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Laugh Lines and Long Life

Humorist tells the truth about aging gracefully.

by Judy Gruen (GJ86)

I come from a long line of women who lied about their ages. When I was 16, my grandmother admitted in a hushed tone that she had been "only 22" when she married. "Too young," she warned me with a sigh, though I don't know why it was too young, as she and my grandfather were happily married for 50 years. Actually, Nana had married at 23 but was too embarrassed at her "old maid" status to confess it.

Years later, on the day when my Aunt Eleanor passed away from cancer, her grief-stricken husband said in disbelief, "She was only 53!" My mother and I exchanged horrified looks. We knew that Eleanor was 55 — a fact she had coyly kept from her husband.

My Nana and Aunt Eleanor weren't the only ones to fudge the numbers. My paternal grandmother did the same thing, with disastrous results. When my grandfather learned that she had been lying about her age for more than 20 years and was in fact several years his senior, he divorced her.

On one hand, I find all this "fuzzy math" by my grandmothers and aunt amusing. Why bother shaving off one year, as my Nana did? Or even two years, as my Aunt Eleanor did? (I have no idea how many years my other grandmother knocked off, but I bet it was a lot more.) On the other hand, as women they had very real fears that owning up to their ages would have kept them from the altar.

Youth, especially in women, has always been prized. Today's obsession with being young or at least looking young has made people even in their 40s and 50s worry about whether they will be considered "too old" for jobs in certain industries. (One woman I know, not even 40, deleted the year of her college graduation from her résumé, certain it would work against her in job interviews.) A popular women's magazine, whose stated purpose is to celebrate the vitality and boldness of women over 40, air brushes all signs of aging off its cover celebrities. None of these "bold," 40-plus women is allowed to look a day over 30 — if that.

Although I've never shied from revealing my age, signs of my own aging dismay me, too. I can no longer easily twist myself into those impossibly elastic positions during Pilates class, but that's something only my instructor and I need to know. And that telltale loss of collagen and the inexorable pull of gravity on the rest of me? I'd need a hefty cosmetic surgery budget to hide that.

Still, there's a lot to be said for growing older. For one, it sure beats the alternative. Second, I like the confidence that is the gift of experience and the serenity of knowing that life's dumbest mistakes are behind me (at least, I'm fairly sure). I'm comforted that while I've suffered painful losses, I believe there is a purpose for everything, even when it's beyond my understanding, and the next time I face a loss, my faith will see me through.

It's also exciting to live in a time when so many people live vital, productive and meaningful lives well into their 80s and 90s. Historian Jacques Barzun published a 900-page book, From Dawn to Decadence, in 2000, when he was 92. (He celebrated his centennial birthday last year.) And as a humor writer, I'm delighted at how many humorists have been blessed to live to very ripe ages: George Burns made it to 100; Phyllis Diller is still cracking jokes at 90; Art Buchwald was sent to a hospice to die at age 80 but didn't, so he did what came naturally — he wrote a funny book about it and passed away at 81.

Of course we all know that laughter is good for the body and the soul — "inner jogging," as Norman Cousins called it. So I'm not going to even bother trying to fib about my age. I'd rather keep laughing, even if the laugh lines on my face will probably clue you in that I'm … take a guess!

Judy Gruen (GJ86) is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her latest book, The Women's Daily Irony Supplement (Creative Minds Press, 2007), was named ForeWord Magazine's book of the year in humor.

We're always on the lookout for fresh alumni insights. If you'd like to submit an essay, see our guidelines for Purple Prose submissions.

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