On aging

Joy BianchiA writing client of mine posted a photo on Instagram this afternoon, and as it often does, a comment caused a spring in my brain to fly loose.

“Go shopping with the perennially bespectacled Joy Bianchi, a grand dame of the San Francisco philanthropy scene and one of the world’s premier couture collectors,” the caption reads. The photograph focuses on an elegant woman resplendent in deep red lipstick and a zebra-striped dress with a black sash, her dark grey hair pulled back with a bit of lift on top, her eyes covered with outsized black glasses. A huge cocktail ring hangs from her right hand as she gazes into the camera with comfort. She’s got the kind of panache that might make Diana Vreeland smile if she were still around — the sort of look that probably elicits comparisons to Iris Apfel from people who know who that is.

“So cute,” typed a commenter.

So cute.

I decided to take a moment to look up Joy Bianchi’s biography, or at least a quick swath of it. I found some interesting notes:

“The spirited woman about town has dedicated the past 62 years to supporting the Bay Area’s developmentally disabled residents with developmental disabilities -ed. through fashion.” –WhereTraveler

“In Catholic grade school, she was taught about St. Vincent de Paul and charity as his predominant virtue. ‘I got hooked on him,’ she said. What followed were decades of service to developmentally disabled people with developmental disabilities -ed.” –SFGate

“Her humanitarian spirit blossomed at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Pacific Heights. At the mere age of 14, she began working with developmentally disabled children with developmental disabilities -ed., then called mentally retarded, through Helpers of the Holy Innocence. Once a week she accompanied the nuns to visit the poor on Pixley Street, where she saw rats in the basements of homes. After graduating from San Francisco College for Women, she worked in the social work department at the University of California Medical Center but stayed involved with Helpers of the Holy Innocence. When the organization needed a new Director, Venturini Bianchi was hired. That was 1962. A year later, she opened Helpers’ first home at 2626 Fulton Street.

It was there that six developmentally disabled women women with developmental disabilities -ed. received another chance. The first female to move in had lost both of her parents, arrived from a foster home, had been physically molested, mentally abused and put in the juvenile court system. ‘She was the person who spurred this home to become this wonderful place,’ Venturini Bianchi said.

Eventually there would be three Helpers homes that simultaneously took care of 18 men and women daily. Venturini Bianchi didn’t just provide a bed and meals. The residents were afforded the same life she enjoyed.

Interior decorator Eleanor Ford and antiquarian Bernard Stout outfitted the bedrooms using the favorite colors of the residents, some of who lived at the home until their 60s and 70s. Only fresh produce was served and the residents reviewed the book Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers before going out to dinner. Wilkes Bashford dressed the men in his shirts and cashmere sweaters. The women wore clothes from I. Magnin. Nothing was too good for Helpers’ residents, who frequented museums, went to the opera and symphony, ran errands to FedEx, learned to read and write and became known in the community.” –Haute Living

We can save the lecture on using person-first language with regard to developmental disabilities for another day; for now, those edits will have to do. Today, my f-stop is set to highlight something that’s bothered me for years: the way we treat our elders as if they’re less than they are. As if they aren’t entire human beings with textured lives and stories to tell.

About the word cute

“Cute” is puppies. “Cute” is babies. “Cute” is the first scarf you ever tried to knit, the drawing a child made, the moment two people on a first date acknowledge how awkward the whole thing is. Outside of the costume of sarcasm, I think most people who call other people “cute” are attempting to pay a compliment. We mean well; we just don’t know what to say on the fly, and we’re hypocrites about the things that scare us. “She’s so cute,” we say of women who were old enough to have an informed opinion on Roe v. Wade as it was actually happening, because it’s nicer than saying “I’m terrified of getting older and this woman reminds me that I’m going to.” “He’s so cute,” we say of men who were old enough to fight in Vietnam, Korea or either world war, because winking and smiling is easier than staring the passage of time in the face and acknowledging it fully. “They’re so cute,” we say of people who’ve survived in this place for the better part of a century, reducing them to innocents on par with infants and fuzzy little yellow chicks emerging from their eggs.

But they’re not innocents. They’re not children. They’re adults.

Most had babies of their own long ago, and lots of those babies have had babies since. Many forged careers, built things, lived through hardship, got sick, broke through boundaries, fought for what they believed in, took care of other people, and tried to take care of themselves. Plenty still do. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. They’re flawed, they’re sentient — they’re people. They’re survivors of the same things the younger among us face every day, and probably far more than that. They see us for who we are and who we might someday be, and while we pat them on the head like toddlers, some might be thinking, “Please. I could eat you for breakfast.” And you know what? They probably should.

In fact, they’re not “they.” They’re “we.” We’re all “we.”

I don’t know Joy Bianchi, nor had I ever heard of her before today. But I do know one thing, and I’ll say it three ways:

She is fierce.

She is a fox.

She is anything but cute.


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