Welcome to Middle Age

Bernadette

I turned 45 today. My grandmother is 101. If I count on her genes, I’m still a good five years from the middle of my life.

I remember an interview with physicist Brian Greene on RadioLab (at least I think it was Greene and he was on RadioLab — but I’m nearly middle age and the details are fuzzy). Greene was talking about how we are at the most perfect place within our solar system’s history — able to see the beginning, understand how it is unfolding, and potentially know it’s inevitable end. That is what my forties have been for me. This sweet spot within my life where I remember and, for the most part, can still see the beginning. I remember riding bikes with my cousins down our grandmother’s long driveway. I remember my fourth grade teacher who was a nun, but didn’t wear the usual habit worn by nuns, and had her students call her Miss Oliger. I remember my first French kiss. My first heartbreak. The first time I broke someone’s heart. I can look back at all these firsts almost as if I can reach out and touch them with the tips of my fingers.

Some memories I can grab onto here in the middle. Hold them in my hand like an apple I’m about to bite again. At 45, I know where I am and who I am. I know myself better now than all the previous days leading up to this age. If I turn my head slightly and look away from these moments I am trying to hold onto like a piece of sweet fruit, I can see further down my road and catch a glimpse of what’s most likely to come. Just as easy as I can look back, I can look forward. The beginning and the end are the same distance away.

I like being middle age with what feels like a 360-degree view of my life. There is a balance here. Even as a working mother who complains about all the dirty dishes left in the sink and all the dinners to be cooked and all the towels to be folded. Even as a woman who finds herself in fits of rage nearly every day since November 9, 2016 — I finally feel a balance that I struggled to maintain before I made it my forties.

For my birthday, I splurged on a piece of art. It wasn’t even all that much of a splurge, but I most likely wouldn’t have been looking for it on any other day. My son and I had shared a long-john donut with custard for breakfast and picked up two handfuls of heirloom tomatoes and homemade pumpkin bread from the farmer’s market before wandering into a local art shop and gallery. He was eating a sno-cone in the front of the shop and I was looking at all the art on the walls, considering something for my office, something that would inspire me. And there she was, stuck in the back corner as if she was being punished. This woman, this older woman, who knew things. You can tell by the way her eyes are fixed on the artist painting her. The way her mouth is closed, nearly grimacing. She has something she wants someone to know. If only someone would listen to her story…for once, would they just listen to her.

The gallery owner told me he bought the painting at an estate sale in Savannah, Georgia twenty years ago. He had kept the painting in his house initially, but his partner found it too creepy and now he was selling it. The estate sale had taken place at the house once owned by the woman in the portrait — she had died the previous year and all of her belongings were being sold. Her daughter was there and told the gallery owner after he had purchased the portrait of her mother that she was a “mean and hateful” woman. I know mean and hateful. I know it well enough to know it almost always starts as pain. Unrelenting, barely able to breath, heart-wrenching pain.

The gallery owner didn’t know the woman’s name, so I’m calling her Bernadette. She now lives in my office on the wall behind me as I work. Her daughter told the gallery owner that the portrait had been painted in the 1940s —50 years before her death. Doing the math, Bernadette looks old enough to be well past middle age in this painting. But that is what unrelenting pain can do to a woman. Age them in ways that shows clear through even in a painted portrait.

So here we are, Bernadette and me on my birthday standing in the middle of our lives looking back at the beginning and out to the future and there are so many stories to tell.