Mark D. Roberts

In my last two posts I’ve shared some occasions on which I had to deal with the fact of my getting older, at least in appearance. When I was much younger I used to think of this as cool. I remember, for example, when I went to the movies with my friends during my high school years. We all asked for student rates. My friends got their discounts without question. The ticket salesperson made me show my student ID because she thought I was well beyond high school age. Back then, this was great. But now, well, it’s a little different.
I’ve always been careful as a pastor not to insult people in my flock. (Good plan!) Once, and only once, did I ask a member of my flock when her baby was due, only to hear that she was not pregnant. Now I don’t mention pregnancy to a woman unless she’s fully in labor.
One of my most awkward moments as a pastor came many years ago with a woman I’ll call Shirley. I didn’t know how old she was, but I figured she must have been around the same age as her husband Charles. They both looked to be about 65, as near as I could tell, although Charles might have been a couple of years younger.
One time I was talking with Shirley about her experiences in college. I asked, “Did you meet Charles while in college?”
“Yes,” I did she answered.
“Oh,” I continued, innocently enough, “were you and he in the same class at school?”
Shirley’s eyes darkened and the edges of her mouth dropped ominously. “No, we were not!” she said with an angry tone. “Charles is fifteen years older than I am!”
You know, there’s just not much that can be said at this point. Less is better, I think. I apologized without further explanation. I avoided obvious gaffs like, “Oh, you and he look to be the same age.” But there was no escaping the fact that I had stuck my foot into my mouth and chomped down hard.
By God’s grace, Shirley never held my misjudgment against me, at least as far as I know. She remained a good friend. And I learned never to say anything that suggests to any human being how old he or she might be, unless I’m talking to kids, when I always over-estimate their ages because they seem to like it.
I’ve wondered sometimes if having McDonald’s employees give me the senior discount is retribution for my insult to Shirley. You know, what does around comes around.
Am I going to put up a picture of Shirley and Charles? To quote Javert, “You must think me mad!” But their situation reminds me of one of the most famous of American paintings, American Gothic by Grant Wood. I had always thought that this painting was meant to represent a husband and wife who, obviously, have quite a large age spread between them. I learned, however, that Wood intended the characters in the picture to be a farmer and his unmarried daughter. In fact, those who posed for the painting were Wood’s dentist (62 years old) and sister (30 years old).

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