I’ve been unmasked! And in time for Purim. Some of you might have noticed that for the past two months the photo that accompanies this column has been different from the one that appeared here for some 20 years. I know you noticed, because I’ve received many emails about the new photo; some positive, others not. The “nots” have a good reason. “It looks as if you’ve aged overnight,” one of those complainers emailed me. It does look that way, but I can assure everybody that as the years went by the aging happened naturally. The photo just confirms the reality.
The original photo was even older than the origins of this column. It was taken for the cover of a book I had written back in the 1980s, and (full disclosure) even then had been retouched. Over the years I had thought from time to time about replacing it, but somehow never got around to it — too busy, too lazy, dissatisfied with other photos taken of me for other books. Or, well, let’s be honest here, simply too vain. It was nice to be seen as forever young even as the pages of the calendar flipped over. Only after an undiplomatic diplomat at a Jewish organizational event looked shocked at meeting the real me and barked, “You better change that photo,” did I get serious about doing so.
Jewish Week photographer Michael Datikash took this picture at The Jewish Week Gala dinner in December, and the editors quickly made the switch. (They’d probably been too polite to suggest it themselves all these years.) Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it’s led me to some thoughts about aging and vanity. Most of us try to look as young as we can, especially in a society that values youth as much as ours does. For women in particular, the models we see in magazines, the stars of movies and television, the gazillion-dollar women’s cosmetics market all proclaim that beauty goes with youth. Actually it’s not a new message or one confined to contemporary life. In the Book of Esther, all the candidates to replace the beautiful Queen Vashti are young maidens who spend a year in King Ahaseurus’ harem being treated with oils and cosmetics before appearing before the sovereign. Nobody comments on how he looks and nobody cares, but the women all need to be young and beautiful.
So, yes, many of us make an effort to look as young and attractive as we can, even as the bloom of youth fades from our cheeks. That doesn’t mean, however, that we reject aging or are miserable because of it. I have found something quite satisfying in growing older (assuming, of course, that one remains healthy). We may not become wiser with age, but the experiences we’ve accumulated give us a perspective we didn’t have earlier. We can shrug off a slight that may have devastated us at another time, or laugh about an embarrassment that would have sent us into hiding. At the same time, because of medical advances, better nutrition and more exercise (oy, I’m not so good at that one), as we age today, we can remain more energetic and more engaged in work and social activities than any generation before ours.
At the 40th anniversary of the publication of “Free to Be You and Me,” produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation, and which I had edited, I said that if we were preparing the book today I would add a piece called “Grandparents are People” to parallel the “Parents are People” one in it now. That piece celebrated the diversity of careers mothers as well fathers could pursue. This one would show that many grandparents are as busy as ever with their work, hobbies, or newfound interests. Forget about bubbes with aprons and hair buns; the often glamorous-looking grandmas of today have limited time to spend baking or babysitting.
But here’s the thing about being a grandparent today: because of our wide-ranging interests, we are able to be more involved with our grandchildren than previous generations. I loved my grandparents, but I could not communicate with them because they spoke only Yiddish. Generations now communicate via texts, emails or Skype, and in lively personal conversations. Often better educated than their own parents were, many grandparents today play an active part in their grandchildren’s lives, discussing their schoolwork, advising them on careers, bolstering their confidence. And Jewishly, they are better equipped to pass along their values through the example of their lives and the relationships they build with the grandkids.
Old age may be no place for sissies, as Bette Davis said, but on the way to it, there’s still plenty to celebrate. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this photograph. I probably won’t change it for another 20 years.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.