News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

July 31, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: And now for something completely different

TERRE HAUTE — You would be surprised how many people never look at the ring finger of a 60-year-old woman’s left hand.

Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. In our society, what of interest ever pops up in such a place? For example, you wouldn’t look there for a diamond engagement ring, would you?

What 60-year-old gets engaged? Engagement rings are for twentysomethings and maybe thirtysomethings, but not for women who receive a “55-or-better” discount on beverages at McDonald’s and 10 percent off at department stores on Senior Wednesdays.

Sure, sure, older women get married all the time — now, more than ever, according to U.S. sociologists and culture experts. People are living longer, and many are less inclined than in the past to suck it up after a divorce or the death of a spouse and accept a singlehood they don’t want.

Do a ’Net search for “wedding dresses for older brides” and see what materializes. Geezer nuptials are something of a mini-trend.

But engagement rings for mature fiancees still are not on the radar screen — no matter how stunning, sparkling and drop-dead gorgeous they may be. I know. I’ve been wearing one for a week now, and no one has noticed.

Granted, I work in a typical newsroom, where people are focused on police scanners, computer screens and the occasional box of free donuts a reporter might bring in to our communal kitchen. No doubt, if someone tried to steal my ring or it was involved in a car wreck or meth bust, it would be noticed right away.

I remember in my freshman year at Purdue reading a sociology textbook that characterized an engagement as the period of life in which an American woman’s social status was at its peak. Presumed to be young and, um, fresh, the engaged female represented a woman whose attractiveness and value had been confirmed by society (i.e. men), but who had not yet been removed from the showroom floor.

The textbook explained, dispassionately, that the young, fresh, desirable thing soon would be transferred to the name’s-been-changed bin of Mr. Someone’s Wife, then to the boxcar of unpaid, ever-sacrificing Homemaker-Mother. Until then, though, as an officially engaged woman, she was spoken for but not quite taken, stamped “reserved” but not yet “off limits.” Her stock would never again be so high.

And people wonder why I became a feminist.

That dated sociology book — with no similar treatise in it on engaged men — has come to mind this past week as I’ve studied my lovely engagement ring that no one has noticed. What kind of societal slot does a betrothed sexagenarian gal occupy in 2010? The one marked, “Anomaly” or just “Miscellaneous”?

I suppose I should admit right here that I am still stunned at this unlikely turn of events. Throughout the last, oh, 35 years, I’ve spent almost no time expecting to be an engaged person, let alone the wearer of a ring that signifies such a state. Part of that was because of the aforementioned feminism, which never outlawed engagement rings, but tended to cast a skeptical eye on them as well as lace veils, bridal showers and studio portraits of a woman in a gown she will never wear again.

Those items perpetuated for me the warped notion of the female on a pedestal (for a day, anyway) and seemed like more evidence of woman as object and asset of man. Rather than a day of playing princess, my era of feminists placed a higher value on such goodies as shared responsibilities between life partners and equal pay for equal work.

Also, like a lot of ’60s political and economic liberals, I harbored an aversion to anything that smacked of traditional marriage, expensive weddings and all the pre-ceremony trappings. I viewed the matrimony industry as just that, a big business that encourages a bride’s parents or the marrying couple to go into hock for “that special day” instead of pay their bills or support a worthy charity.

As a  liberal and a feminist, the only kind of marriage I even considered considering was one rooted in Kahlil Gibran’s advice to “stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

I didn’t want my cypress stunted by anybody’s oak, and I surely didn’t want my status as a valuable woman to be dependent on a man’s stamp of approval.

So, I took the road less traveled, lived and loved fairly large, and have not regretted the journey. The thing I didn’t see coming, though, is that even the road less traveled presents some sharp, wild turns.

One day, you’re tooling along, thinking about how lucky you are to have made it to 60, thanking God for all the blessings (and rescues) you’ve enjoyed, congratulating yourself for being genuinely satisfied with your life and its nice, peaceful, solitary foreseeable future and … BA-BOOM!

Around a corner comes a handsome, stellar human being who accidentally bumps into you and makes you drop all your books and your purse and water bottle and preconceived notions. Then — illogical miracle of miracles — he starts to believe you are terrific and he really, really wants to marry you.

Notice how I slipped into the second person there? Went from “I” to “you”? It’s a defense mechanism, something like a pressurized diving suit I use to avoid the cognitive bends. As I said, I am still stunned by what has occurred, and I am frequently disoriented. Fortunately, my husband-to-be is accustomed to this shell-shocked state; it’s another of my eccentricities he accommodates.

Perhaps that’s why he wanted to give me an engagement ring. (That and because he’s an old-fashioned guy with the manly manners of a Jane Austen hero.) Whenever I start to doubt reality, I can look down at my left hand and get grounded. I can see what is definitely my hand — yeah, been with me my whole life — and what is, unmistakably, an exquisite ring, designed and crafted by my future step-daughter, on the finger next to my pinkie.

In this country, a gem on that finger still, usually, means a woman is engaged to be married. As for society’s assessment of that engaged woman’s social status, her assumed attractiveness and value, the moldy textbook of my youth is useful … as a doorstop.

Times have changed. The window for peak societal status stays open lots longer for females these days and is based on much more than a man’s claim. Presumably, the situation will only continue to improve. After all, at least one 60-year-old cypress has sprouted a diamond. Apparently, anything is possible.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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