Graciela sits atop my right bicep. She is a tattoo of a seahorse the size of my palm. She has an eye trimmed with a thick lash, a rose-colored tail that twists to the left and a crown of swirly arrows. Three times a day, I carefully lather my fresh tattoo with antibacterial soap and pat her dry. I grin as I perform this procedure, as if I were a postpartum mom tending to my newborn child.
My tattoo is a gift I recently gave myself as I approach my 80th birthday, which falls on Aug. 10. It is also a reward I bestowed on myself after finally learning to swim just one year ago.
One might think, with my wrinkled face and gray hair, I would have instead turned to cosmetic surgery to mark my upcoming milestone birthday ― wouldn’t that make me more youthful? Wouldn’t a face-lift help attract a swain? But after a first marriage that ended in divorce and second in widowhood ― not to mention the cushy contentment I experience in my current single life ― I’ve decided not to go that chancy route. (And if the grimaces given by guys my age are a true indication of how they feel about tattoos, I may just stay happily single forever.)
I have never been envious of friends who chose to have their foreheads planed, their eyelids lifted or their cheeks enhanced. That’s their call. It’s the “elective” part of these elective procedures that has always put me off. Why enter a hospital willingly, I think to myself. I’ll wait until a dire discovery demands admission.
The anxiety of the anesthesia-free procedure I elected to have was eased because Graciela is my second tattoo. As a longtime admirer of the art and boldness of others with tattoos, I decided to mark my 60th birthday with a tribute to my two daughters. So, I got a piece on my left bicep featuring a heart, musical notes and their names, Faith and Jill. I saw it as a way to honor my children, whom I continue to cherish and celebrate for their talents and their audacity.
At the time, I saw my tattoo as thumbing my nose at society. While that “who cares what people think” attitude still holds true, there are several additional reasons I’ve opted to place a second painting on my person.
At 4 feet, 9 inches and about 100 pounds, I can easily get lost in a crowd. And when not hidden, my size coupled with my age often attracts comments like, “You’re so cute!” While my flatterers believe they are being complimentary, I hear something else ― something that further diminishes me, as if I were a kitten or pup instead of a smart, capable, independent woman.
So now in my 80th year, instead of again applauding my daughters with an inked tribute, I’m attempting to use my tattoo to start a dialogue about ageism and how women my age are seen and treated. I worry that some women in my cohort are the biggest offenders. Why do they refuse to offer their age when asked? Why do they feel the need to change the way they look? What does that say about how we feel about ourselves? Why do so many choose to deceive or alter, rather than be proud of, our years?
Of course, I realize that when applying for a job, filling out a profile on an online dating site or considering countless other situations and opportunities, younger individuals ― or those who look younger ― are often favored and that can cause many older people to fudge their ages and their appearances. But instead of accepting those barriers, why not work to bulldoze them?
Maybe my new tattoo also helps reveal a story about my life. When asked as to its meaning, I explain that the seahorse is a symbol announcing “it’s never too late to reach your goals,” a message I consider vital to older people. You see swimming has not been my only long-held ambition ― there are two others that have taken me a similar amount of time, teachers and tenacity to achieve: I can now converse haltingly in Spanish (Graciela means “grace” in that language), and I can play Rodgers and Hart on the piano.
“Why do some women refuse to offer their age when asked? Why do they feel the need to change the way they look? What does that say about how we feel about ourselves? Why do so many choose to deceive or alter, rather than be proud of, our years?”
Admittedly, all three of these skills require daily practice, which I do willingly. My target is not proficiency; I’m content with mediocrity. I will never compete in the Senior Olympics or may not ever master any stroke other than the crawl, but I’m gratified that I can swim and breathe on one side in water that is not over my head. I’m also OK that in conversations with Spanish-speaking people, I often have to request, “por favor repita lentamente,” or “can you please repeat that again.” And when I’m bent over the piano, I allow no audience ― it’s just me playing standards in my blow-by-blow rhythm with my breezy voice as accompaniment.
And the marvelous thing about all of these pursuits is that a face-lift wouldn’t enhance any one of them. My pool, queridas amigas (dear friends), and my piano accept me exactly as I am ― wrinkled, gray-haired, old, tattooed and agradecido (grateful).
Elaine Soloway is the author of The Division Street Princess, She’s Not The Type, Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss, and Bad Grandma and Other Chapters in a Life Lived Out Loud. Soloway has four successful and widely read blogs, and most recently has seen aspects of her life immortalized on the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning show “Transparent,” which is produced and written by her daughters, Jill and Faith Soloway.