After joining this group, I started pondering the advantages of being 71. I couldn’t think of any to start with! Last year, I went to a Blondie concert with my daughter and her friends and although Blondie is my age, the crowd was all my daughter’s age, mid-forties because they grew up in the 1970s and 80s listening to her music. They are from a different generation.
I was feeling a bit glum and a bit like an old fogey. I couldn’t stand for hours and my daughter found me a chair so I could sit down, in between jigging to Blondie tunes.
So, what are the advantages of being in my 70s? For me, the biggest is having been alive in the 1950s, a totally different epoch.
I was born in 1947 in Prague, the illegitimate daughter of a Ukrainian refugee. We escaped the Communist regime and ended up in Australia, the only place in the world who would take a Ukrainian single mother and child. Having read the horrors of what happened in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s (copying the terror of Stalinist Russia of the 1930s), I am extremely grateful that my mother risked everything to get us out.
Although Australia was gripped by its own version of McCarthyism and was a puppet state of the USA, I experienced the many positive sides of the 1950s. No one locked their houses, no one had a car, TV or telephone. I walked to school (twenty minutes away) often alone, from the age of 5. Later, I rode my bike – well into the 1960s – and never locked my bike anywhere. It didn’t even occur to me or anyone that someone might steal it. We as kids played in the street and rarely saw a car. I would occasionally listen to serials on the radio, and hardly ever went to the cinema. In the evening, I would read all sorts of books and dip into my trusty Arthur Mee encyclopaedia set. It wasn’t a happy childhood – my mother Olga did not survive the terrors of Stalinist Russia and of being a prisoner in Nazi Germany. She spent the last 17 years of her life incarcerated in a mental hospital, after being subjected to psychotropics, ECT and a lobotomy. These were the days when mental illness was misunderstood and treated as a scourge.That was extremely difficult to bear, but I benefitted from living in a relatively free society.
In 1957, I was riding my bike (not many people had lights in those days) on a dark road looking up at the starlit sky. Then I saw it – the first Sputnik. That was an amazing feeling – that Russian earthlings had put up a spacecraft and I could see it moving through the sky. Then crash, I ran over a man who was also staring fascinatedly upwards. I knocked him out. When he came to, he said: ‘Gosh, I just saw stars and a Sputnik!’
The 1950s were a lot slower. We waited in queues in shops, wielding our string bags and jiggling our coins, and everything was served in brown paper. At 14, I opened a bank account which I have kept to this day. The bank teller would enter my small amount of money in ink and add up the columns. It was all pounds, shillings and pence and when I worked in my stepfather’s delicatessen, I was really good at adding up long sums as well as working things out in pounds and ounces. SUGAR. We all so blithely ingested tons of sugar. I would drink a few cokes on a hot day from the refrigerated machine, which a Coca-Cola representative kindly installed in our shop, for free!! At home, we would drink strong Russian tea laden with sugar. Life was very sweet!! The upshot is that I have now developed diabetes.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Adelaide in 1954. I loved her dearly and thought she was the prettiest woman in the world. In fact, she was the Empress of a vast monolith. I proudly perused a world map, which was dominated by the red countries of the British Empire, where the sun never set. I felt like a privileged citizen of a vast, seemingly ordered world and basked in what was promulgated as an age of freedom. In the north of South Australia, was the Woomera Rocket Range, which we were told, was where Australia was keeping up with the Space Race. It was only when I was an adult that I discovered that nuclear bombs were secretly detonated there and that at times when the wind changed, and Adelaide was swathed in radioactive fallout. Of course, no attention was paid to the hapless Aboriginal inhabitants in the outback.
So, I am glad that I am as old as I am because I experienced a whole different world in the 1950s that was changed out of all recognition by the advent of the 60s and 70s. If I had been born much later, I would not have had that experience. I would have also missed the timing of the Beatles song, ‘She was Just 17’, which thrillingly, hit the Australian charts shortly after my 17th birthday.
I believe experiencing the 1950s has added a depth to my perception of life. Dare I say wisdom? I lived during a time when we were not bombarded by information technology and social media. The world was fine without those things – stretching out in a slow, peaceful and leisurely fashion. However, if you are immersed in modern technology the whole time, you can’t catch the effect it has on you. My daughter and her friends were born into a world of cars, phones, TVs, music tapes – they are like fish trying to see water; they are unaware of their immersion. They don’t know a world without the ever-present technology being used continuously.
Now I am in my 8th decade, I feel enriched by having lived in a totally different epoch. It has given me more of an overview – an ability to identify what is truly important. Like many people my age, I am horrified that people in restaurants look at their mobiles a lot more than at each other.
There are a lot of ‘Age is just a number’ slogans floating around the internet. I understand that these slogans are fending off societal attitudes to age, and rightly so. For me my age is an important number – it signifies a lot. Being 71, is a badge I wear proudly, despite my creaking bones. I am a baby-boomer who emerged from a dreadful dark age in history and survived, being an immigrant and the child of a traumatised mother. I won the freedom I have today, by dint of a lot of hard work on myself and truckloads of psychotherapy. I had to do it because I had a deeply painful legacy to unravel. I am grateful to be living in a time when there are a wealth of techniques to face our dark sides and not be run by them. My dear mother did not have that luxury.
I’m not crazy about my wrinkles but I take heart in a claim by a woman on Instagram who says of herself; ‘my wrinkles are my stripes’.