Refusing Invisibility

I remember a moment of pure, loyal, sad, focused outrage the first time I saw someone treat my mother—my lovely, smart, resilient, adventuresome, generous, imaginative mother—like a little old lady. The man at the customer service counter looked at her—or rather just past her—and spoke to her without seeing her. She was another inconspicuous woman of a certain age, rather sweet looking, ready to be friendly, but whose friendliness was likely to be a bore, and whose questions were likely to take up too much time, and be about matters that, if she thought at all, or had a husband at home to do her thinking for her, wouldn’t have had to bring her in here. He was short with her. He answered her questions in technical terms that seemed designed to intimidate. If I hadn’t intervened, she would simply have gone away, disheartened and a little humiliated.

She was a “little old lady.” Littler than I am by quite a bit–I got my height from my dad—and old—in her eighties—but of sound mind, sound sense of humor, rich in memory and observation. Only she was of a generation that had learned to be kind and courteous and—since she was female—compliant. I could see how “generic” she looked; her hair was grey and permed in a way no one under 60 would consider. Her dress was a modest print. She wore a cardigan over it, and nylons with sensible walking shoes. She carried a purse on her arm. She wore slightly glasses.

That she could also raise begonias in soil no one else thought would work, and make a jacket with covered buttons from scratch, and recite long passages from the King James Bible, and tell stories that spanned most of the century with delicious detail and still inspire roomsful of fifth-graders, not to mention adults who tagged along to listen, with her mission talks from India were things he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

I’d heard women observe before that at a certain age, women become invisible, but I hadn’t actually seen the moment of magic—the moment when, poof, they exited the field of vision. I’ve known women who have internalized that message—that you no longer matter, that you are no longer interesting, that you’d do best to stay home and watch Jeopardy and make tuna casserolds. They are hesitant and too pleasant. They defer in general conversation. The become, in fact, a little less interesting.

I like the bumper sticker that reminds me regularly, driving around the East Bay, that “Well behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a good message to offset several generations of conditioning. But the curious thing is that well-behaved women actually have made history. My mother’s best friend was just as lovely and smart and congenial as she; she was also a research biologist at Baylor and spent, for reasons still unclear to me, several inexplicable seasons in Brazil studying the 3-toed sloth.

I don’t intend to be invisible.

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