When Emily, 77, told me that as long as I had enough money to pay my rent and feed myself, I should stop worrying, it was like she knocked one of my loose screws back into place. Her perspective felt refreshing, like a splash of cold water on a tired face. She was funny and irreverent, chock full of unassuming wisdom. I walked away from our conversation with a dopey smile, wondering if I could rope her into a weekly lunch.
A few weeks ago, Amelia, Leandra and I set out to interview women who had been around the block a few more times than us. I think we expected to learn a thing or two about getting older, sure, but I don’t think we were prepared to feel such a way about it. Emily, Barbara and Beatrix dished out amazing stories and advice with the kind of casual confidence that can only come with decades on earth, and — ask anyone in the MR office — the three of us couldn’t shut up about them. Scroll down to read their perspective and see if you get what we mean. (I think you will.) -Haley Nahman
Emily Lemer, 77, has lived in New York for 38 years. You can catch her on Advanced Style.
I don’t have a favorite part of aging because I don’t even think about it. I’m really not different than when I was younger. I had a lot of energy then and I still do! I ski, I do yoga, I go to the theatre and the opera and the ballet. I’m out every night. I feel terrific. Albert and I just had our 25th wedding anniversary, which was a big bash with balloons and 125 people. I danced all night. I don’t notice that I’m aging. My only regret is that I’m not 40 again so that I can re-live the last 37 years. I had a good time.
Once in a while I reflect and think, “You know, you’re going to be 80 in three years…” But then I think, “Oh well, who cares? How should I spend it?” You have to stay in the now and not worry about aging. I never thought about it. I was too busy flying to Europe or the Middle East or partying or being jet-lagged. I was a flight attendant my whole career, 36 years. I was never sad at the thought of turning 30 or 40. I was having too much fun.
At 39, I moved to New York from Chicago to leave a bad marriage. And then I was a bachelorette in New York City. It was a fun time. Thank god it was the ‘70s or I’d be really in trouble. Around then my grandmother died, which was hard, and that’s when started meeting people that were into Eastern philosophy — you know, reincarnation, being present, believing we’re not a body but a soul. It gave me a new way of thinking that I’ve built on ever since.
It’s not really scary, getting older, but it does make you think about leaving the body — about death. When I was traveling around the world last year, I came back to find my husband had a heart problem. I was shocked. I see him being ill, and I see other people getting really sick. When you’re taking care of somebody that you love that’s older, you think, “Oh, is this going to happen to me?” Your mind goes there. Aside from making sure I have long-term-care insurance and all that, I try to stay present. I don’t wallow very much. I think about my scheduling. About how many ballets can I go to in June. I take very good care of myself. I exercise, I do my yoga, I eat well, I take a lot of supplements. I have some aches and pains but they’re no different from, say, the ones you get when you’ve been skiing.
Most people my age can’t keep up with me. Their conversations aren’t very lively. Like, tell me what the children are doing — I’d be delighted to hear — but don’t give me the whole scenario. Don’t give me fifteen minutes of it! When I talk to young people, I learn things from them. Young people have so much life, you know?
When I married my first husband (I was about 25), we decided we didn’t want children. I’ve never regretted it. I’m so happy I don’t have kids. I wasn’t willing to spend the money or give up my job. It was the perfect decision for me, and most people I know that made the same one are still happy about it. It helps that we live in New York. I think if I lived in Ohio or something (where I’m from) life wouldn’t be as exciting. I wouldn’t be the person I am now. New York breathes all this excitement.
I’d advise people to stay young. In mind, I mean. Don’t think old. Hang out with the young people, hang out with new people! I see some people hanging around the same couples for years. I can’t imagine going out to the same dinner with the same batch of people every week. I mean, what are you going to talk about? Anything interesting?
And stop worrying so much. As long as you have enough money to pay your rent and buy food, don’t worry about anything. I have some young friends that work 14-hour days. Working too much is really the wrong way to do it. What is success? Financial success? Does that mean that you have to have a million dollars in your bank by the time you’re 30? I don’t think that’s necessary. Don’t do it. There’s a balance of being comfortable, of having enough money to live on and then just having a good time. You’ve got to balance. You’ve got to find time to play. You gotta have a little life, a little fun. Find your soul.
Barbara Flood, doesn’t do age or birthdays, but is a Scorpio
I used to be a model. I modeled for a very long time. I worked for a lot of people: Donna Karan when she was working for Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, for Oscar de la Renta and Rudi Gernreich — a style icon, you should look him up. I loved working with [the other models]. We all had Sassoon haircuts and we all smoked brown Sherman cigarettellos. It was a very creative time and people weren’t afraid to be individuals.
I grew up in a fashion household. My dad was in the knitwear business. When I was about 12 or 13, he told me he wanted me to model the sweaters. Terrific. I had no tits then, I have no tits now. That started my foray into the industry.
My parents were both European. They were from Poland and Russia, but they were in this country many, many years and they met and married here. They had a lot of artist friends and a lot of singer friends and so the household was always [full of people]. When people came to dinner, there was a choice of two things: they could have meat or they could have fish, and my mom believed too much is never enough. She was a redhead and had a great eye. We lived in The San Remo, which is this wonderful tower on the west side. I’m a New York kid, born and raised. The ‘60s and the ‘70s [were the best in NYC] because fashion was really exploding. It was a very creative time.
I don’t think my style has changed very much. Even [in the ’60s and ’70s], I never went out in nothing, I just couldn’t. I sleep with a body chain. I have two ankle bracelets that never come off and these three little diamond things that never come off. And glitter is important. A touch of glitter here and there is definitely important. It makes me happy. I feel like I’m Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire walking down the streets. A little glitter uplifts your personality.
I’ve had four great relationships. It seems that I’ve learned from every guy I’ve been with. I learned about living in Europe, I learned about dance, I learned about directing, I learned about painting. These people were very important in my life, but I never wanted to be with them forever. I’ve been married and I don’t want to ever do that again. I have a child and I’m very happy to have him, but marriage is not for me. Living together, fine, but living apart is better. I have a huge amount of friends and a lot of close friends. They call me late at night to talk — they know I’m always up at 12 a.m.
I really don’t do age. If you say, “I’m 65,” or “94,” people calculate the time. They immediately think, Oh, senior citizen. But if you are who you are, you could be 20, you could be 100, and you are who you are and it comes across. I don’t want to think I’m getting older because I’m planning to stay around for a long time. I think about what’s happening in my life and what I want to do, you know?
Things happen to you physically [as you start to get older], although I have young friends going through a lot of stuff at well. I am a 16-year survivor of breast cancer, but I found it early. Things happen to you that you don’t want to happen to you; your body changes. But as long as the brain is alright and you can go forward, that’s the most important thing. It’s like Scarlett O’Hara said, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” That’s me. I’ll think about it tomorrow or next week.
The best thing [about getting older] is knowledge. That you have the knowledge to say, “Oh yes, I did that, I went through that, I understand that, so I don’t have to obsess like some people do 24/7.” You don’t obsess so much and you just say, “I’m just going to do it,” you know? And that’s it.
I have no regrets about me and what I’ve chosen and what I’ve done and who I am today. I do have regrets that my mother died. She didn’t have to die, but she had a bladder infection on a weekend and being Jewish, she didn’t call the doctor because of her guilt. By the time we got to her it was too late. My dad died at 62 of stomach cancer and in today’s world he’d be alive. I have regrets that I was a Madoff person (you know, Bernie Madoff). I have big regrets about that because it changed a lot of my lifestyle; I never got any money back. The whole thing was a mess.
You have to learn everything, do everything, don’t be afraid, don’t have regrets, don’t have any guilt. Guilt can paralyze you and it’s boring. What’s the point? I’d rather have some nuts and a glass of water and go to the theatre, go to the movies, go to a museum and go out dancing.
Beatrix Ost, 77, says our only real homes are our bodies
I came to the United States in 1975 out of fun, I just fell in love with New York. My husband and I looked out the window of the Waldorf Astoria and said, “Why don’t we live here for a while?” And then, half a year later, we moved.
There is a trick to living here, you know, if you don’t leave before 10 years, you aren’t gonna leave. I think after ten years, you just become — I was neither/nor for a while, neither German nor American, and then it just happens. You settle in.
My husband and I were together over forty years, but he’s had a girlfriend since forever. I always tolerated it, sometimes with hysteria and with fights and not seeing him for a year, but then, five years ago she moved to Charlottesville, where we have a farm — she’s a lawyer and feisty — and that became unbearable. He changed dramatically. Now I’m just very tired of him being who he became. I don’t want to be with him.
Men can sleep with a younger woman who could be their daughter and everybody says, “Oh he’s so great, he’s a nice guy, he got this very young woman, she could be his daughter.” But when a woman wants to sleep with a man her son’s age, “Oh my god, she has this very young guy, is he crazy? He sleeps with this older woman?” I am looked at, I know it, with desire and sexuality, but that is so alien here. In Europe, we don’t have that age thing.
Do I miss anything about my youth? What I miss is the view forward. In my youth, life was endless. We never think we will die tomorrow. We live in an illusion of limitless life. But I’m not at all afraid of death. I grew up after the war — death was so eminent. My grandmother died upstairs in a mahogany bed and two days later, that bed became mine.
If I could give my younger self advice, I would say be fearless but cautious. Go with your nose, with your instinct. And don’t regret; regrets don’t bring you anywhere. Just don’t repeat what you know you did wrong, “Okay that was a shit relationship, forget it, I’m not going to go for that again,” and then really be cautious. My son, who is a psychotherapist, said to me a few months ago, when I was sobbing about the end of the relationship I knew, “Mommy, you lived a roller coaster for so very long, do you want to stay in it, or do you want to get out?” This sobered me up. Yes, I don’t want a roller coaster anymore. It was such a turning point because he didn’t say, “Oh mommy, I know how you feel,” he just said the facts.
When I was younger, I was very soft. There is a knowledge you accumulate as you get older.
Also, you must take care of your body. I grew up very healthy. We had a farm, and I grew up without sugar. You should know what to eat and what not to eat. Your body is your house, you need to take care of that house, otherwise it crumbles. If you are sickly because you eat so much sugar, so much meat, too much coffee, and you are all sour in your body, how can you function?
I also like that you can find yourself with clothes. Young people are bombarded by how they should look and what they should buy — you’re 14, 15, 16 and you neither look like the magazine girls nor do you have the money to buy $1,500 shoes. Don’t look at that, get together with your girls, figure out what suits you and go for it. You find yourself. Recreate yourself with clothes. If you were told — “Oh your legs are too short, your arms are too long, you’re never going to be tall enough” — it’s all bullshit. It’s you in that body, you’re the only one there. Make it a good place to be. Your body is the only real gift you get.
Photos by Edith Young.