Posted in On Writing

Age

Whoever said age is just a number should be shot. Or boiled in hot oil. Or made to walk barefoot on sharp rocks until his feet bleed. You get the drift.

It’s taken me 43 years to finally get why people (especially women) lie about their age. It’s taken this long because as a writer, I’ve often wished I was older simply because most people with stories worth telling (in book form) are my father’s age or older. And their natural preference when it comes to putting their stories to paper is to deal with a peer, usually a professor of literature. Thinning grey hair, pot-bellied, perhaps walking with a slight stoop, fading eyesight and who vividly remembers Jomo Kenyatta.

Someone who can wax nostalgic about the booming voice and hard stare that reduced grown men to shivering, stuttering wrecks, unable to compose a coherent sentence. For me on the other hand, Jomo is just a face on a photograph that used to hang on the sitting room wall of our wooden house. The day he died, I remember tip toeing past it on the dark corridor barely lit by a weak moon on my way to the pit latrine, terrified as the distinguished man in the black and white photo followed me with his eyes. I was 6 years old and thought he could see me. Why do photos do that by the way? The trip back was even worse after encountering the darkness outside with shadows lurking everywhere and the sounds of the night- crickets chirping, frogs croaking, a dog barking far away, taking on an ominous undertone. I didn’t go outside at night for several days after that, deciding to hold it in until morning.

So with mostly people in their 70s and 80s needing memoirs, I often encounter clients who secretly wonder if I’m too young to do justice to their story. Some I lose to grey haired competitors but even when I get the job the age gap can lead to hilarious results. Like the entrepreneur who insisted on calling me kairitu (little girl) in all our meetings. And the time I had to ask another questions about why he and his first wife separated. And how he met the second. Talk about awkward. African men generally don’t like to talk about these things. And certainly not to someone the same age as their daughters.

I was particularly concerned by the Asians. In their culture, very few women are career professionals and most opt to leave employment once they get married and become full time mothers and homemakers. At the first meeting with one very successful entrepreneur, I noticed he directed all his questions to my publisher who had accompanied me. I wondered what would happen once we were alone in subsequent interviews. In the end it worked out well. We had sessions in his living room where we sat on chairs side by side. That way, he didn’t have to make direct eye contact except for the most fleeting moments. Which suited me fine as I was taking notes most of the time. I do that sometimes to keep clients at ease even though I have a recorder. Plus, it’s good to have a backup. You never know when technology will let you down.

Another solved this problem in an ingenious way. He asked his good friend and age mate to be present in all the interviews and directed his answers to the friend. He became so relaxed that the conversation evolved naturally, peppered with jokes and anecdotes, which are really the best kind of interviews. They often forgot I was there and it was easy to ask and get answers to even the most awkward questions. Sometimes though, his friend would be late for our meetings and it was amusing watching him fidget, too nervous to make eye contact, the conversation stilted as we tried to make small talk. Then we would both breathe a sigh of relief when his buddy showed up.

The age thing never bothered me outside the workplace. I watched friends throw in the towel on the marriage question and opt to become single mothers when we hit our thirties. I didn’t feel any pressure though. I think it’s because right from my early 20s I have always been open to the idea of adoption and so the ticking (followed by a deafening clang if ignored for too long) of the biological clock that drives many women down the path of single motherhood by choice didn’t happen for me. I’m still not worried by it.

I’ve always said that motherhood isn’t just about pushing a baby into the world. That’s just the first and easier part. Nurturing, guiding and taking care of another person to adulthood so that he or she becomes a productive and happy member of society, allowing her individuality to shine so that she fulfils her purpose and not trying to make her a clone of you is what being a mother is about. Plus, how many people take drugs, give birth and dump their babies in trash cans? Does that make them good mothers? I believe children are a gift to be treasured. How they come to you is irrelevant.

Kahlil Gibran put it best when he said, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness, for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

One fine day last November, I went for a job interview that finally dented my happy go lucky attitude about age. It was for a magazine and I wanted a writing position. The owner casually informed me that I was too old for the job. Their target market was 25-35 years and they preferred writers within this age group.

What! What do you mean I’m too old? I’ve spent the last decade trying to convince people that I’m not too young to write their memoirs and now you’re saying I’m too old to write for you? What the hell!

It felt like the world had tilted on its axis. My face froze. I couldn’t help it. I was rendered speechless. She continued speaking, saying something about perhaps editing but I was barely listening. My brain was still stuck on, “You’re too old to write for us…” I hadn’t processed anything beyond that point.

Is this how horses feel when they are put out to pasture. What next? Shoot me in the head to put me out of my misery? How can you be too young to write and too old to write, in the same week?

And then I remembered the times in my life when the subtle question of age had crept up and I had reacted without thinking about it. The first time a matatu tout called me mathe instead of siste which I had become accustomed to. The shiver of horror that accompanied that statement. He meant it as a sign of respect but what I heard was ‘You’re no longer a hot young chic’.

My sins are finally catching up with me. All those times I turned my nose up at people who refused to disclose their age thinking it must be because they were not confident in their own skins. Anyone happy with their accomplishments would have no problem disclosing their real age or so I thought. What a load of poppycock.

I get it now. It’s everywhere. TV anchors of a certain age being relegated to the newsroom despite their experience and good performance in front of the camera. Advertisements where girls are getting younger, thinner and lighter- soon we’ll have nothing but matchsticks masquerading as human beings. So keep lying about your age ladies. Defense mechanism or ego boost? Doesn’t really matter. As a good friend keeps telling me, “It’s never that serious.”

***

Read a FREE novel (Duel in the Savanna) by Wanjiru Waithaka. Please click here to download the Pdf or read the chapters online. Enjoy and feel free to share it with family and friends!

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