The Oldest Woman in the Room: A Feminist Life Lesson from my Mother
Back in the Stone Age of the early 1980s when people still relied on landlines, I was a latchkey kid who often answered the phone for my parents before they got home from work. A six p.m. call was always for my people-person workaholic mom—never for my dad, a workaholic in the computer field with the social grace of Attila the Hun.
My mother Jeanette, who died in 2007, was an event planner and fundraiser. She organized elaborate dinners celebrating well-known women for philanthropies, and she often gave out our home phone number to her most valuable contacts.
Once I took a call from silent film star Lillian Gish who seemed pretty talkative to me. Did I know how much she enjoyed her long conversations with Jeanie? I also took a message from famously difficult hotel owner Leona Helmsley who was a model of positivity when she called, asking if my “sweet mother” was around. How had my mother charmed even the lady the tabloids called the Queen of Mean?
“The oldest woman in the room is often the most interesting person in a room,” Mom would often say. “Talk to her. Don’t ignore her. Ask her real questions. Befriend her, and learn.”
Years after my mother’s death, I still make a point to sit next to any stranded aged females at parties or conferences.
Two of the more inspiring women I’ve known in my lifetime were met in this manner.
Nena O’Neill was an anthropologist who, with her husband George O’Neill, co-authored the 1972 bestseller Open Marriage: A New LifeStyle for Couples—a book which got Nena and her husband on numerous talk shows including The Mike Douglas Show. When I first met Nena, she had been sitting on a couch, looking frail, and maybe even a bit angry. I sat next to her, and introduced myself. She told me she had been invited to the party we were at as a older relative out of respect, and had been sitting by herself for half an hour before anyone came over to talk to her. Her manner changed when I asked her about her life, and she had me enthralled with her phenomenally impressive adventures in multiple continents, and some of the issues she had faced in her own open marriage that made her regret becoming a poster child for the movement. We became very good friends after this event, and I later interviewed her on camera. (She died at 82 in 2006, receiving a lengthy New York Times obituary.)
Almost the identical situation occurred at a Christmas party a few years later when I met a stylishly-dressed elderly woman whom my (well-trained) husband had engaged with when he’d seen her standing alone; he’d walked over to her to ask about her eye-catching twisted wire choker. “My wife will also find you very interesting,” Paul said by way of introduction.
I did. Gisela von Eicken was a prominent self-taught art jewelry designer whose work was featured at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). She told me she had lost her love, and hated going to parties alone without her partner of 20 years—a popular double bass player named Fred Hopkins. But with a drink Paul brought her in hand, she explained all about how she’d hit on her signature jewelry style by twisting wires with extra energy and pent-up frustration. Over coffee later that month she shared many stories of her interracial romance in mid-century New York that only someone who lived it could pass on with authority. Paul and I were with Gisela the week she died, and will long feel her impact on our lives.
“Women lose power as they get older. Men are seen as gaining experience and being distinguished,” Gloria Steinem once said. How sadly true. Sometimes we don’t even see how we treat the older women in our families as not having anything to add.
Recently, when moving my widowed and disabled nonagenarian father into my New York apartment, I discovered a long lost tape in a drawer at his Florida retirement condo he once shared with my mother. I’d forgotten that I’d long ago recorded the life history of my elderly grandmother, a tiny woman who I often had to be talked into visiting because I had nothing much to say to her after we hugged. I quickly had the precious 1978 tape digitalized and, to my shock, I listened to my twelve-year-old self interviewing Grandma Fannie about her escape to America at thirteen from an arranged marriage to a much older relative in the old country. This startling tale became a long feature story informed by a first person account. I wish I could take credit for thinking to interview my then eighty-eight-year-old grandmother, but of course it was my feminist mother who knew best. Grandma was not boring at all; I was just unenlightened.