I decided to retire from teaching a few years before my hair receded into a “sensible bun” and my feet only feel good in “sensible shoes.” I still have some time on my hands to look for ways to entertain myself. But, no matter how much time I spend perusing the book, 1000 Places and Things to See & Do Before You Die, nothing intrigues me more than the Leather Ladies. No, these aren’t women who do “interesting” or “creative” things with leather but ladies whose detailed skin carries the map of their lives. The Leather Ladies are a type – a genre drawn from the legions of older women who flock to the warmer climates of this country and, judging by their softly grooved flesh, decide to stay. They are the proud testimonials to the human tanning process.
I first came into contact with the Leather Ladies about 10 years ago when we began vacationing in the Florida Keys on a regular basis and my own face was relatively unlined. Over time I came to understand the fearless nature of the Ladies with regards to the sun and life in general. I can’t remember seeing a Leather Lady frowning. They walk proudly among the taut bodies of visiting youth; unlike the size nine blond mother of two who wistfully turns to track the younger and pretty size two exiting the Westchester grocery store. It is the size nine who thinks she’s fat – a cultural tyranny to which no Leather Lady would fall prey. My Leather Ladies are on a first name basis with Time and understand fully its silent equal opportunity program. These ladies have eschewed the knife for a non-negotiable position on the human beauty scale. Their skin makes obvious demands on those who love them. And to the world in general, it is as if their skin flips “the bird” that flies in the face of global warming and a social reality. I’ve come to see the Leather Ladies are the authentic reality. Last spring my friends and I came face to face with a Leather Lady on the steps of a new-age consignment shop. Small in stature, this Leather Lady stopped to let us admire the saying that was scripted on her pink crop-top, “A Well Behaved Woman Rarely Makes History.” My friend, who had given me a T-shirt with the same quote a few years ago, pointed out the reality of that statement. I still have that T-shirt although mine is blue and (in my case) covers far more adipose tissue. I thought, how brave this woman, who was clearly well into her 60’s. My shirt did little good for me tacked, as it was, to the wall in my classroom. In fact, one parent at open house contentiously declared the quote applicable to men also. He didn’t get it.
I like to think the Leather Lady, making history sporting her pink crop-top, spends her day volunteering at the local Keys turtle hospital or helping with the sometimes sick and errant dolphin that manages to beach itself. Maybe she’s widowed (how else would she have so much time on her hands?) and volunteers her time to ease the memory of her loss. Maybe she’s simply an aging “biker-chick” who grew to hate seeing the country from side angles while balanced on the back of her guy’s Harley. “I’m stayin’ put,” she would have said. “You can stay or you can leave.” With that declaration she would have put in an application at the local Winn-Dixie and be content to work for the small trailer perched on the hard and dusty sliver of land that she’d eventually come to own by dint of her care-worn, leathery hands. Forgive me the brief fiction, but that could be reality – for some woman: obdurate, hatless and unafraid of making social history in a sun-baked land.
Now that I am retired, I’ll have to make peace with the Leather Lady inside me. And although I will not throw out my sun block, I hope to wear my facial lines proudly. These are my lines of discontent and quite representative of the times. Each line confirms my contribution to the archive of this boomer generation. So, like the Leather Ladies, I’ll face the world with my detailed facial map that chronicles the DNA of my experience – an experience that, I fear, was spent marching too long in-time with compliance.