Growing up, I had certain expectations about how an older woman should look and behave. These expectations were largely informed by the only old ladies I knew, my Grandmothers. My maternal Grandmother was a professional seamstress and very opinionated as to how women should dress or what was good or bad about a particular outfit. We would be on an outing at the local department store and she would loudly list all the faults she perceived on a garment that one of my family members had expressed an interest in. This would mortify her daughters, who would hang their heads in embarrassment and try and pretend they didn’t know her as they rifled through racks of overpriced women’s clothing. I was outwardly shocked by her behaviour, and told my Mother that I thought Grandma was being very rude, but secretly I found her candour hilarious and knew she was probably right. Plus, it would have been hypocritical of me to be annoyed with her, as I often burst into musical numbers in the aisles of grocery stores to the protestation of my long-suffering Mother. My Mother liked quiet and preferred to remain undetected whilst she went about her day, and my wilful shit-stirring in such instances blew her cover. I was definitely my Grandmother’s granddaughter in this regard. My Grandmother was also flawlessly elegant, teaming simple blouses and slacks with classic jewellery that made the whole thing pop as if it were high fashion when really she probably made the entire outfit with scraps of fabric that were left over from her client’s dresses. Her public admonishments of commercial clothing aside, my Grandmother was a rather conservative woman who had very particular ideas about how a woman should present herself, and she would not hold back from commenting if she felt a garment was inappropriate on a particular body shape or woman of a certain vintage.
My paternal Grandmother, whom I called “Nonna,” was born near Venice and was the quintessential Italian grandmother. She doted on her family, always insisting “Mangia! Mangia!” as she shovelled more food on our plates, our resistance futile in the face of hundreds of years of Italian matriarchal custom. When she went out on special occasions she wore lovely two-piece suit sets, or a chic skivvy and knee-length skirt, and always piled her wispy dark hair on top of her head using old-fashioned plastic tortoiseshell combs. Nonna kept an insanely tidy home, her clothes were as pristine as the day she bought them back in the 1970s, and when my brother and I stayed over she would adjust us in our sleep so that we were neat and our blankets were tucked underneath the mattress so tightly we could barely move. “Too much confusion!” she would cry when things got out of hand. Such was her dedication to the pursuit of order.
In a rare solo excursion to the cinema in the late 1960s, Nonna bought a ticket to see Women in Love, a film more concerned with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in the nude than it was with actual women in love, and she walked out of the theatre stunned by the film’s blatant eroticism. For a woman whose perception of romance was more in line with Elvis Presley (whom she loved) crooning “Love Me Tender” than it was with Elvis Presley swivelling his hips whilst belting out “Hound Dog,” there was simply “too much confusion” about the whole thing.
So, with these being the only examples of old lady-ness I had to look up to, it was no wonder that I was completely shocked to learn that an old lady as wild as the Wild Old Woman of Riverton could possibly exist.
The Wild Old Woman of Riverton was a wild old woman who sped around the southern river-side suburbs of Perth in a green MG convertible with the top down and her frizzy shock of grey hair fluttering in the wind. She blared classical music out of the car’s very expensive sound system as if it were the raucous heavy metal of a defiant teen, and when she’d stop at the traffic lights a cacophony of strings and operatic wailing would announce her arrival as I looked on in awe. She refused to become invisible like the other old ladies who shut up and let their husbands do the driving. If exacting symphonic insanity on the suburbs wasn’t enough, she was also likely to have a much younger man sitting in the passenger seat next her. I didn’t quite get it at the time, but I knew that something was up, because the presence of a young gentleman by her side would usually elicit giggles from my parents. I kind of got to understand that he was maybe her boyfriend, but this confused me because Grandma and Nonna’s boyfriends were referred to as their “husbands” and also they were around the same age or a bit older. Whatever it was, I recognised that it was wild but also kind of wonderful.
Sometimes I would encounter the Wild Old Woman of Riverton at the local shopping centre, Riverton Forum. She would walk confidently through the mall in barely-there tops (braless too—the horror!) and shorts that revealed the lower section of her incredible tanned buttocks, which, along with the rest of her bronzed body, suggested that she probably spent a lot of time semi-nude or entirely nude lounging in the sun. It was the sort of radioactive tan that rich old socialites acquire sunning their leathery skins on yachts in Saint-Tropez whilst sipping wine spritzers and reprimanding the help. It was not a tan for the vanilla suburbia of Perth. As she ran her errands around Riverton Forum, shoppers would stop in their tracks, their mouths agape, horrified by the gall of this old woman. And, when one of those young men was in tow (who I now acknowledge were probably her lovers), well the whole place nearly imploded in on itself over the scandal of it all. For a quiet little Perth suburban shopping centre the early 1990s, it was really too much to bear. The only excitement that Riverton Forum could ever handle was when someone decided to put sugar in the tasteless coffee they bought at the shopping centre’s one café.
In my opinion, what everyone should have been concerned with, had they not been so blinded by elderly butt-cheeks, was why the Wild Old Woman of Riverton was even shopping at the Forum in the first place. What did a wild old woman buy at such a place? She clearly had money, she didn’t need to subsist on Weetbix or Home Brand orange juice like the rest of us. Surely her denim cut-offs were not purchased from the Jeans West store or one of the discount fashion retailers that enticed jaded housewives with their lacklustre fare? Why would she bother wasting time in such a place? I can only assume that she was out to shock; that she wanted to shake up the place; that she refused to conform to the restrained aesthetic of the typical old lady. She wanted to leave her mark, to be unforgettable. In this regard, by nature of me writing about her here, I suppose she was successful.
It is probably more likely that she didn’t care about any of this at all, and that I am just ascribing subversive motives upon a woman who was simply living her life the way that she wanted to. And this is actually way more noble than being wilfully rebellious. I’m not sure what happened to the Wild Old Woman of Riverton, there came a point where she disappeared and I never saw her again. Perhaps she moved to a suburb or town that could fully appreciate her gloriousness, maybe she died. Whatever the case, she was living life fully and on her own terms, and unlike most of the anonymous faces that passed through my childhood, hers remains clear, she is remembered. The two older women who were my Grandmothers loved me and shaped the person I was to become and for this I will always adore them, but I like to think that the Wild Old Woman of Riverton also had a little part to play. She taught me to be fearless, to buck convention, and that there is nothing quite like blaring music on the car stereo with the windows down and your hair flying wildly in the breeze.
Cover image: Aerial photo of Riverton by Daryl Jones via State Library of Western Australia
Women in Love poster via Pinterest
MG via Classic Chrome