I’ve been hearing the expressions “little old man” and “little old lady” all my life, but it never occurred to me that people actually shrink as they age until I read Isabel Allende’s 1985 novel, The House of Spirits. There’s a climactic passage near the end of the book that I found utterly memorable. Alba, a young woman who has been imprisoned and tortured, is freed and has a tearful reunion with her grandfather.
Who knows why this simple exchange was so unforgettable for me? But it was, and I was equally struck by Alba’s realization that her grandfather—a towering figure her whole life, a man strong and powerful enough to sweep a peasant girl up on his horse and rape her (the former at a gallop, the latter presumably sans horse)—has turned into a little old man.
I was only in my early forties at the time, so I didn’t take it personally. I did start to notice the fact that my parents (in their forties when I was born) were definitely shorter than they’d been when I was younger. Some time in my adolescence, I stopped growing at the comfortably medium height of 5’5’’. My dad was a little taller than me, my mother a little shorter. By the time they reached their nineties, I topped them by a head. (See photo of my son with my mother, who was 95 at the time.)
My own shrinkage began some time in my fifties. I used to order custom-hemmed pants from a particular catalog, and I gradually became aware that my inseam (the actual length of the leg from groin to ankle) had changed from 29 inches to 28. If I didn’t order them shorter, the pants legs would flop over the tops of my shoes.
I kept putting 5’5” on forms and documents, but I knew that I was really 5’4” now. I accepted it. I got used to it. A first: I put 5’4” on my application to renew my passport a few weeks ago. So imagine my horror when the doctor measured me during my annual physical a couple of days later and broke the news that I am entering my late sixties at only 5’ 3 ½”. I don’t like it! I want a do-over! And worse, is this going to go on? I’m afraid it is.
There is a way to keep oneself from shrinking. My doctor confirmed it when I asked, but I first learned of it from my best friend from third grade. When we were both eight years old, I was taller than she was. I was still the taller when we were forty. If she resented it, I never knew. It was just the way things were. She was double-jointed (she can sit easily in full lotus position and could probably still wrap her legs around her ears, if she chose to try), and I was taller. But now I’m not. Her secret? Weight training. She does it with a trainer at the gym twice a week, and it works. I’m shrinking. She is not. And I love her, but I cannot deny she gloats.
Am I going to start lifting weights in a belated attempt to stop this discouraging natural process? Probably not. I won’t enumerate the many things I already do to keep myself fit and healthy as I age. I’ve got to leave some time for writing and the rest of my life. I’d better warn my grandchildren that by the time I’m ninety, I’ll be looking up to them. Way up.