“Can I just say how much I hate getting called Ma’am?” my friend said last night as she sat down across from me.
“I know! Tell me about it,” I said. “I know it’s supposed to be a sign of respect, but it just makes me feel like my vagina’s closed up.”
“Right! Like we’re totally closed for business,” my friend said.
“Yes! And it’s always grocery store clerks, for some reason. The other day at Trader Joe’s, someone called me ‘Miss,’ and I practically leapt over the counter to give her a hug,” I said.
We laughed as we chatted, but my friend’s words struck a chord in me.
The transition started in my mid-30s.
“Hi, Ma’am,” a clerk at a grocery store had said to me. For a split second, my hand froze on its way to place a bag of clementines on the conveyor belt.
“Hi,” I said in return, attempting to stay calm.
In my mind, I was all Oh sh*t, I’m a Ma’am now?! I’m not ready for this! Is this really happening?
The night before, I’d gone to sleep, still a Miss. But when I woke up, I’d crossed over some invisible bridge into Ma’am Town. And there was no going back. Over the following years, through the blur of early parenthood and its accompanying exhaustion, the Ma’aming only increased.
Yes, it’s supposed to be a sign of respect, a politeness. But when I hear the word, I can’t help but shudder inside. It brings to mind stately, aging queens. It reminds me that my triceps have recently dropped, much like a boy’s testes, swinging like a pendulum with my every movement. The little apostrophe-like indentation between my eyes lingers for a moment after I crinkle my forehead. Time and gravity are beginning to have their way with me. I’d like to take this in a more graceful stride, to welcome with open arms my own middle-aged self. But it’s not so easy.
Our culture tells women that our value is attached to our desirability, and that our desirability is directly correlated to youth and beauty.
So when a 22-year-old at the grocery store calls me the m-word, and I look them straight in their creamy-skinned, relentlessly young face, what I hear is this:
You’re old enough to be my mother.
Your vag has wrinkles. And maybe a tiny cane.
I’m pretty content with my life. My years and experiences have brought a perspective that I didn’t have when I was a porcelain-skinned 20-year-old. I wouldn’t want to go back to the heartbreak and hum of that life, at least not without the wisdom I have now.
But it’s still scary to get older, to feel nudged from the warm inner circle of youth. I’m not sure any of us believe—until we arrive here—that aging is something that will truly happen to us, in the same way that, until a certain age, it’s hard to believe our parents were ever children.
But if we live long enough, it does happen to us. I’ve started studying older people at the grocery store or the library, wondering if they’ve made peace with the passing of time. With becoming more invisible. With the limitations of their own bodies. If my own failure to value and be more curious about our older people is just the middle-aged version of the teenaged clerk calling me Ma’am.
Maybe I just need to cozy up to the word Ma’am. To accept the fact that my favorite bands are now playing on the oldies channel, and I have no idea who any of the celebrities in People magazine are. That I go to bed at 8:30 in my flannel PJs.
Or? You youngins’ could just stop calling me Ma’am. Miss is perfectly fine. Or Her Ladyship. Or, we could get really crazy and leave out the noun altogether. We could just greet each other with a soft hello, some eye contact, and maybe a little curtsy or bow, Namaste-style, a small moment of human acknowledgement between two people exchanging legal tender for groceries.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Catherine Monkman