An ode to the old ladies at the gym

2013-02-20 17.05.51 I used to go to this sort of fancy gym where the insides of the lockers were nice and clean and I could watch my own individual television while I worked out on one of the two dozen cross trainers and they set out stuff like cotton balls and Q-tips and tampons that you could just have for the taking. Like, ZOMG, as many free Q-tips and makeup sponges as I wanted! (As Rowan might say, “It’s like, they sell it to you for free!”)

But I stopped going to that gym, in favour of a different gym that was closer to our house. The new gym has a pool, which makes it great for the kids. Also, the new gym is cheaper. I figured I could sacrifice the individualized televisions and the free feminine hygiene products and all for the sake of the household bottom line, even if the lockers at the new gym are gritty on the bottom and I often have to do this complicated shuffling dance with all the other women getting changed at the same time as me.

I thought that it might take a bit of time to get used to the new gym, what with having to bring my own cotton balls and all, but it’s been a pretty smooth transition. In fact, I like the new place better. I like the bootcamp classes and the instructors. I like watching the toddlers and their parents. I like that I can walk there in ten minutes. I like eavesdropping on the teenage swim-team girls, and watching them grow up over the course of the year. (Once, I witnessed one of them change out of her bathing suit and into her street clothes inside her locker with the door closed, not even aware she was there until she popped out like some kind of modest groundhog, and I remembered that angsty time when I cared so much what people thought about my body. Just wait till you have a baby or two, honey, I thought, to cure you of caring whether people see you naked in the gym changeroom.)

But mostly, I like the old ladies.

That’s what they are, the dozens of women in their late 60s and 70s and for all I know 80s who are constantly at the gym, sometimes twice a day, going from boot camp to aqua fit to the weights room to the cross trainers and beyond, talking the whole time. The gym is their hub, their social circle, their second home. And they chat away — with each other, with me — about the weather and their children and grandchildren, who’s getting married and who’s coming home for the holidays. They talk about shopping and what they eat and their work and their families and their bodies: what aches, their haircuts (“Why do they always cut your hair so short once you’re old?” one of the old ladies bemoaned the other day. She turned to me: “You’ll understand when you’re old,” she said, and I felt instantly as though I were 20.), how their clothes fit. A few days ago, all the showers were lukewarm and it was like there was some Greek chorus on the subject, wave after wave of women asking and answering each other "Is your shower hot?" "No, no, is yours?" "Oh no, are they cold?" The showers are cold, the showers are cold — I don't know why exactly, but the urgency of it all made me smile.

I love the old ladies. I love how they take up so much space, how unapologetic they are about their bodies, their scars, the weight of age and experience stripped naked. I listen and occasionally laugh and kibitz. I watch as an old lady spreads her towel carefully across the bench, how she needs to sit down to put her sweatpants on one leg at a time, how she skips a bra because it’s just too exhausting to put on. I love how they always smile, or at least nod and say hello. I love how familiar they are: yesterday, one of them walked by me as I was doing up the hooks and eyes on my ratty old sports bra and actually reached over and twisted off a dangling string. FROM MY BRA. It was awesome.

“There!” she said. “You’re going to get a nice long letter now! At least that’s what they say.” She paused. “Maybe an email in this day and age.”

And then she went on her merry way, leaving me with the sense-memory — just for a moment — of what it must be like to still have a mother.