The surprise came when she threw her arms around me. I hadn’t done anything special. Just helped her choose between two dresses she’d been obsessing about; the choice obvious once she put them on. In one she appeared school girlish; in the other grown up and elegant. Not that she isn’t a grownup. She’s in her early fifties, has two kids and a husband. As for elegant, well that particular word is not usually ascribed to someone five feet one and she did have to reach up on her toes in order to get her arms around my neck. The surprise came from her unusual display of affection, and the fact, at that particular moment, I believed she saw me as a mother figure — reversing what I imagined our roles to be.
To be clear: I never looked at her as a mother stand-in. But she is part of a couple and I know that subconsciously I perceive couples to be parental figures no matter their age. (This probably due to the fact I was the baby of the family and grew up with three sets of parents: mother/father; sister and her husband; brother and his wife.) Also, as I have chosen not to be coupled, I remained in the mindset of the child for more years than probably appropriate. As for being someone’s mother, other than a young friend I have emotionally adopted, I never had a desire to be one. Just to have one watching over me. Mine having been gone for over thirty years.
Turns out I’m not alone. One friend, an Australian artist, quite a good one as a matter of fact, said that when confronted with a painting that wasn’t coming together, she has stood in the middle of her studio and screamed, “Muttie, help!” even though her mother had been gone for years. My artist friend is seventy four with two children, two grandchildren and another on the way.
My friend’s grateful hug reminded me that I was no longer forty-six. Something I haven’t been for the past thirty-three years. Although It was how I thought of myself in spite of the aches, pains and stiffness that come with the aging process. I am convinced that we all have a particular year when in our minds we stopped growing older. Like Jack Benny and his 39. Not one person I’ve asked gave me their present age or even decade as to how they see themselves — twenty years younger being the minimum number offered up. My mother’s cut-off age was 18. Strange, because she was single and dateless at 18. “I wake up thinking I’m eighteen and then I begin to move and realize I’m 86.” Why 18 was her year, I have no idea — except, maybe, my father never made her feel pretty.
Of course, one look in the mirror and I can see folds that weren’t there before. Much like the rings of a tree which you can count to discern just how many years its stump has been in the ground. And yes, almost daily I’m reminded that I have collected more information, have memories that go back further than most of the younger folks I know. In fact I’m often surprised when there is a shared historical commonality. No, those of us ‘of a certain age’ — whatever that age be — know time has passed. But how we see ourselves in our own mirrorless mind’s eye is something else. I’m certain that if I live long enough to walk bent over with a shuffle; I will no longer be under my 46 year delusion. It’s a strange place this space between arrested time and reality.
Another friend, six month’s older than me, told me of the afternoon she spent with her daughter and her daughter’s friends deep in conversation. Not for one moment did she think about the differences in their ages. In fact, she felt vibrant, alive and more than accepted as their peer. Until, that is, the following day. Her daughter, convinced she was passing on a compliment, said, “My friends thought you were emarkable.” Omitted: “for your age.”
I can remember when I was in my twenties — even through my forties — being in conversation with people who were older than me and whom I greatly admired thinking, “Wow, they accept me. They think I have something to offer.’ Now I am thrilled when those younger than me do not think I am irrelevant.
The reality of seeing ourselves as other people see us hit one of the most active women I have ever known in her late eighties. This is a woman who worked full time until she was 76 (only retiring because the facility she worked for shut down.) Not content with filling her life with friends, her six kids, their spouses and her multiple grandchildren (all of which she’d had devoted time to in spite of her work) she signed up to represent at the UN an organization to which she belonged for full-day sessions that began at 9 and ended at 4. She did more in one day than most of us way younger manage to do in a month. And, until she turned 90, did it all in high heels. On one particular day while on an errand to the Post Office her car battery died. Two men offered to help. It being a freezing cold day, she opted to stay inside while they charged her car. She was in an adjoining room when she heard the men return and ask the clerk, “Where’s the old lady? We’ve fixed her car.” She repeated the story over and over, laughing as she did. But it was clear that each telling helped her internalize her newly realized reality.
When I was very young, I would constantly check mirrors to assure myself I existed. Now I force myself to look so that I can be reminded of what others see. I’m often taken for ten years younger than I am, partially due to good genes and more likely due to a display of energy, but that still makes me “old” in others’ minds. In another year I most likely will be in my final decade, plus or minus a few years. Knowing what is ahead has forced an enormous paradigm shift in the way I face each day. Giving up the dichotomy in which I lived my life: always in need of a goal while simultaneously focused on the process of whatever I have undertaken rather than the end result. But now long term goals seem fruitless. When I finished my memoir, I knew that it would be futile to look for a publisher if I ever wanted to see my words in print. I could be gone before I even managed to find an agent. So I self-published. Any fantasy of fame and fortune put to bed.
Ah fantasy! The last of the dispensable items in my emotional treasure chest. It is not that I don’t still maintain a few. Every so often I buy a lottery ticket and enjoy the fantasy of what I’ll do with the money. But other fantasies of which I used to partake now end before they even get started; fantasies such as running into men whom I used to know and had crushes on. Oh I have run into them, but sadly only on the obit pages of the NY Times. So I’m left having to remind myself to live in the present — to release my addiction to goals into the stratosphere. I am not denying the future. We all know where it ends. But where pleasure was once only fully savored when it was reward for a job well done, now pleasure is simply enjoyed, even relished, for its own sake. I can take in a movie in the middle of a weekday without guilt and see a friend for lunch for no other reason than she/he is available. No I haven’t learned to take a walk or stroll with no destination in mind. But who knows? Even that could come.
For more of my insights please check out my memoir I Was There All Along