The last day of Women’s History Month. Thanks for riding along with me. I’ve decided to end the month with a piece called, appropriately, The End. I’ve been writing a lot about the issues that women deal with, but most of them are younger women. We hear a lot about younger women because their problems are severe, the sorts of things that make good news - sexual assault, for instance. Today I decided to end the month by looking at an older woman. Older women have a pretty major set of issues to deal with too, one of them being invisibility, but because they are invisible, and because they are not sexy, and because they are not life-threatening problems but only humiliating and degrading, we tend not to notice. They aren’t good news and they don’t seem earth shattering. But in the end, the problems of older women are symptomatic of the problems of women in society in general. They come from the same wellspring of sexism and contempt that the problems of younger women come from, and there often are serious issues that arise around older women. Today, though, I decided not to let my darkest instincts loose. I settled for a story about a woman who has reached a turning point.
In the future, however, now that I have broken into the world of women closer to my own age, I will likely explore some of the more frightening issues faced by older women. Because I will be back. Next year, this challenge will open anew, on March 1, 2020. If time and muse permit, there may be further posts here during the months between now and then. If so, I hope you will continue to follow the adventures of woman.
Kathleen locked the door of her office for the last time, resisting the urge for one last look around. There wasn’t anything left to see. All her things, her special touches accumulated over the years, were packed and in her car. It was just a bare office now, a desk and some assorted bookshelves and cabinets, ready for her successor. If she started down nostalgia lane, she would never make the party. It wasn’t good to be late when you were the guest of honor. Everyone would be waiting.
The party was in full swing when she got to the gym, now festooned with crepe paper streamers and balloons. There was a large table in the middle of the room, groaning with snack food, and a cake festooned with the names of the retirees. She groaned when she saw it; they got her name wrong, again. Forty years she worked here, and they still couldn’t manage to spell her name. She used her little finger to scoop out the touch of frosting that made up the h; there, Voigt, just like it had been all her life, just like it was on her personnel records, on her transcripts, her social security card, everything. Now it was her.
The president of the college was gearing up to make a speech. Of course. No matter what the occasion, he felt obligated to speak…and he loved it. He demanded the center of attention even at ceremonies honoring other people. Oh, well, she supposed that was part of his job, and he could speak all he wanted to. It didn’t bother her at all. He stood before the microphone, hands in pockets, and gave that little pause that was his signature. Everyone stopped talking and waited. No one would get cake until they heard him speak.
He read the speech he – or someone – had prepared for the occasion, thanking the retirees for all their years of hard work, their commitment to education, their devotion to the institution, and their perseverance in the face of everything. Yeah, yeah, boiler plate, standard. The audience fidgeted. They wanted this part to be over so they could politely rush the refreshment table. They were murmuring about having it in the gym where they couldn’t have the open bar that had been typical at these events in the past, but Kathleen was glad. She hated the drunken camaraderie that characterized retirement parties; the no bar policy was the only good thing to come out of the conservative approach of the new administration.
The list of names was lengthy, and Kathleen would be at the end of the alphabetical list, just in front of Herbert Wilson, the Philosophy professor someone had finally noticed was nearly ninety and forced to retire. The crowd clapped politely for each name, a few catcalls and whistles for particular friends, and the list droned on. Kathleen strained to hear; she wanted to hear her name on this distinguished list, a list she had earned the right to be on, and she knew it would go by in a flash if she wasn’t careful. Leonard Upton…Herbert Wilson…wait! Had he skipped her? Or had it been alphabetized by some work study student who had failed third grade and still managed to find their way into college? She kept her ears tuned, but her name never came.
Stunned, she worked her way toward the front of the room, straining against the crowd that was moving the other way, toward the refreshment table. She nearly collided with Dyana Fors, the new Biology assistant professor – well, new if three years counted as new.
“Dr. Voigt!” Dyana had the not-quite-endearing habit of addressing the older professors by their title when they were in a formal gathering. “I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t see you when we all came over.”
“I was finishing up in my office.” Kathleen paused, realizing that was the last time those words, my office, would apply to her.
“Oh. I suppose you’ll be retiring soon? Maybe, what, five, ten more years? I guess you’re probably about…what, 58 now?”
Kathleen wasn’t sure whether to thank the woman for the compliment, or whether she should realize that to this woman in her early thirties there was little difference between a 58 year old woman and a 68 year old woman. They were just…old. “I…excuse me, can we talk in a bit? I need to see someone.”
Kathleen moved toward the head of human resources, Daniel Berberry, and extended her hand. “Mr. Berberry, I was…shocked…not to hear my name on the list. I thought all my paperwork was in order?”
The man looked at her, peering through his glasses as though meeting someone for the first time. “What? Oh, Dr…Voigt? Yes, of course, you are officially retired as soon as you leave today. Why? Is there a problem?”
“My name…my name wasn’t on the list. You know, the one the president read?”
“Oh, well, that’s just an oversight. There’s nothing official about that list, it’s just a formality, a nice little touch to honor those who have served so long and so well. We do appreciate your service, and I’m sure it was just a typo by our busy work study.”
Kathleen nodded, moving toward the crowd with a feeling of nausea in her gut. All these years of service, and she was reduced to “just a typo”. She bumped into one of the women standing around the table, and was grabbed in a bear hug with a huge apology from the wife of one of the other retirees.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have been standing in the walking path. Oh, I don’t…know you? Whose wife are you?”
Kathleen mumbled something, perhaps her name and job title, but by this time she was getting angry. She realized that all the other names on the retiree list were male; at the time she started, she was the first woman professor they had hired. She was not the first that retired, since she had stayed several years past when she was eligible to retire, but she was the only one in that group this year. She tried to remember past retirement parties. She didn’t remember the women being left off, but then, she hadn’t paid such close attention. She had been among the crowd just waiting for it to be over so she could go.
Kathleen moved through the crowd, no one wishing her well except for the one lone professor in their department, the strange one who taught Ichthyology and mumbled about fish all the time, who seemed to be the only one who remembered she was retiring…or even her name, she thought, as no one turned to greet her, to say goodbye, or to even notice she was present. She decided to just make her departure, not stay for cake or conversation, especially since all the conversation seemed to be passing her by. As she started to leave, a giant cheer arose, and she turned. A group was lifting Herbert Wilson high in the air, congratulating him for the number of papers he had written and the amount of money he had brought into the school through grants and other means. The president had just announced that he held an all time high.
Kathleen was stunned. The president announced both the number of published papers and the amount of money brought in – probably an all time high for Philosophy, she thought, but she, in Genetics, had brought in several times that amount. And her papers exceeded his by five. She said something to the woman standing next to her, an administrative assistant from their department who had been a good friend, and was gently rebuked. “Now, you don’t need to say anything, dear. You know how men can’t stand to be shown up by a woman. Just let him have his little celebration.”
The day was over for her. The job was over. Even the celebration was over. She apparently hadn’t been invited. Someone named Dr. Voight was retiring, not Dr. Kathleen Voigt, who’s name had been misspelled, and who’s first name hadn’t been included on the cake, who had not been on the list of retirees honored from the rostrum, and who hadn’t had her accomplishments noticed because it might make the men feel uncomfortable. She headed for her car and escaped from the world that she had been part of, apparently unnoticed, for forty years.
Her mailbox was stuffed when she got home. Someone had remembered she was retiring…the AARP. Actually, since they had started sending her pamphlets when she was 35, they might not be aware of her retirement, either. It was just another exhortation to join. She pitched it in the trash and started cooking dinner.
Lori called while she was washing dishes. “Mom?”
Kathleen acknowledged being her mother. “What is it, dear? I’m doing dishes. Can I call you back later?”
“Mom, come on. Dishes can wait. I’m your only daughter, remember?”
“Yes, and Danny is my only son. When he calls, I’ll be ready for bed…probably in bed. He never remembers the time difference.”
Lori laughed. “Don’t be cranky, Mom. I’m calling to congratulate you. Finally, you retired. It was past due.”
“Did you need something?” Kathleen tried not to let her petulance show. After all, Lori wasn’t the one who had snubbed her today. “I’m sorry. It’s just…been a…rough day, that’s all.”
“I guess it’s tough leaving life behind, and all that. That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Kathleen didn’t point out to her daughter, who should know better, that life was more than just work. Oh, yes, her work had been important and interesting, but she had always had hobbies and other interests.
“What do you plan to do now, Mom?” The tone in Lori’s voice didn’t sound like casual interest. It was tense, on edge.
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought…since my life is over, maybe I’d just go to bed tonight and not get up…Seriously, honey, I’m going to do the things I always did when I wasn’t working. And a lot of others I wanted to do but didn’t have time for.”
Lori drew in her breath. She seemed to be gearing up for something. “Well, Mom, Danny and I have been talking, and we thought…well, we thought…it’s best if you…you know, move closer to one of us.”
“Lori, I’m only seven miles from you. And I am not moving closer to Danny. I hate Arkansas.”
“You hate an entire state? C’mon, Mom, that’s not rational.”
“Well, I hate the idea of living there. I want to stay near the ocean. I want to live in my own home.”
Lori didn’t speak for several seconds. Kathleen waited. This was a conversation she had been dreading, sidestepping the idea of her going into a retirement home every time Lori tried to broach it over the past year, ever since she started planning for retirement. She was still healthy and had no need of assistance. She could stay in her home for some time now.
“Mom, we’ve talked about it. You know you don’t need so much space.”
“I’m going to buy more books. Your father’s den would make a great library.” It was the first time since Scott’s death that she’d been able to mention him without crying. She took it as a good sign.
“Don’t joke, Mom. I’m serious. I mean, what if you, like, broke a leg or something? What if you, I don’t know, had a heart attack when no one was there?”
“I could get one of those silly things they used to advertise on TV and shout ‘Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’ Someone would come rescue me.”
“Stop joking. I’m serious. I’m worried about you. All alone there, no one to take care of, no one to talk to, no one to look after you…”
Kathleen snorted. “What about you? Living in that apartment, all alone there, no one to take care of, no one to talk to, no one to look after you?”
“Don’t be silly. I’m not…” Lori stopped, just in time.
“You’re not what? Old? You are in your forties, my girl, not a teenager any more, and just entering the phase of your life where everyone is going to do to you like you, and everyone else, has been doing to me for twenty years. You are going to become invisible. No one is going to hear you when you speak. Everyone is going to treat you like a child. I just this morning drove myself to work at a very responsible job, put a genetics lab in final order to hand over to the new instructor, and packed up all my things without any assistance, and I managed not to break a single bone. No one stopped by to help. No one stopped by to wish me luck, even. I became so invisible that no one bothered to note at the retirement party that the first woman ever hired in the Science department was retiring after forty years. This is what waits for you, and not too long, my darling. If your father had still been alive, at least one person would have stood beside me, applauding, and someone who’s voice would have been heard when he protested the ‘typo’ that left my name off the list, and that elevated another person to the status that was rightfully mine – the most published papers, and the most money brought into the school. So don’t you call me old, or I will turn you over my knee and spank you. I still can, you know.”
“Mom, I didn’t mean that. Wow. They didn’t notice you? They didn’t even say your name?”
“Well, they had a name on the cake. It was almost my name, but my first name was missing. All the others…Herbert Wilson, who hasn’t been able to teach a class for ten years because he is senile…he got noticed. His name was on the cake, and spelled right, I might add.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I did. I was told I was left off because of a ‘typo’. No one cares about an old woman, dear. You’ll be learning that soon. No matter what you do, no matter how you do it, you will still be past any earthly use when you are not interesting to men any more.”
Lori was crying. Kathleen thought about comforting her, but she decided to let it soak in for a minute. She would learn the hard way soon enough. She would be 45 in another year, and would soon become invisible…or a ball buster. Any woman strong enough and intelligent enough and determined enough to still be working and achieving after the age of forty, Kathleen had learned, became a ‘ball buster’ simply for having the guts to stick around. She had been shocked the first time that word was applied to her, someone as far from busting balls as anyone she knew, but over time she had learned to wear it with pride.
“Here’s what I’ll do, Lori. I’ll go visit the senior citizen apartments, and take a tour. I will select one of them that I like, and when the day really comes when I cannot live easily in my home, I will allow you and Danny to move me to that space. But I will not, cannot, move there at this time. And I am still in possession of all my faculties, so if you are thinking about having me committed to your care, well, think again, my dear child, because I will not go gentle into that good night.”
“Dylan Thomas.” Lori stopped crying and responded true to her nature. She had introduced her mother to Dylan Thomas years ago, when she was only thirteen and had encountered the Welsh poet in an obscure book hidden in the corner of the library where she had hidden from the older boys who had realized she now had a woman’s body. She had fallen in love immediately. Dylan Thomas was the only man her independent daughter had ever fallen in love with, though she did have a string of boyfriends, and probably had someone she dated now, just not important enough to introduce him to her mother. “Okay, Mom, you know you can always win an argument by quoting Dylan Thomas at me. I give.”
“You know I can handle Danny.”
Kathleen did know. Lori had never had a moment’s worry with her older brother. From the day she was born, she had been able to twist Danny around her little finger.
The call over, the dishes washed and put away, Kathleen settled in for the evening. Tonight she was going to start on that new project she’d always wanted to do. She was going to write a play. She took out paper and pencil, unable to bring herself to do her writing at the computer, and settled down to write. She had never thought getting older, her children leaving home, or even her beloved husband dying were the end of her life. Why should retirement be the end? No, she thought, this is not the end. This is the beginning of a rich new life.