The Old Party
At a party attended by people mostly her own age (70) and older, Kate Walter is forced to confront her internalized ageism.
This essay is adapted from Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter, Kate Walter’s pandemic memoir.
Since I wanted to have one more great relationship before I died, I pushed myself to attend parties, events, workshops. Even if I didn’t meet Ms. Right, I craved good conversation since I lived alone and worked at home.
So I was excited when my new friend, Nadine, invited me to her holiday party. Even better, she lived around the corner. We’d met in my singing group. Both altos, we sat next to each other every week, trying to stay on key.
Almost everyone looked over 70 and lots of people appeared to be in their 80s…I saw a number of guests wearing hearing aids. Oh, no. I was at “the old party.” What was I doing here?
I walked in with a bottle of hard apple cider and Nadine greeted me with a hug, noting that I was dressed up, not in my usual outfit of sweat pants and sneakers. It was Christmas Eve and I’d just come from church. Nadine was Jewish and told me she’d started this party years ago “so the Jews would have some place to go on this night.”
As I sized up the space—it was pretty crowded—I immediately noticed that everyone was old. Almost everyone looked over 70 and lots of people appeared to be in their 80s. I guessed Nadine to be in her late 60s, her husband a bit older. I saw a number of guests wearing hearing aids. Oh, no. I was at “the old party.” What was I doing here? I had never gone to a Manhattan soiree where everyone was my age or older. Everyone was old.
After the hosts’ Asian, 30ish son left (no surprise he made an early exit), everyone there was white. Was everyone straight? If there were other queer people there, it wasn’t obvious to me—and this party was in the West Village. I was used to going to parties with more diversity, the beauty of living in New York City.
I was tempted to slip out discreetly until I saw the food table. It was spectacular—a whole turkey with dressing, an entire ham. And many choices for us vegetarians: green salads, curried wild rice, latkes with sour cream and apple sauce. Lots of wine and egg nog.
I filled my plate with salads and roasted veggies and found a chair. Everyone was super friendly—no attitude. I really liked my host and her guests seemed warm, like her. My usual conversation openers for a party in the City are, “Where do you live?” and, “What do you do?” Most people were from the West Village or the Upper West Side. I imagined that—like me—they landed in Manhattan before the City cost a fortune. I was thankful I had moved here when New York City was still affordable.
I hesitated to ask the second question, assuming most people were retired. But wait a minute. I was 70, retired from my full-time teaching job, but still working as a freelancer and an adjunct. Why was my concept of my fellow guests so limited? For all I knew, these folks could be taking art classes, studying Italian, traveling, sky diving, volunteering, or still working. Why was I buying into this ageist crap?
I hesitated to ask the second question, assuming most people were retired. But wait a minute. I was 70, retired from my full-time teaching job, but still working as a freelancer and an adjunct. Why was my concept of my fellow guests so limited?
My mother lived to be 95 in good health, and kept going because she wanted to see her nine great grandchildren grow up and celebrate their milestones. While I had no kids, being older gave me a deeper perspective, especially on neighborhood issues. I liked helping younger students who studied with me, and I was thrilled when they sold their first pieces.
I chatted with a woman who wrote for the local paper, who was pleased I knew her byline. She looked younger than me, like in her 50s. “I’ve read your coverage of the empty storefronts and small businesses closing, and what we can do to stop this trend,” I said. “Good work.”
I met a male psychologist who was also a rapper. A senior rapper with rhymes about toxic masculinity! It looked like he was trying to pick up my neighbor, a talented photographer, who lives in my building. She was also in our singing group and one of the two people I knew at the party, other than my host who was flitting back and forth from the kitchen to her company.
If anyone was sizing people up by their age, it was I, and I needed to grow up and stop that. And accept that I was old too.
When I explained to other guests how I’d met Nadine, that started a conversation.
“What kind of songs do you sing? Do you perform?” I was asked.
“Everything from the Beatles to Gershwin to gospel,” I said, realizing we had a big repertoire. “We had a gig singing carols and we’re practicing for another event. Our teacher is great, so energetic.” (Never mind that she was around my age.)
What was different about being at the “old party’’? No one was judging me. No one was trying to impress me. So that felt relaxed. I had a good time. If anyone was sizing people up by their age, it was I, and I needed to grow up and stop that. And accept that I was old too.
Oh boy, you are making me confront my own ageism, and I’m 75!
Great piece Kate. Thank you for your honesty and essential perspective.