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Short Shrift

by Julia Sneden

Well, it's happened. After years of pushing myself to stand up straight and celebrate my mighty five feet, three inches, I checked in for my annual physical and was horrified to find out that I am now only five feet and three quarters of an inch tall.

How did I manage to lose two and a quarter inches without noticing it? Well, when you're already short, you're used to kicking the library stool around the kitchen as you go about your work. And I guess it's happening to my husband at the same time and rate, because when we hug, I still come up to the little hollow just below his shoulder, a comfortable nestling spot.

My doctor earnestly explained that the soft material between the spinal discs begins to wear down and dry out as we age, which shortens the spine. That was no news to me. I have seen my mother shrink from five feet four to four feet ten inches, and my grandmother, who started at five feet one inch, was four feet six inches by the time she died at 97. My father, who was once over six feet tall, wasn't more than three or four inches taller than I when he died at 92. So I should have been prepared, only of course you always think that won't ever happen to you.

The doctor has put me on a rather gross anti-osteoporosis drug that does horrid things to my digestive tract for a few hours after I take it, but if it can help to slow the shrinkage and avoid brittle bones, it's worth it. Jade Snow Wong, who wrote a delightful book called Fifth Chinese Daughter, recounts one of her elders as saying: "Alas, she was born too short." That line has stuck with me for many years as I struggle to reach the second shelf in my kitchen. I love having my taller sister-in-law come to visit: she can reach even the third shelf without having to grab the stepstool.

One of the few blessings of shortness is not being able to see the top of the refrigerator which, in my kitchen, is usually forgotten at cleaning time. At least I don't have to look at the dust. There is, however, always that moment when a tall guest glances at it and looks away quickly. I make an embarrassed mental note to climb up and clean the next morning.

My grandmother's mother and sisters were slim and tall, but Grandabbie was short and sturdy. "I am," she used to say sadly, "pony-built." Those genes seem to have dominated in the ensuing two generations. Certainly I share her short waist and what someone once referred to as "a fatal shortness of thigh."

Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man's legs should be. "Oh, I guess about long enough to reach the ground," he replied. Mine certainly meet that requirement, although when I walk next to someone of normal height, I must take two steps to every one of his. Short people often look as if they are nervous and bustling. They aren't: they're just trying to keep up! I suppose I shouldn't be griping on behalf of all us who are vertically challenged, but sometimes it does seem as if the modern world is designed for giants.

Just look at all the big stores like WalMart. Aside from the fact that those towering aisle shelves seem like threatening crags about to topple in on you, you must ask a clerk to lift things down for you, if indeed you can find a clerk. Of course that presupposes that you can see that high up, to identify what you want in the first place.

Our local supermarket used to be a large, airy, open space with shelves at eye level. It was a pleasure to browse and choose groceries. Then the management decided to put in new shelves that tower more than 7 feet high. The average American female is only five feet four inches tall. The average American female is also the person who most often does the shopping. Hello, Harris Teeter Supermarket people? You have made a whole bunch of us pretty unhappy.

If I want something that's on the top shelf, I must step up onto the edge of the bottom shelf and lunge upwards to grab what's up there. The action gives real meaning to the "Teeter" part of the store's name.

It doesn't help that the small cans are the ones on the top shelf. Small cans are rarely used by young people with families. They are favored by the elderly, who live in one or two person families. Even though lots of us are still strong, active and flexible, older people who have begun to lose height are the very last people who should have to stretch and lunge. Add to that the danger for those who have brittle bones, dimming eyesight or shaky balance, and you have a real problem.

The elderly shouldn't have to be so embarrassingly inconvenienced, and I am surprised that Harris Teeter hasn't figured it out. They certainly recognize the buying power of their older customers. They have a "Senior Discount Day" every Tuesday, and stock a number of products that seniors use often. Surely they could be more considerate in their placement of those products.

I realize that there are at least as many disadvantages to being exceptionally tall as there are to being exceptionally short, and I don't think it behooves any of us to make a big fuss over either state. After all, we're alive, and that's ultimately what counts.

I've never really mourned my lack of physical stature, perhaps because although Grandabbie was not a tall person, she possessed an incredibly powerful personality and was beloved and respected by everyone who knew her. Role models don't come any better.

But I think that I, like her, am entitled to a wistful little sigh when I look in the mirror and murmur "Pony-built."


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