I’m turning thirty-seven in less than two hours.
Maybe that doesn’t seem old to you. I don’t even know why it seems old to me. I have no idea in the world why this particular birthday is hitting me so very hard. I have felt depressed and more than the usual self-loathing this week, without good reason.
Maybe it’s because this is my first birthday with a diagnosis, after suffering for decades without one. Finally knowing I have polycystic ovary syndrome is a relief in one way, but in another way it feels like a blow to the face. It went on so long untreated with nobody believing me, and now I’m pushing forty. I gave up and shaved my head to hide the PCOS bald spots in about February. It’s growing back in an uneven mullet with a few bare patches that are hard to fluff the hair over. I’ve lost a lot of weight now that my chronic illness is in treatment, which means my post-emergency-c-section belly is even more puckered and saggier, but I’ll never be thin. I’m starting to get creases in places on my face where there were no creases before, along with the hair and pimples that PCOS causes.
My only daughter I’ve managed to give birth to turned ten, and is tall for her age. I have always loved babies, more than I can say, and I feel like I’d do anything for another, but my chronic illness will always make that difficult. I’ve started just not thinking about it either way. I will do all the best things for my health, and maybe it will happen to me, and maybe it’s just too late. That hurts, but there it is.
I’ve called myself so many names: a balding old crone, a wyrd sister, a pantyhose doll, a hag.
This is ridiculous, because I’d never treat another older woman this way. I admire and love my friends who are older than me.
The grandmother of the Baker Street Irregulars is twenty years older than me; she still lives on the corner of the block under a heap of active grandchildren. She’s the one who used to make “Uncle Tink” the homeless gentleman breakfast every morning. She is always making somebody breakfast. There must be thirty different people coming in and out of that house on a daily basis. She feeds them and mothers them without asking questions. Once, last summer when there were still some food shortages and beef was so expensive, I went over to make sure her family had enough to eat. She misunderstood why I’d asked and gave me three giant bags of mozzarella cheese and two value-size tubs of ricotta which the food pantry had sent home with her. I made lasagna for several days straight and still couldn’t go through it all. She is like that with everyone. I am certain she’s a saint.
When I was in my twenties I babysat for the son of another wise older woman. She’d recently converted to Catholicism by way of her study of Buddhism at the local dojo; she went off her birth control and found herself pregnant unexpectedly, in her forties, when her hair was going white. Sometimes I got paid to watch her little boy and read to him while she ran errands. Sometimes she would call me and say “I can’t afford to pay you to watch him, but I’ll buy you a bottle of juice if you’ll come run errands with him and me,” and I’d ride along. She was great fun to talk to. She knew all kinds of things. She had a squeaky plastic bird call which was specially made to attract crows, which she loved because of the way they hopped on the ground and sidled up to her. She liked owls and antique shops, essential oils and folk remedies, aluminum Christmas decorations, and Carmelite spirituality.
When we were in Columbus we visited another generous and wise friend; this one is almost exactly ten years older than I am. She lives in a tiny shoebox of a house with a backyard all overrun with chickens. She has arms covered in tattoos, an art studio crammed with brightly colored abstracts on canvas, and a whole wall of her claustrophobic living room painted with blackboard paint. My friend let Rose write her name in purple chalk on the blackboard wall. She brought us out to the yard and showed us how her hens follow her around in single file, how they jump to her hand when she holds out frozen corn, and how they snuggle in her arms like pampered pets.
That friend is the one who told me that the word “hag” actually means “holy.”
I looked it up and she’s right. It comes from Greek. At every liturgy in the Eastern churches and every Good Friday in the West we sing that God is Hagios Hotheos, Hagios Ischyros, Hagios Athanatos: Holy is God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal. “The Hagia,” The Holy, is a word for the consecrated Eucharist. The Virgin Mary is the Holy Seat of Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia.
But, it occurred to me as my friend was speaking, you could also use those same words and call her “the wise hag.” In its strictest sense you wouldn’t be saying anything insulting, if you the Mother of God a hag. “Wise hag” is just a strange old way of saying “wise, holy woman,” and she is.
“Hag” doesn’t mean “old” either, but it makes me think of her as old.
Another friend reminded me today that the Virgin Mary lived for decades after Christ was born, and for a time after His resurrection and ascension into Heaven as well. She would have been almost fifty at the very youngest, when she stood at the foot of the cross. The apostles and early Christians wouldn’t have known her as a young doe-eyed girl. They would have known her as an older woman, a wise and holy mother or a grandmother figure for the whole Church.
I don’t know why I’ve seen so few pictures of her that way. My whole life I’ve been looking at images of a prim, ladylike girl who cries easily and is perpetually twenty. Due to my spiritually abusive upbringing chasing apparitions, that image frightens me. I don’t like a lot of the devotions that many people take comfort in. But I think I could like a Virgin Mary who was a graying lady in her fifties, someone who’s been around and isn’t easily shocked, someone who you could say anything to. A lady who knows about folk remedies and where to buy antiques. A woman who is always giving away food to neighbors and letting children write on her wall. A venerable hag followed everywhere by chickens or sociable crows.
I would like to know that Lady.
I would like to be a lady like her.
No woman but her can be simultaneously an untouched virgin and a biological mother. No woman but her is without sin. No one, not even her, has ever been a pristine perpetual teenager who looks like a plaster statue. But we might all try to be hags.
I have decided to be a hag this year. And I’m excited for that.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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If you would like to take part in Mary’s virtual birthday party for Steubenville’s poor and homeless this week, buy a gift on her wish list.