How old are you? How much do you weigh?... Are numbers
April 12, 2005
People’s sensitivity about age has always fascinated me.
Would I dare ask how old you are? Certainly not, at least, not
unless you’re under thirty.
When it comes to age, I envy the old generation of Iranians.
My great grandfather didn’t even have a birth certificate.
Nobody celebrated birthdays back then and no one kept track of
them, either. There were four age groups: child, adult, middle
old. Even in our previous generation, nobody seemed to care about
birthdays. In fact, not too many of them seemed to know the exact
“You were born in the year of the big earthquake.”
How much clearer can one be?!
“Farvardin -- March -- is when I was born,” my
aunt would say.
“Nonsense,” my grandma responded. “You were
born on the chelleh koochick after the first snow, so it couldn’t
have been the month of Farvardin.”
My uncle, who is older than auntie, often would jump in, “Oh,
but I know I was born in Farvardin.”
“If my husband -- God rest his soul -- had
his way,” grandmother would say with a dismissing wave of
her hand, “You’d all be born in Farvardin.”
“He believed Norooz to be the most auspicious moment of
the year, so he paid the guy who issued birth certificates to make
it the first of Farvardin. But, trust me, I was the one who suffered
the pain and I should know when it happened.”
So much for birthdays, but when it came to age, it wasn’t
any better either.
“So, how far apart are you and my father?” I once
asked my aunt.
“I think two years.”
“Yes, because mother says I began teething when he was
being potty trained.”
Although seniority had its significance -- for it was seniority
that determined who said the first hello and who gave eidee money
to whom -- the rest became irrelevant. The modern day witty
phrase, “Age, is a matter of mind; if you don’t mind,
it doesn’t matter,” was taken seriously back then.
Alas, Westernization changed all that. The temptation of a delicious
cake, multiple presents and above all, recognition -- an absolute
novelty to the Iranian child at the time -- was too much to
ignore. But, no matter how good that birthday cake may taste, or
how exhilarating it is to blow out all your candles in one breath,
soon it’ll be payback time. Once you pass thirty, you wish
none of it had ever happened and begin to regret the number of
candles that escalate rapidly on your birthday cake.
Kids, oblivious to the bitter truth, can’t wait to grow
old. In fact they report their ages in increments. “I’m
three-and-a-half.” Or, “I am five-and-three- quarters!” And,
my favorite, “I’m almost seven,” with ‘almost’ meaning
any number of months. So, what causes us to suddenly jam a whole
decade into “Thirty something?” Or worse, consider
people rude if they should have the audacity to ask the forbidden
As the youngest in my family, I enjoy birthdays and am always
on the lookout for unique cards. Once I found this interesting
message on a card, “How old would you be if you didn’t
know how old you are?” I gave that some thought. There are
days when I feel twenty and on other days I’m on my way to
the grave but, most of the time, I find better things to do than
worry about age. I believe we all feel younger inside than it says
on our birth certificates and the resentment of those mean bathroom
mirrors has to be universal.
This may be why some people succumb to painful procedures and
risk their lives in pursuit of a more youthful appearance. It isn’t
necessarily an attempt to deceive others, but rather a need to
look as young as they feel. “A man is as old as he feels
and a woman is as old as she looks.” Whoever said that is
either a plastic surgeon or otherwise cosmetically biased.
The bitter truth is, we all grow old and invariably reach an
age where we wish we could stop the ticking clock. Some people,
regardless of age, seem to get there too soon. For example, an
unmarried woman in her thirties may feel too old, while a grandmother
at that same age feels pretty young. And, there are those who,
in pursuit of a lost youth, follow in younger footsteps: Women
may have babies later in life and men marry young girls who could
be their daughters and granddaughters. I guess it all goes back
to, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old
Last year, I met a few old schoolmates at a party and, I’ll
admit, most of them seemed much better preserved than I am. In
particular, one of my classmates looked remarkably young for our
age. She obviously had taken good care of her skin and I noticed
she was careful not to smile too broadly for fear of laugh lines.
When I referred to our class, she raised an eyebrow and stepped
back. “You and I?” she said and shook her head violently. “We
were never in the same class. You were my big sister’s friend.”
I won’t even discuss the geniuses who recall having been
in the same class as child prodigies who were decades younger than
the rest. The way some women talk about age makes calendars futile.
In fact, it now seems as if some of my classmates couldn’t
have been born until after graduation.
I don’t know how to deal with age. I make sure my hair
is colored in time not to remind me how, with a bit of luck, I
could be a grandmother. Mathematics has done me a great disservice
because my personal choice would be to talk without the use of
numbers. How old, how tall, how heavy... Are numbers really necessary?
Can’t I just be middle aged, kind of petite, not too heavy?
I guess not, because those who ask such rude questions want a documented
answer and they will not rest until they have it.
I’ve had friends who would make a Xerox copy of my driver’s
license if I left for the bathroom without my purse -- not
to mention women who, if they guess you’re lying about your
weight, will produce a bathroom scale out of their purse.
The other day, I met a few schoolmates
at a luncheon and everyone shamelessly lied about their age. Before
I knew it, most of the
guests had slipped into a younger generation and I was the only
one left out. So when it was my turn to confess and all eyes were
on me, I did some calculations in my head and finally caught up
with them by saying, “I believe I’m a couple of years
older than my daughter.”
Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance
writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e
Gham" (see excerpt).
Visit her site ZoesWordGarden.com