I am a “Baby Boomer” and recently celebrated a significant birthday. Although I have not been greatly concerned about my age through the years (there are a few exceptions that follow), I admit I have been dreading this particular number. You can say, “It is just a number,” that is what my doctor said. I believed her for a while, but then it got the best of me. You can say, “You are as old as you feel.” But I have had arthritis since my mid-thirties. When I found out at the age of 40 that I needed to have hip surgery because my joint was in bad shape, the surgeon said I had the hip of an 80 year old woman. A friend told me to “give it back.” So, I don’t necessarily want to be as old as I feel somedays.
BIRTHDAYS OF MY YOUTH
My first birthday memory was sitting on the kitchen counter next to my mother, while she decorated my birthday cake. I was probably not more than 4. It had white satiny frosting and she used an aluminum cake decorating tube and used pink and blue frosting. I remember the colors. I would like to say definitely it was a blue border with pink flowers but that would be exaggerating the prowess of my memory.
We got to choose what we wanted for our birthday dinners, and I realize now, that was a lovely gesture on her part. She certainly did not grow up with birthday celebrations, when her father was wandering around and her mother was hiding from the bill collectors or the gas man.
I have a good friend who was born on July 4th and pretty sure no one ever asked her what she wanted for a birthday dinner, the menu was set by the entire culture, as if it were embedded into the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. In my husband’s family birthdays were an ordinary day, you did not get to choose the menu. My favorite birthday memory comes from the Union Villa. I do not remember if it happened more than once. But I do remember having a few friends over, sitting in the corner both with pizza, soda and birthday cake. Yum! And that was paying customer space.
Typical for her time, my mother did not reveal her age to many people, it was one of those things “a lady did not tell.” Truth be told she may have been sensitive about it, I am not sure. I remember turning around in the car and telling a woman my mom had given a ride to, “My mommy is 26 years old!” and considering mom was 40 when I was born, her passenger must have had a good laugh. A few years later mom started to color her hair, which she did until she was 82. I didn’t know how old my parents were until I was 9 years old. My dad was at sea and he sent a cable to my mom (1959) that said “Celebrating 49 today!”
I am not sure I have my mother’s senstivity about age, except for two things. When I was approaching my 30th birthday, I did make a really big deal about it. I am sure it involved some whining and complaining on my part. I don’t remember the specifics, but my friends were extravagant, and took me to the National Theater in Washington D.C. to see “A Chorus Line.” I left myself a note on my desk calendar for the next day that said, “You don’t look a day over 29!” I whined and carried on a bit the next year, when I turned 31, and they gave me birthday cards.
MY OWN GOOFY TRADITION
I am not sure how I started this, especially with my protests of not being sensitive or worrisome about my age, previous story excepted. Somewhere along the line, I began to celebrate or honor the day before my birthday as ‘the last day to be x years old’ and hanging on for dear life. It is something I have continued to do. But, not so much this year. This year, I have been distracted by the number. I envisioned myself as hanging on for dear life, not unlike a movie heroine, holding on to the railing of a cellar, while a tornado was passing by, trying valiantly not to get sucked into the whirlwind. And then, I gave up. About 3 months before my birthday I began to think as though it had already come and gone and I was already the dreaded age.
MOM in her 70’s
Mom in her 70’s was and is my hero. She finally started admitting her age, I think she realized that she did not look her age. And, it was a different time culturally; Mom was in her 70’s in the 1980’s. She continued to sew, and branched out in new areas. She made and wore her first slacks ever, making her first pantsuits, making blouses, and coats. She planned and organized parties for a group, covering all of the details and not getting (too) flustered. Location, menu, prizes and more. She did volunteer work and was always willing to pick up groceries for neighbors in need. She still drove to Massachusetts, from Baltimore, to visit friends and made a few trips to Washington State to visit my brother.
She learned how to swim and started bowling all in her 70’s. I was a struggling single parent with three young children and she went overboard to help us. So much so, that I would be embarrassed to give details. In addition to all the other things she did to help, one day a week she picked up the kids after school, to help cut down on childcare expense. My kids loved her! And she had a wicked sense of humor. She was not a saint, but definitely pretty special.
One day, after I had remarried, she came to stay with the kids while my husband and I went out to a party. My youngest daughter, a sixth grader at the time, began telling mom jokes (dirty jokes) and mom wrote them down in shorthand. She was doubled over laughing and said she couldn’t wait to get home to share them with her friends!
FINDING THE BLESSING
I try to be a positive person and a grateful one. I try to regularly express gratitude to servers and cashiers, family and my friends. In my prayers I thank God every day for the family and friends who nurture and enrich my life and I try to be very detailed in listing out the many things for which I am grateful. I think it is a good practice. But something happened a few days before my birthday this year, that created a significant shift for me, in almost every way. I realized how fortunate I am because I “get to” be this age. Many people would have loved to have made it this far; there is no given or entitlement when it comes to age. And certainly many people wish their friends and loved ones had made it this far. My father was 60 when he died.
Realizing how fortunate I am, that I get to be this age, helped me shift the focus from my birthday, to my birth. The breath of life was breathed into me, the gift of life was given to me. It may strike some as being semantics, but I do not think so. Birthdays are about celebration, gifts, cards, parties and cakes; for those who are lucky anyway. But it seems to me that birth is about something deeper.
I had been afraid that turning 70 would turn me into something else. Someone old, something less than vital; a caricature of someone who no longer had value. Someone considered “elderly” by my community. Someone to need to have help, and not someone able to help. Someone whose day, maybe even hours are numbered. Perhaps it was even in a sense of reticence that I have gotten to the bottom of this post before admitting, I am 70, now. As of Saturday.
EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT
I still know that life is a gift and that tomorrow is not given and that anything can happen in the blink of an eye. I have lost loved ones to cancer and seen my husband through a battle with cancer. But I choose a deeper level of gratitude than I have yet lived. In the many birthday wishes I received from friends on Facebook, in addition to cards and phone calls, one phrase stands out. A friend wrote “Embrace Every Moment,” and I chose to do just that. In gratitude.
Not holding back the tide,