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I shall wear purple

In editing my collection of books during the pandemic, I came across “When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.” I checked the copyright date: 1987. I remembered buying it around the time I turned 40 – 1988. I remember feeling old then — ha! I didn’t remember reading it, after an initial glance.

I was about to add it to the reject pile, but then the title made me stop and think. I’d always liked the color purple, but as I’ve aged, more and more of my things are purple: clothes, suitcase, daypack, purse, hats, scarves, shoes, jewelry, crystals, eyeglass frames. People comment on it, I feel a bit silly about it, but I don’t care. Purple resonates with me.

I started reading the book — a delightful collection of poetry, prose and photos. So much of it moved me; it wouldn’t have meant nearly as much when I was 40. Then I remembered the powerful older women in Berkeley/the Bay Area in the 1960s and ‘70s — the Gray Panthers, founded in 1970; OWL (Older Women’s League), founded in 1980.

They still exist, but I never hear about them. OWL’s website states, “there are no age or gender requirements to join.”

Back then, having gray hair, a slack body, and a face that showed decades of life experience were accepted, at least where I lived. They were even respected. I think of powerful women today, like Nancy Pelosi, age 81, who seem to accept the fact that they have to look, dress and behave as if they were much younger.

I can’t bear to see the mangled, almost unrecognizable faces of older movie stars like Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve.

All this seems in stark contradiction to the empowerment of women over the past generation. Despite all the “gender” gains, it seems women, especially if they’re powerful, are not allowed to age. Men, it seems, are; witness the ghastly Mitch M.

Sometime in my early 60s, I decided to dye my gray hair auburn, just for a lark. Immediately men, who hadn’t been looking at me for some time, started looking at me. It was quite startling. But I didn’t renew the hair dye; I like my gray hair and didn’t want to be bothered with the expense and the chemicals. The male attention immediately evaporated.

While my memory is going, my wisdom is growing, but it’s not called on very often. Not only am I invisible to men, I seem to be invisible to anyone under about 40. I’m routinely pushed off sidewalks by gaggles of oblivious teenagers and zombie phone-walkers. Sometimes, if I need help with technology, my car or the like, I play the helpless little old lady card. I’ll take advantage of the few perks.

There is a certain freedom in being invisible. I can wear as much purple as I like. I can stare at people. I can eavesdrop on conversations. I can walk in areas deemed dangerous. I can even be eccentric, to a point.

I’m older, and I’m wearing purple.

Here’s what Mr. Google has to say about the color purple: “Purple combines the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red. … It has a variety of effects on the mind and body, including uplifting spirits, calming the mind and nerves, enhancing the sacred, creating feelings of spirituality, increasing nurturing tendencies and sensitivity, and encouraging imagination and creativity. … Purple helps align oneself with the whole of the universe…”

And here’s what Amazon says about “When I am Old”: “This groundbreaking collection was one of the first non-clinical and positive books on women and aging, and was written by older women themselves. It challenged stereotypes and confronted the invisibility of older women in America.”

A hard-cover second edition is listed for $35.66, and it’s available in large print.

Julia Sommer lives in Ashland.

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