What is age – often it’s little more than a number. You can be old and young at heart or young and staid. As the beautiful women in my life have shown me, age doesn’t define whether someone is smart, beautiful, interesting or worth spending time with. Aldous Huxley put it perfectly when he wrote “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”
Some of my earliest memories involve me being surrounded by strong women. My grandmother was one of five sisters (she also had a brother but somehow I have no memory of him). Her mother, my great grandmother was the matriarch of the family and each of her daughters became, in turn, the matriarch of theirs. I remember their husbands, my great uncles, but it’s the women who are indelibly etched on my memory. There’s a photograph of each of the sisters that each of them had in their homes and whenever we went to visit all of their eyes would be on us, not in judgement but smiling down somehow telling us we could be and do whatever we wanted to. These women ran businesses (one a hairdresser, another ran the kosher catering company in Birmingham) at a time when that was anything but normal, but to them it was nothing but that.
My life continued to be peppered with women for whom age was irrelevant. My father’s sister is over ten years older than he is and, although she’d probably not be overjoyed at my over sharing, is now over ninety and still goes to work running her business three days a week and has a timeless sense of style. She always looks immaculate, has seen the latest film or play in the West End and still has a point of view on almost everything – not least what my cousins and I should or should not be wearing. Her wise words, – which include ‘never say no to an invitation’; ‘try your hardest’; and ‘buy the best coat that you can afford’ – have guided me through life. That said I never turn to her because she is old, in fact quite the contrary, I turn to her because she is young at heart, because she doesn’t think of herself as old and for that reason she remains relevant and vibrant and more alive than other people I know who are many many years younger than she is.
When she was alive and when I was in New York I always visited my cousin (who was in her 90s), not out of a sense of duty but because I wanted to. She was a dancer, she took up painting in her 60s. Talk of the arts, music and culture filled my head with ideas whenever I stayed with her. She and her late husband introduced me to the Lincoln Centre and Chinese take-out when I was a teenager and she is the one who encouraged me to paint so whenever I pick up a paintbrush I think of her. I saw her as someone who was smart and stylish, someone defined by how life’s experiences had shaped them not just by the number of years that they’d lived.
In a world where we’re surrounded by the young and the beautiful, the thin and the perfect, it is inspiring to hold a different lens up to what aspirational and beautiful might look like. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not only inspired by old ladies – there are plenty of other people who’ve driven me and shaped who I am (young and old, male and female) but what I do know is that over the years I’ve learned to keep both my mind and my eyes open and found inspiration and friendship in some unconventional and unexpected places.