One day when I was about 17, and this was in the early 1970s, I was helping my mother and her best friend, June, get my mother’s silver tea service ready for some kind of hospital reception of the kind that Pink Ladies of my mother’s generation used to give. I was about to scrape some dried food off the side of the teapot with the back of a knife when June laid her hand on mine to stop me. “You never,” she said, “take a knife to silver.”
At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that I had been made the recipient of valuable domestic lore, or that June and my mother were the just the kind of women to give it. They were matrons—a term that at the time was pretty routinely applied to women who were, I don’t know, past 40. Matrons were older ladies who knew things. They weren’t necessarily things society at large tended to value, but they were worth knowing. It was a matron—one of the Pink Ladies my mother hung out with—who instructed me on the proper way of mitering a sheet corner. Years later, another matron—the mother of a neighbor—instructed me on the proper preparation of a salted ham that I bought off a Virginia farmer who’d had it hanging in his barn for awhile. (You cut off the mold that has grown on the rind, soak it for about 24 hours to get the salt out, then cook and glaze. It was best ham I have ever put in my mouth.) These women had no problem wearing their age. Life had given them useful experience, and they were happy to pass it along.
Today, 50 is the new 40, and women of a certain age are expected to be “hot,” to aspire to a reputation as a MILF (for “Mother I’d Like to F@#%,” for people like me who had to have this term explained)—or maybe glamorously gray, like Helen Mirren, or impeccably groomed, gorgeous and minus batwings, like Michele Obama. “Matron” has devolved into a word that comes attached with sort of institutional designation, as in “boarding school” or “prison.” Hillary Clinton is a matron if I’ve ever seen one, albeit one with an impressive professional resume—but if some pundit called her that in print, the feminist outrage would be scorching; it would be taken, I’m guessing, as a cheap sexist insult about her looks and/or un-f@#%ability.
And that’s a shame. There’s a shortage in the English language of terms that give grown women gravitas and that honors the kind of experience and life wisdom gained not by “leaning in” and becoming the Secretary of State, but the kind acquired during years of running a household, raising kids, holding down a job, navigating relationships with spouses, siblings and aging parents and filing your taxes more or less on time. I’m talking not just about domestic lore, though that’s certainly included, but things we could loosely categorize as common sense. Things like knowing that once daughters get past puberty, dads should never be allowed to sort underwear (there will be ugly fights), that the best life partners are generally not the ones looking for something smoking hot, that flunking a driving test is not the end of the world and that all first jobs involve demeaning scutwork. Men acquire this kind of knowledge, too, obviously—but men over 50 don’t have the same invisibility problem that women over 50 do. Older men can become “mentors” or “counselors” or “advisers” or “elder statesmen.” Older women can either go the Joan Rivers route or brace themselves for terms like “crone” or “leather bag” or worse—or resign themselves to not being noticed at all.
This is an observation I’ve thought about for years, but it came up in public discourse recently in an interview Frances McDormand gave to the New York Times as part of a publicity tour for her HBO miniseries entitled “Olive Kitteridge,” directed by and starring Ms. McDormand. The central character was a flinty, plainspoken Maine math teacher who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But she was real—as is Ms. McDormand herself, who has defied Hollywood norms by refusing to undergo plastic surgery or conceal her age in any way. In our culture, she said, “There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift.” She, on the other hand, is proud of being a grown-up.
“I want to be revered. I want to be an elder; I want to be an elderess. I have some things to talk about and say and help.”
To which I silently said Amen!—and then mentally added: Frances, you are not an elderess; you are a matron.
The Free Dictionary defines matron as a “married woman or a widow, especially a mother of dignity, mature age, and established social position.” I’m not sure about the “married” part, and the only “social position” I can claim is having once organized a neighborhood-wide yard sale—but dignity? You bet. I’m also stuffed to the gills with all four varieties of knowledge: professional, domestic, academic and the “don’t do what I did” kind. As for the mature age part—well, my bosom is no longer perky, my ass is significantly larger than it used to be and some mornings the bags under my eyes have bags of their own. I know I am supposed to be distressed about this, but the weird thing is, I like my face—and after many decades of angst, I’m even starting to love my imperfect body. It’s matronly. I look like what I am: a woman who has lived and grown and had a couple of babies and achieved some significant professional successes. I am, as Frances McDormand said of herself, “a woman who is proud and more powerful than I was when I was younger.”
My husband and I have two daughters. The older is now a college freshman who plugs in her ear buds whenever I start pontificating and the 14-year-old rolls her eyes until you can practically hear them rattle. But daughters come with friends, who sometimes hang around the house and check me out, to see if I am as weird and doddering as they have heard. We have interesting conversations about everything from divorce to having sex with co-workers to body image to sibling relationships. I imagine my own daughters have similar conversations with other moms and aunties out there, and that is fine by me. We all have stuff to say, knowledge to pass on, not the least of which is that a life well lived produces age that is a gift and not a curse. We are matrons. Hear us roar.