At the very last minute before the train started up, I happened to glance away from my book and saw – to my utter astonishment and delight – a riot of colour in the person of an elderly lady step briskly into the car and proceed to sit down on the other side of the aisle one row behind me.
The moment I saw her, I was reminded of the poem that follows, entitled “When I am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.”
Since the train wasn’t full, the companion seat to my own was empty, so I removed my shoes, turned sideways and lifted my legs onto the other seat, ostensibly to read more comfortably. The book was just camouflage, though; I was really getting into position to peek at this remarkable person more closely.
She was probably in her late seventies, with a mass of wavy grey-white hair pulled casually back, trapped in an elastic at the nape of her neck and flowing down her back in a wild, windswept tail nearly to her waist, with many curly bits and pieces that had escaped the bounds of the elastic springing out around her face.
Perched on her head was a slate-grey pull-on bonnet with a brim all around, on which was displayed, in glorious living colour, an enormous, fluorescent-pink artificial flower, centered directly over her forehead.
Her not-unattractive legs were encased on black knit tights, and she wore white jogging shoes and a canary yellow fleece pullover, topped off with an intricately patterned grey and black shawl. In one hand she carried a small fuchsia purse and in the other, a very large canvas tote bag in bright turquoise.
Once she had gotten herself seated and comfortable, she pulled out of her tote, like a magician producing a white rabbit from a hat, a four-foot-long, hand-made doll with a tiny head and a cloth face that resembled nothing so much as a large white rodent with black yarn eyes and a tiny mouth set in a moue.
This long, skinny rat-faced doll was dressed in a bonnet and long satin gown in a rusty watered silk, trimmed with imitation fall leaves in every colour of the fall palette. She carefully placed the doll on her lap and turned to look out the window.
Tipped a bit beyond eccentricity? Quite likely.
But to me none of that mattered. The overall effect was glorious: she was warm, she was comfortable in her skin and in her clothes, and she didn’t give a tinker’s dam whether anyone else approved of her or not. I was mesmerized.
As I watched her, entranced, it occurred to me that we might do well as a society to celebrate — and learn from — the personal freedom that can come to women who are open to it, in their crone years; freedom that allows them to wear what pleases them without the slightest concern for whether or not it fits society’s notions of what is “correct.”
In honour of that wild spirit, here is Jenny Joseph’s wonderful poem:
When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple
By Jenny Joseph
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.