Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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Coco Chanel, the French designer who first put women into menswear and promoted simplicity in expensive style, liberated modern women from the tyranny of restrictive clothing. Although the underpinnings of starched brassieres and girdles lingered into the 1960s, easy and relaxed clothing had made their mark. When Mary Quant made the miniskirt, the stocking and panties together — pantyhose — became a necessary and enabled us to toss out those hated and restrictive undergarments for good.

Although Chanel is reputed to have lied repeatedly about her age, lopping 10 years off when she felt like it, she is responsible for one of the great quotes about women and aging: “A woman has the age she deserves.”

It’s the kind of thought that warms this woman’s heart — that the women you care for are always younger in spirit and in looks while the ones you don’t care for never age well. That’s why living well is always the best revenge, because living well means looking well. And living well means eating well. Not junk food, not fast food, but real food.

And that’s especially important if you are, like me, a woman “of a certain age,” or as the French say, “une femme d’un certain age.”

The late William Safire, writing in the New York Times magazine in 1995, gave the etymology of the phrase, but, as was his habit, went further than just its beginnings. He quoted the psychotherapist, Lillian Rubin, whose 1979 book, Women Of A Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self, in which Dr. Rubin posited midlife being from the ages from 35 to 54.

(Guess I missed the cutoff date by more than 10 years, but who’s counting?)

In response to Safire’s question, the author “was surprised to learn of the long English history of the phrase” which has come to be applied to spinsters. (Someone explain to me why “spinster” has such an ugly connotation, when “bachelor,” the male equivalent, is such a compliment?)

“The early use in English,” writes Safire, “seems to be about spinsterhood, but the French meaning has nothing to do with marriage.”

“In France,” writes Safire, the phrase “has erotically or sexually charged overtones.” He quotes Dr. Rubin: “It comes from a society where sexuality is freer, and more understood as an important part of human life.”

Well, that seems to be more interesting that just being some post-menopausal grandmother, isn’t it? Maybe the French are onto something — take the actress Jeanne Moreau’s quip: “Age does not protect you from love, but love to some extent protects you from age.”

There may be some irony in that this month (January 10) is the 39th anniversary of Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, that number being the metaphor for any age beyond young adulthood. Jack Benny, the late comedian and one of television’s pioneer sit-com stars, made 39 a standing joke. A friend once sent out invitations to the 11th celebration of his 39th birthday, making him, of course, 50 years old.

But this January also marks a significant birthday for my niece, Alexandra Ford, who still has a long way to go before she ever needs worry about being of a certain age, or ever needs to worry about her looks.

When we missed the pre-Christmas “baking day” this year, Alex suggested we bake her a January birthday cake. She turns 21 in 2010 — there’s a certain attractive symmetry to those numbers — but in reality, 21 doesn’t mean much these days. Still, Alex has persuaded her father that 21 is a significant enough number for her to be treated to a trip someplace warm, away from the ice and snow, free from parkas and snow boots, mittens and scarves.

The “age of majority” now is 18, unlike when I “became” an adult.

In 1965, turning 21 really meant something — legal drinking and all that. Because my birthday fell on a Friday, a working day, I didn’t make it home to my parents until Saturday.

My father, whose birthday fell on October 7, the day before mine, decided that he and I would celebrate our birthdays by visiting various Red Deer bars, now that I was “legal.” I remember walking with him into the Capri Hotel lounge, where Dad greeted the bartender by saying: “Tony, you know my older daughter, Catherine, right?” Tony nodded, said hello to me, and Dad then announced: “Well, this is the first time you can legally serve her.”

Tony visible blanched. Dad laughed uproariously. He knew, of course, that I was no stranger to the local establishments. By the luck of the draw I had looked older than my age from about 13, so not getting asked for proof of age in bars wasn’t so surprising.

I blame my late father for my many such failings of proper respect for authority and “the rules.” He bristled when told without an adequate explanation that he couldn’t do something or other. Bob Ford had a healthy and lively disrespect for self-appointed moralists, for the stolid and self-righteous, and for the priggish burghers of whatever town he was in. Me, too, Dad, me too.

(I also “blame” him for my ability to spell. My mother almost unfailingly spelled rye “rhy” and Quebec with a “k.” It is curious that those with a scientific bent of mind, including my mother (who was a whiz at algebra and logic) and my husband (whose undergraduate degree was a BSc in mathematics) have almost a stereotypically difficult time with spelling. Go ahead, ask Ted to spell “hamburger.” Don’t be surprised if it comes out with two “e”s or two “u”s.)

I was 17 years old and a cocky student at the University of Alberta when my father announced that when he was that age, he would regularly sneak into bars and beer parlours, regardless of the Methodist demeanor of his own father for whom liquor was the devil’s brew.

Trust me, I had no intentions of emulating him, but on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton one Saturday afternoon in spring, I walked into a restaurant and took a wrong turn at the bottom of the stairs. That right turn, into the lounge instead of into the restaurant, led me to order a Singapore Sling when asked what I wanted to drink. It was the only alcoholic drink I could think of at the time. I wasn’t old enough or brave enough to try my father’s Scotch, figuring it might have the same effect on me that inhaling one of his Buckingham cigarettes did — a near-fainting spell.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that a sickly sweet drink with a cherry and a chunk of pineapple on top must contain way too many calories. That’s when I started looking for liquor that wouldn’t “cost” me more than 100 calories a drink. As I grew older, I eventually switched to Scotch and water, but only after years of drinking rye and diet ginger ale. Just because you’re on a restricted calorie program is no reason you have to give up socializing or give up liquor.

But just because I looked older, didn’t mean I wanted to take too many chances with the law. Just in case, all through university I’d cadge some identification from an older friend (years before Alberta driver’s licenses came with a photograph of the bearer) and waltz off to whatever beer parlour or lounge was the venue for the evening. One of the treats of gender-specific drinking establishments was that the guys had to bring a girl with them in order to get into the Ladies and Escorts side of the beer parlour. If they didn’t want to be forced to drink with all the rubbies moaning into their draught beer, they had to be accompanied by women. It wasn’t until 1967 that Alberta allowed men and women unrestricted access to equality in beer drinking.

The only time I came close to being busted (and I had visions of being hauled off by a policeman) was in the Riviera Hotel beer parlour where all 10 of us young women living together off the University of Alberta campus had gone for the express purpose of “replenishing” our household’s stock of glasses, i.e. stealing some.

We figured we could each order two draught beer at a time and when the table was filled with empty glasses, slip a few (a dozen or so) into our purses with nobody noticing. The plan worked spectacularly, with only one glitch: while we were busy filling our giant purses with glasses, we were asked individually for identification. The bouncer began with the girl seated to my left and, miraculously, ended with the oldest of our group, Shirli, who was seated on my right. He missed me completely.

At the time, I was 19, the only one under 21, the only one under the legal drinking age. To this day I have no idea why the bouncer didn’t ask me to prove my age.

Now, I’m delighted if someone asks me to prove I’m a senior when I ask for a reduced price.

And the stolen beer glasses? The self-righteous landlady threw them all out when she discovered we had filled her kitchen cupboard with examples of our disreputable behavior: the drinking, not the stealing.

NEXT: It wasn’t the hare who won the race, it was the tortoise, or in this case, the snail.


Written by Catherine Ford

January 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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