How many midlife women remember the first time they crossed the bridge from “miss” to “ma’am”? Was it at age 35, 40, later?
I was around 40, in a supermarket in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, pushing a cart when it happened. Can’t remember what I was looking for, but an earnest young guy in a green apron saw my perplexed look and asked, “Can I help you find something…ma’am?”
I froze. What had I done differently? Had I forgotten the sheer pink lipstick? Was my last haircut too short? Did I dress too much like Margaret Thatcher that day? Was I frowning too much? All I knew was that despite workouts, lots of salad and a trunkful of Clinique, as of that day I could no longer pass as a younger woman…someone had outed me as a “ma’am.”
From that time on I noticed every time that somebody called me ma’am until I stopped counting. The ma’aming intensified when my daughter Rachel went to school in Virginia, where properly-brought-up southern youths call every married woman “ma’am.” As I grew into my middle-aged life I grew into my ma’am-dom, accommodating it gradually like a pair of jeans with lycra.
So imagine my delight last week, 17 years later, when a courtly young waiter in a white apron gave me my youth back. We were visiting Washington, DC for some sightseeing and museum-browsing over the July 4 weekend, and found a welcome respite from DC’s relentless heat wave at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a restaurant a block from the White House. The air conditioning, the antique paneling, the bar filled with character and characters, and the superb crab cakes brought us there for two visits.
After we sat down for our second visit, we chatted with our waiter, who looked about 27 and strongly resembled our California nephews. We talked about those nephews, about DC and the record-breaking heat, the politicians and staffers who frequented the Pub, and the day’s specials. When he took my order, he smiled at me and dropped the bomb:
“And what will the young lady have?”
After making sure that there were no toddler girls nearby, I looked into his eyes for a glitter of mockery but saw none…just good old-fashioned southern courtesy and warmth. And even though I knew I really couldn’t pass any more for a much younger woman, I felt for one brief moment like I had my miss back, thanks to someone young enough to be my son. I felt really happy and ordered that second glass of wine.
The extra wine kicked in as we stood up to leave after paying our bill, just in time to see our debonair waiter turn his attention to a nearby table, where a couple that appeared to be in their late 70s was ready to order. He smiled warmly at the wrinkled, age-spotted woman at the table and asked, without a trace of mockery, “And what will the young lady have?”