Not dames as in Dame Joan Sutherland, the female equivalent of the British title of knight, but dames as in fabulous old gals.
You know what the world needs more of? Dames.
We’re never in short supply of ingenues. Innocence is temporary and overrated. The ingenue is inevitable; a phase. A dame, however, is a result of the deliberate application of will. Being a great dame is never an accident. It’s an art form, a skill acquired through decades of living. It’s the knack for looking on the bright side. It’s the victory of hope over experience. Being a dame is also a great service to the community at large. Dames are standard-bearers; they show the rest of us how to live — even, and especially, the ingenues.
The antidote for modern life is a dame.
Let me tell you about some of the great dames I’ve met along my path. A particular favourite was a friend’s aunt. I take a page from her on the mornings that I can’t imagine getting out of bed — most mornings.
This was her daily routine: Wake and stumble toward a sink and a mirror. Splash water on your face. Prop both arms on either side of the sink, supporting the weight of your torso. Glare into the mirror as if encountering the person you lost to at poker the night before. Without warning, inhale yourself up into military posture. Run your fingers through your hair. Without taking your gaze off the reflected image, reach for a tube of lipstick. With theatrical flourish rim your mouth with a spectacular shade of red not found in nature. Draw back your head. Settle in with a long, cool appraisal; left, right. Then, an imperceptible nod of satisfaction. Press your lips together, long and hard, sealing the red paint. Make a loud smacking noise and then, the pronouncement: “Luscious bitch.”
The aunt had come to visit her niece while I was bivouacking in London with a horde of Australians. She was single, retired and twice as much fun as people half her age. In true Auntie Mame fashion, she hauled us to Hampton Court, Kew Gardens and to various pubs, one of which was the longest-named pub in London. If I recall correctly, it was the I Am the Only Running Footman pub. We were surprised at how much we missed her after she left.
Another dame that inspires my better self was a friend of my mom’s. Her name was Diana and she possessed a muscular form of cheerfulness. Everything about her buoyed my mood whenever she was around. One day when I was fretting about motherhood, matrimony and material goods, I whined something to the effect that I was doing it all wrong. She guffawed loudly, patted my hand, and said, “Like there’s a right way?!” Diana died a while back but I replay that scene in my mind, again and again. It gives me great licence to screw up and forgive myself.
Now this, this is a favourite story of mine and it’s a fine example of a dame in action. It was a third marriage for both of them, and a lucky strike as they both seemed very happy. The man’s first wife had been diagnosed with cancer. She had never remarried and lived on the other side of the world. The man and the first wife had an adult son. The third wife, on learning of the dire situation, insisted that he get on a plane and go and make himself useful in her time of need. To his credit, he did.
Dames don’t put a lot of stock in niceness. Instead, they invest in kindness. The difference between the two is that niceness is easy; kindness asks a bit more of the individual.
I watch a batch of astonishingly fit silver-headed women at the gym. They don’t just keep up — several of them are more limber, with more stamina than the yummy mummies in the class. A while back I thought I detected a small tattoo on one of the dames and I was right. There, on her right shoulder blade, fluttered a butterfly tattoo. Turns out she and her granddaughter had got them together. Her granddaughter had wanted one, a far more conspicuous one involving a phoenix and Chinese characters, and she was not to be deterred. The grandmother then said she’d get one, too: a matching one, but not the one the girl had in mind. They agreed upon this more discreet butterfly. I don’t care for tattoos but I love the idea of a 75-year-old presenting herself at the tattoo parlour with her granddaughter. I bet if we check back in a few decades, this young gal will be a very hip, beloved grandma herself.
A mentor of mine used to quote a line from Shakespeare; at least, he said it was Shakespeare. He said that, too often, life seems “dull, flat and unprofitable.” Too true. What to do: pills or alcohol? No, the antidote for modern life is a dame. Dames are like light houses, or even better, pilot boats. They show us how to navigate life’s shoals, when to act and when to bide; they are reminders that, whatever it is, this, too, shall pass … and whaddya say we rent bikes and ride around the park?
When I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about dames and their value, she said her grandmother could always resurrect her better self by reminding her of earlier tribulations. If she survived being spurned by her childhood sweetheart, she could get through this, too — whatever it was. If she was really down, they got pedicures.
So here’s to the dames among us. Luscious bitches, indeed.