At my sister’s graduation a few weeks ago my aunt, mother and grandmother were talking about my great-grandmother, known in the family as “Nanny.” Apparently she had a life-long habit of lying about her age—a trait my mother says I’ve inherited.
Sure, a lot of people, jokingly and otherwise, lie about their age—when a teenager wants to buy alcohol and shows a fake id, or a forty-something pretends they are still in their thirties. However Nanny did it for most of her life, and most of the people around her didn’t even know.
My aunt had jumped on the genealogical research bandwagon and dug up records from when Nanny had first arrived in the US, on a White Star Line ship from Ireland, in 1909. In the records my great-grandmother claimed that she was 22 years old, single and traveling alone, and had a few dollars in her pocket.
In subsequent census records she claimed to be quite a bit younger. We guessed this was to make her more marketable—who would want to train a maid or cook approaching a marriageable age, and lose that investment to a ticking biological clock?
She worked as a cook in the Rockefeller household for nearly twenty years, and left in her forties to marry and have her only child, my grandmother—at the age of 46! According to census records, at that point she made herself even younger, claiming she was still in her early thirties—which would have made her about 9 years old crossing the Atlantic by herself in 1909.
My aunt speculates that she made herself younger because my great-grandfather (according to the census, after calculating Nanny’s “real” age) was several years younger than her, and it was a social taboo for an older woman to marry a younger man. It makes me wonder if my great-grandfather even knew her real age. When she died in 1979, even my aunts, uncles and grandmother didn’t know, until now.
“It’s annoying,” my grandmother said, “It makes you think. If she lied so much about her age, what else was she lying about?”
“C’s no better.” My mother chipped in, “She lies about her age all the time, but unlike Nanny, she makes herself older.”
And it’s true. I’ve been lying about my age for most of my twenties.
I think it started in college. Most of my friends were international, and it felt like a good majority were older. P was—he is about three and a half years older than me even though he was only a grade above me at the university. I felt like I was surrounded by older people most of the time, and I didn’t want to feel like the baby of the group, so I didn’t advertise my age.
When we left undergrad and moved on to P’s master’s program, again his graduate student friends were an older crowd—mid to late twenties, some in their thirties, I didn’t want it to be known that I was only twenty-one. I was worried (probably needlessly so) that my opinions wouldn’t be taken seriously, or that my commitment and relationship with P wouldn’t be thought of as serious.
Then during my first post-graduation job I worked with high school kids. Nothing makes you feel like you need an age buffer to validate your authority than working with high school kids. And on my first day I made a terrible mistake. One student asked how old I was, and I answered honestly. I only worked with them for three weeks, but after that, I think it was tough for them to consider me as the group leader, instead of a buddy, even when I wasn’t trying to be a buddy.
That kind of solidified it for me, I just started lying about my age or keeping silent on the subject. On my birthday we didn’t talk about what year I was turning, if someone asked I added a few years, or said “I’d don’t usually share.” I even made details of my stories a bit ambiguous so people couldn’t reason out my age. I finally internalized my lie so much that I started to forget how old I actually was. Sometimes I’d try to answer honestly and be off by a year.
At one point, many of our friends started turning thirty, and while at a friend’s birthday the group was trying to figure out when the rest would hit the thirty mark. Finally it fell on me. They were asking, “C—when will you turn 30?” and my ambiguousness only made the detail more enticing. One guy asked if I didn’t share my age because I was “really that old?” (I imagine he thought the reverse was true–that I was several years older than P) Another friend, at a different time, stole my license to figure it out.
However I’m starting to realize that I’m finally getting old enough, perhaps I don’t have to lie anymore. The new phd students in P’s program are now mostly younger than me. A lot of my graduate international students are younger than me. Some of our new friends are younger too. Perhaps I’m also feeling less sensitive because the older you get age difference doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal.
But perhaps I still have a bit of Nanny in me, because I can’t help but continue to keep my age under a veil of ambiguity. Like I’m used to not talking about it.
While looking in the mirror this morning I caught a glint of silver on the side of my head. I said to P, “I have a white hair!”
His response: “You’re the one who wants to be older.”