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In your prime


Caroline Bird is at work on her 11th book and, frankly, she needs your help. Indeed, you may even get to play a starring role in this "true narrative" if you, like the energetic Bird, are "a salty old woman."

What is a salty older woman? Here, from the feminist author herself is a definition to remember or, perhaps, publish on a large T-shirt:

"A salty is a healthy woman who is using the freedom of her independent, later years to belie the age/sex stereotype. She is celebrating her liberation from the dependence and caution of childbearing years with what the late Margaret Mead once labeled 'menopausal zest.' "

In other words, this woman of purpose, and zest, is "growing, changing and creating a lifestyle (and role) that fits her better than the one she previously led with a partner."

Plainly, wimps, weepers and those feeling sorry for themselves need not apply.

However, if you've the courage of Barbara Jordan bound to her wheelchair; the resolve of ancient Maggie Kuhn, shackled by the pain of osteoporosis, yet unyielding and always eloquent; the dominance of a Katharine Hepburn, then you're qualified to soar with Bird's flock.

The author and feminist recently defined her current project, one which carries the working title "On Our Own." Bird's subtitle: "Secrets of Salty Old Women."

"We didn't fit the stereotype when we were young," said 77-year-old, "and we don't fit it now." Most of life, she added, is organized around family units, therefore, older women, alone, MUST have logistical concerns and psychological problems.

"We're supposed to be lost in our memories; we're supposed to live for our grandchildren. We're supposed to be lusting to remarry; we're certainly not supposed to be happy living alone; we're not supposed to know how to manage our affairs, on our own; we're definitely not supposed to speak up." Guess what?

Bird, a widow, grandmother and great-grandmother, holds high the banner of the Sister of the Salties, and she surely fits none of the stereotypes. To the obvious question of who are her Salties, Bird took off . . .

In 1990, the Census Bureau said there were more than 9 million women 55 and older living alone. Of those, some 4 million are 75 and older. Among the sorority of salty older females is Barbara Sagarin, who told Bird she put her master's degree aside to drive a San Francisco taxi and "earn a decent living."

Later, severe problems with both hands and feet forced her into surgery and, in time, to be an ex-cabbie. Yet, she persisted and got a special handicapped driver's permit, so she can shop. She gets her groceries up to her apartment, one bag at a time, sitting down on each step, to rest.

Sagarin qualifies as a salty, Bird explains: "We post-reproductive women are far from helpless. For we bring a lifetime of ingenuity in managing at all income levels and all levels of health or disability. We're very hard to frighten and a good number of us are as wary as the old female elephants who lead the pack. Some of us even find living alone as liberating as going to college for the first time, or cashing that initial paycheck.

"Sadly, the joys of independence are but one of the many experiences for which no one has an interest in preparing women," she adds.

That is, until now.

If you consider yourself a Salty, or want to contact Bird to describe an older woman mentor who changed your life, write BIRD Mail, c/o Bard Lindeman, 7004 Blvd. East, Guttenberg, N.J. 07093.

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