June 3, 2010


Browsing through one of my picture magazines this morning, I came upon a photograph of Jennifer Aniston and below it were the words, “America’s aging sweetheart.”  The writer meant to hurt and as I am old enough to be Jennifer’s mother, I took umbrage. As far as I know, the actress’s major offenses are that she’s unlucky in love and recently starred in a movie that did poorly at the box office. 

I set the magazine aside and began to think about words like “old” and “aging” and their power to injure. A lot of pejoratives fly around these days. I see them in the tabloids at the grocery store, hear them on talk radio, and read about their destructive potential as text messages.  

In the ‘good old days,’ harsh words were confined to occasional shouting matches or to letters which, after they’d been committed to paper and stuffed into an envelope, meant enough time had passed for the anger to dissipate. Those hateful words were seldom sent. 

Of course, I had to ask myself, why the word aging should make me bristle on Jennifer’s behalf. We’re all aging, even the writer who scribbled the accusation.

But that’s the wonder of language, isn’t it? We can give words a power beyond their definitions.

What’s wrong with aging, anyway? To become old is to have survived most of life’s challenges and probably to have done so with optimism, ingenuity and resilience.  Wrinkles don’t signify time’s passage alone. They can be evidence of a life well lived.

Thinking about aging reminded me to call a friend, a retired journalist and a man I’ve known for almost 30 years. He’s in his eighties now, using a walker to get around and facing the prospect of coping with failing kidneys. I asked how he was and his answer surprised me. “I’m about to start a new job,” he chuckled. Then he explained he’d signed on as a freelance writer for an internet news service. For several minutes, I listened to his list of projects, the stories he was going to write. His voice was strong and full of delight, like a boy’s laughter when he discovers sea urchins on the beach. Even the anticipation of writing made him happy. By the time his wife called him to lunch, I was smiling.

Putting down my receiver, I acknowledged that words can hurt. But they can also give purpose to a long life.