, darling.”
Afterwards, I thought about this frequently and how I really should make the most of being able to dance whenever I feel like it – or even when I don’t. In the mornings, I put the radio on and think of Stella as I shimmy around the kitchen and put the kettle on. I hope one day I can give this advice to a woman younger than me when she’s feeling low.
Already, I think fondly of my younger friends and work colleagues who worry that they’re “past it” when they turn 30. I remember feeling the same myself, and now I look back on my past self as such a silly little baby.
As well as wisdom and dignified good humour, the main thing I have picked up from my older friends is this inspiration just to get on and do things, make the most of life while we can. Given the pandemic and current global situation, for those of us lucky enough to be able to, this feels more apt than ever.
Next week, my nan and I are going on holiday together to Spain, our first trip since pre-Covid. She is my favourite travelling companion, and I can’t wait.
Before Covid, I went on a trip with my nan and great-aunts (her sisters) to India, where they grew up, and learned about family stories from their younger lives that I had never heard before. It was the greatest privilege I have ever had.
So, as a young 40-year-old whippersnapper, my greatest advice is to spend time with people of all ages, so that we can all enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other. And, don’t forget: dance while you can, darling.