Natalie d’Arbeloff is a full-time working artist – but it is only now, in her 90th year, that she has decided to openly admit her age. Why? Because of the patronising preconceptions about getting old
For the past 30 years, I have avoided mentioning my date of birth except when bureaucratically, medically or legally required to do so. In all social interactions, I
avoid the subject. If I am asked directly why I won’t say how old I am, my default answer is: vanity. It is the truth, and why not? I have reasons to be vain. I have been extremely fortunate with my genes; my mother and father lived until they were 97 and 101, respectively. I’m still a full-time working artist, still exploring, discovering and getting better and better every other day. I don’t feel, think, or look my age.
But this year, on my birthday in August, I will reach a particularly inadmissible number, therefore I have decided it is time to conquer my fear of admitting “the number”. I am finally ready to liberate myself – here goes ... On 7 August 2019, I will be 90. I was born in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, which ushered in the Great Depression. Keen to list for this piece some lesser known and less depressing events to commemorate my birth in Paris, I googled the date. But please don’t be amazed that a nearly-90-year-old uses google as a verb and understands the internet. It is normal if they have been that sort of person all their life. True, I don’t know any other 89½-year-olds, but I’m fairly sure there are thousands out there at this very moment, thinking deep and/or funny thoughts, writing and painting, building and dancing, gazing at the stars and generally contributing to the world.
I doubt I would have clung so stubbornly to this phobia of admitting my age if patronising preconceptions about ageing didn’t exist. If I am at a party and someone asks “Are you still working?”, I want to punch them in the face. (I don’t, of course, because I’m only 4ft 11in, so I can’t reach.) But such questions are stereotypical of people’s perception of age.
I will admit to a few age-related physical glitches. For instance, I use hearing aids, but only if I am with people who mumble. (Why can’t people speak consonants clearly?) And I’ve got only eight of my own teeth left. In fact, the possibility that I might forget to put the synthetics back in before going out – along with the probability of a man-made apocalypse – is why I sometimes worry about the future. There is also my right hip. It began, absolutely unacceptably, to go a bit wonky a few months ago. This is at the top of my list of issues to resolve this year, along with finding someone to give me a major retrospective exhibition before it is too late.
For me, being a certain age doesn’t feel as if it is set in stone – why not be several ages at once? I chose art as a career very early on and the insecurities of the profession, together with its incomparable joys, have no doubt contributed to my indifference towards ageing. Artists who are in it for the long haul are often age-indifferent, even if their bodies aren’t. The aged Matisse created his magnificent cutouts from his sick-bed. We are all different, from the moment we are born until the moment we die, and the eighth or 80th – or any other – year of my life was not the same as yours. Identity is fluid enough to be exempt from categorisation, so why should people who have accumulated a large quantity of years be perceived as having uniform characteristics? Individuality does not drop off automatically, like old skin, when we reach a certain number.
Maybe it is because I started writing a diary when I was nine that I see my life as a film that I can stop and examine at any point. It also hasn’t been a still life and perhaps my refusal to see myself defined by such a static word as “old” has something to do with the fact that, since the age of about six, I was on the move. My father, a restless, enterprising Russian émigré, transported my mother, a Parisian, my older sister and me, and later on our much younger brother, from Paris to Paraguay, Brazil, the United States, Italy, England etc, for varying periods of time. I have never felt that I had a fixed home, even though I have lived in England since 1963.
I do salute all the brave, bold age-admitters. But I must confess that the fear of becoming invisible, in a sexual sense, played a major part in my refusal to admit my age. People may say sexual invisibility happens to all of us, sooner or later; that’s life, biology, so what? And I certainly don’t want to pretend to be physically young. But it seemed perfectly rational to me that the sexy buzz that accompanied me all my life would still be there as long as I didn’t mention my age.
My father, even when he was nearly 100, believed in the same kind of magical unrealism. If he met a neighbour, a sprightly 70-year-old, say, he would tell us: “I saw that Mr X – he’s such a starichok!” (“little old man” in Russian). Sacha literally did not see himself or Blanche, my mother, as old. Blanche herself began to paint at 94, climbed six flights of stairs every week to attend an art class and had her first and last solo exhibition at 96. Whether my parents’ misperception of themselves contributed to their longevity is anyone’s guess. Some people are starichoks. Some refuse to be. There are no rules in age, only exceptions. My only advice is: be the exception.
So this “little old lady” has made her confession. But you still haven’t got my number.