The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Whereas March 23, 2015

My friend Betty turned 90 last week. Her family threw her a big surprise party, at which the mayor of Saratoga Springs was in attendance. The mayor herself even made a formal proclamation citing the importance of Betty’s contribution to the community over the past half century. (A good dose of ‘whereases’ contained therewith. !) Betty’s good works have touched us personally too; before Elihu applied to the Waldorf School, she’d called them and put in a good word for him. She does things like that. And she still plays music, still travels, still goes regularly to the Y… She’s still participating in life – in ways most folks half her age don’t. In fact, if I were to compare our schedules, I’d bet she’s got more on her calendar than I have on mine. But I think she’s chugging along with the energy of a fifty year old precisely because she’s got so much going on. She’s got things to live for, experiences to look forward to. And a lot of friends to help her celebrate along the way. Makes me wonder what my life might look like in another forty years…

I do think I’m at the doorstep of a new chapter. Would fit in with the ‘seven year’ sort of pattern people often identify in their lives… We’re approaching our seventh anniversary here at the Hillhouse at the end of this coming summer, and while I still feel like I just got here, time tells me otherwise. Time. Impossible to understand, as it goes by fast or slow, it seems long or short, yet the temporal truth is that it just keeps ticking along, unwavering, oblivious to whether or not you’re having a good time or a lousy one. To the seven year old time hardly exists, to the nineteen year old it stretches on indefinitely, to the thirty year old it still seems as if it will likely go on much longer than the warnings of the aged would have you believe…. But then, one day, you realize you’re not just fifty – you’re past it. You’re into the next stretch. And now, now you begin to really get it. And you realize that you’ll be ‘getting it’ with even more clarity in the years to come – that is, if you live to see them. Because by the age of fifty-one you begin to feel pretty lucky to still be here at all. You realize that you’ve lost friends, that more will leave in the coming years, and that you too might well be going on your way like them. There is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll still be living a year from now. Or five years from now. Or even tomorrow. And this time you know that. You didn’t quite believe it before, but now you do. Finally, time itself has convinced you.

So now what? How do you move forward into your life in order to maximize your experience here? How do you make the most of the time you have? At the risk of sounding like a Facebook platitude, your work here is to find your ‘thing’ and throw yourself into it. We’re encouraged to be brave, to be of service to others, to pay it forward. I agree that all those things are important. But it’s the how of it all that has me stopped at the moment. I look at the Studio with great visions, but right now the ‘hows’ are feeling like a huge wall in front of my face. I can imagine how it would feel to be of service, to pay it forward, to do something that contributes… But still, even after half a century on the planet, I’m still trying to summon the courage to actually put that feeling into action. It’s been quite a while since I’ve learned new skills, but this old dog’ll have to learn some new tricks soon if forward movement’s to be made. Something’s gotta change, and it’s likely going to have to be me. Who knew that change was still part of the program at my age? Apparently, change is always part of the program. (Some may think this is obvious stuff. Mech. Call me a late learner.)

Yesterday Elihu and I made a trip to the mall and had supper at the Asian place we’ve been going to since we moved here. We enjoyed chatting with the young daughter of the owners, who is now in college. We inquired about each other’s age – and she wanted me to guess hers. My peers will laugh to know the phenomenon of guessing a ‘younger’ person’s age; they all look just about the same – younger – so it’s really not so easy as you might think. But I guessed about right. Guessed 19, she was 20. Her turn. I let her off the hook, but she insisted. “Thirty-five” she said, completely sincerely. When I told her how old I was she was shocked. Ha! Interesting what presents as youth. I think attitude and energy have everything to do with it (and maybe a little hair color). So who cares if my neck isn’t behaving? – it seems my spirit is still doing its thing. Grateful am I.

I like to ask my young piano students which age they think will be the ‘best’ one of all. Kids are forever wishing to be older, but then there comes this magic window in which things all seem to do an about-face. Young adults lament the ‘big three-o’, but just a decade earlier they were in a hurry to get older. So where exactly is the sweet spot? Where exactly does one aspire to be? I’ve heard small kids say from 19 to 27. Can’t remember a kid saying thirty. But that’s understandable, thirty hardly even exists to the wee ones. Personally, I have always thought the ideal, magic window happens between 25 and 45. Youth, beauty – and the power that goes with all that – is yours. But there are other things to consider, like wisdom, control, sense of self… Things that usually come more into focus after forty…

Our friend Martha says that 42 was her magic year. My mother liked all of her 50s the best. Me – I’m not liking my sagging body these days, and I doubt things will improve on that front from here on in – but I agree with mom, I like being in my fifties. I do think that there’s a certain peace and solidity that comes with being older. Nothing’s as urgent, as all-important or tragic. Losses are tempered. Joys are precious. And whatever happens must somehow be dealt with. So I’m liking being 51. Maybe not so much when I have to don a bathing suit this summer, but who knows, maybe I can let that go. Maybe. The trick is to stay busy with the truly important things, so that the things I have no control over (like the crepey thigh skin) will seem a bit less important. Sounds like I’m talking myself into this, huh? Yeah. Maybe kind of. But I think it’s worth convincing myself if I’m to make peace with the coming decades.

But I’m glad to be where I am in my life. I may never learn to speak Italian fluently, or make large sums of money, or get down to my pre-baby weight again, but these days I’m beginning to think maybe I should toss some of those dreams aside and concentrate on what’s in my immediate path. I’m blessed beyond my understanding to have such opportunity available to me, to have my mother next door, to have my beloved son with me, to live in this beautiful place, to have my health, my hands (hey – they’re not what they used to be, but they work well enough) and of course, my very life. All before me. However long – or short – that may be.

Whereas I, being a bit older than I was before, am resolved to continue my work and never stop moving toward my goals, it is hereby proclaimed that everything will be ok and everything will work out in the end – regardless of how it all works out. (Not sure it’ll keep working out for another thirty-nine years, but it’s something to shoot for!)

IMG_4505Betty and Elihu

IMG_4524Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Joanne Yepsen makes a proclamation.

IMG_4527Such a wonderful thing. Well-deserved is an understatement.

IMG_4548A photo of Betty from half her life ago.

IMG_4509My kid’s pretty good at hanging with folks of any age.

IMG_4626But he especially loves the wee ones.

IMG_4604What 90 and 80 look like. (That’s mom on the right.) Definitely not the 90 and 80 of yesteryear.

IMG_4659Elihu offered his recitation of Ozymandias for Betty and the partygoers.

Whereas a good time was had by all, and whereas Betty has set a high standard for the rest of us who have not yet caught up with her ninety years, be it known that we are all inspired to go forth into the world and live with purpose and joy (which is always easier to do after one has enjoyed some fabulous food and drink!).

 

Shift February 17, 2015

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Big shifts are underway. Frustratingly, the two I’m most keenly interested in are difficult to pinpoint and identify. Although the changes are slow-moving and subtle, sometimes it seems they appear overnight.

My own face and body are morphing into a form I never expected to see myself inhabiting, and my son, while still just a boy, occasionally evokes shadowy premonitions of the years ahead. I’ll catch a glimpse of his back and shoulder and understand it to be the sculpted shape of a young man, but then that idea falls away again and I’ll realize that it’s still just my little boy. A subtle turn of the head or bending of a limb will look somehow new and different, and again the approaching future reminds me that it’s coming. But still, it’s only a hint – nothing I can define, measure or quantify… And after my vision fades, it’s still a young boy’s body I see, and I’m relieved. Yes, I know big changes are coming, and deep inside I’m beginning to get ready. But my feelings remain mixed: being a single mother to a young child is exhausting; am I not indeed ready for the next chapter? I know that I am, and in fact I’m so looking forward to seeing what kind of young adult my son is to become – but I also know how terribly I’ll miss aspects of this intimate, magical time in our lives. Getting ready, breathing in….

Unlike the vaporous nature of the visions I have of my son, the snapshots I see of my own body are not momentary illusions, nor do they portend for more lovely visions to come. The relatively new jowls bracketing my jaw line are not an aberrations caused by the light. In fact, with more light and more careful scrutiny the changes appear more advanced than I might otherwise have thought. Low res pictures and dimly lit rooms may offer comfort and push the truth off to a comfortable distance, but I can’t fool myself for long. I know what’s going on here. And yeah, I know I’ve said it before, but likely I’ll say it again a whole lot before my run on this planet is through: This wasn’t really supposed to happen to me. Of course I know that’s not exactly true; I knew age would befall me, it’s just that somehow I imagined the whole process would be a tad bit, well, sexier. Aging didn’t seem all that bad when I saw the relaxed elegance of over-fifty models carrying firewood or sipping tea in LL Bean catalogues, or when women of a certain age happily rode bicycles alongside their silver-templed life mates during insurance commercials. It was possible to age with style and ease! It was really all about attitude, right? Yeah – the right attitude, a good head of hair, a long inseam and a snappy, clean jaw line. ! If I had those goin for me, I’d happily take the wrinkles around my eyes and the mane of silver. But age doesn’t manifest so neatly in most of us. Sigh.

At the risk of belaboring this discussion, I feel I need to completely clear about things. In order to become more comfortable with the subject of aging, I wish to blow the goddam top off of all this polite, tip-toeing around that folks do when talking about getting old. I have a low tolerance for euphemisms…. Please, friends, can we be as honest as possible with each other? I once knew a man who said that “woman don’t go gray. They go silver.” And while I still think it’s kinda cute – it obscures the truth of the experience. I’m sorry, but unless you look something like Emmylou Harris, gray hair for you will likely detract from the drama of your look rather than add to it. (I do know one person who has been blessed with a head of truly gorgeous gray hair. In this case I might even be tempted to call it silver. Yes, Francine, I’m talking about you.) I will not have this ‘glass half full’ nonsense about how beautiful a person’s wrinkles are, how the lines around one’s eyes are ‘earned’…. Bull fucking shit. I’m sorry y’all. I don’t find them ugly per se – wrinkles do not diminish my love for or attraction to a person – but they don’t demand my admiration as does the dewy, smooth skin of a young person. Come on. I am so tired of pretending shit’s what it isn’t.

Having said all of that, I’m going to need a way of living inside this wrinkling body while feeling somewhat ok about it. It’s been a while since I fell off the workout wagon, and I know that once I’m back on the horse again, that’ll help me feel better. And one day, I’m tellin ya now, if I should ever come across $5K that doesn’t need to go out as soon as it comes in, I’ll be making an appointment at a local surgeon’s office to get some help pulling things up again. Yeah, I’m not above it. Just not rich enough yet to put it on the list of options. So for now, it’s all about going inside to make the needed adjustments. And also – it’s about living for something else besides me, which brings me to another shift that’s underfoot these days…

Any moment I’m going to get a call from the forester, and I’ll don my snowshoes and join both him and the head logger in the woods. These guys are fantastic and fastidious and they’ve stayed in communication with me throughout the job. My parents got screwed over by the last outfit they had harvest their woods, some twenty-odd years ago, and this time I made it a top priority to find folks I could trust. The logger had some questions and asked that I accompany them on a walkabout, so he could make sure that he didn’t cut what I’d hoped to keep. So far the process has been as unobtrusive as I believe logging can be; the very roads on which they remove the trees recede from view into the forest from just a few feet away; the roads themselves are few and the cuts selective. (Might be one reason we’re not making the big money that we could if we cut more dramatically.) The other day I explored our property as I hadn’t since I was a child. It was thrilling, inspiring, and from the newly formed trails had me expanding my ideas about hosting nature walks in tandem with art classes. In the past I’d been asked by small folk music groups if I could offer camping space… Soon the answer will be yes. And there’s a huge basin of wetland that my parents had once discussed making into a pond (at the time there was state money available for it if it was to be left a wild area. Something to re-investigate.). There’s some gentle topography to the woods and even a creek – which one of the workers noted to me was not yet ‘categorized’, meaning it had yet to be named. ! See what I mean? So much potential has opened up now, there are so many options before us….

While I don’t know how exactly it is that I’ll be using the Studio and the surrounding eighty acres of woodland, I do know that I will be sharing this space with people. I have a list of ideas, some likely not very realistic (hell, none of this seemed remotely possible two years ago!), some more practical than others, but I’m not comfortable sharing them yet. In the year’s time since the Studio’s big flood, I’ve posited so many possible scenarios and gotten so ahead of myself, that in going forth I’m going to make an effort to chill out a bit. To hold my cards a bit closer to my chest. Not to run through the halls blabbing my big ideas, lest they turn out to be wildly unrealistic and naive. Bad enough I suppose that I’m beginning to create all this infrastructure without so much as a concrete business plan. I do, however, have a general trajectory in sight, and above all else, my goal is to add some love and light to the world. I want to help bring people together, to create community without pressure, without the need for people to spend beyond their means… I’d like to create a space where people can come by for no good reason. I’d like to provide a platform for people to create, learn, perform and interact, all without the pressures of holding their work to professional standards. The summer art classes, while not personally mine, have set a nice tone for the place. Deep in my mind’s eye, I do have a vision for the place. From where I stand today, I simply cannot know how much of that will come to pass – hell, if any of it will come to pass. I may not know exactly what I’m doing, but I still dearly wish to succeed at it, whatever the final product may end up looking like. And with all of you here as my witnesses, failing becomes far more unpleasant a thought; I’m motivated by both lofty and not-so-lofty reasons. But whichever direction this whole project goes, it’s safe to say that things are improving.

I, my son and the Studio are all on the edge of something new. The ground trembles as the trees fall, my son’s legs ache as they grow longer, and for the first time in my life, my fingers actually hurt when I play the piano. It’s such a confusing mix of happy anticipation for the new adventures ahead – and dread for the disappointments that will also come along with that same future… My heart skips a beat sometimes when I realize that there’s no possible way of ever going back (or is it just A-fib?  !). I know what I’m getting ready for, and yet I don’t.

Although I may not know much about the particulars of this next chapter, I do know this for sure: the big shift is finally underway.

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This came my way via Facebook yesterday… Worth a quick peek.

 

Prime April 13, 2014

Being the mother of a young child – and especially so as a single mother – means living life in an almost constant state of ‘game-on’. Daily your child is learning and doing things for the very first time ever, so your main task is one of great finesse; you want to teach your child in such a way that they get it – plus you want to make sure they feel inspired and encouraged and can build on what they’ve learned without your help. Sometimes this task requires great restraint (especially with an admitted control freak like me). Parents on a schedule will agree it’s often easier just to do something yourself than to wait around for your kid to get it and then do it himself. Thankfully, most times when I feel the urge to step in, I hold myself back and allow Elihu to figure it out himself. These days especially. He’s reaching this new age now – and together we’re discovering some unknown territory that has us both in an active, ongoing conversation about how best to strike a balance. He desperately wants to do more, and I really want to empower him to do so. There are also emerging issues of modesty and sexual awareness. I have learned to give him privacy, yet step in when I’m needed. We’re in a strange in-between sort of place these days; one minute he wants to be alone and needs no help, soon after I hear him calling “Mommy!”… I admit that I probably step into his world more than I ought to because of his vision issues. I still don’t quite know what he sees well and what he doesn’t, so I admit that I might be more in his face sometimes than I should be. It’s also a challenge for me sometimes to keep my dramatic, passive-aggressive, oh-I’ll-just-do-it-myself expulsions of air and eye-rolling to an absolute minimum; my kid is doing his best and I need to support him. I remind myself often that I’m giving him all the tools I so wish I myself had had when I was young. I want to empower him to be independent and capable. To be the best he can be.

The new surge of capability and independence I’m seeing now in my son has me thinking about myself a bit differently. I’m seeing him grow, and can now begin to envision him as an older kid – I can see him as a high schooler, maybe even a young man leaving home. A short time ago I couldn’t have begun to see it, but now I can. And that, somehow, has changed how I project my own image into the future. I guess you could say my son’s helping remind me of my mortality. It’s easy to forget such things when you’ve got a tiny child and you spend your life nose to the ground, making sure you never leave the house without a bag of goldfish, a matchbox car and a sippy cup… But as life moves on and your child gets older, your vision lifts again, and you make your first scan of the horizon in quite a while. And in the time you’ve been gone, you discover some things have changed. I realize my son hasn’t been truly tiny for a few years, but it only seems that now I’m beginning to lift my gaze to the world beyond and the future yet ahead of me…

I suppose a sort of shift took place recently when my father died; if my age itself hadn’t convinced me I was middle-aged, his death did. And while I’ve certainly wrestled with issues of vanity over the past couple of years more than I’d thought I ever would, I thought I’d been handling it alright. Until lately, as in the past week in particular, during which things have been hitting me harder than usual. I readily cop to having spent several valuable hours of my life over the past few years agonizing over ‘then and now’ pics of friends and celebrities, yet through it all I’d felt some queer sort of distance from the process of aging. But now that false sense of immunity is beginning to crumble, and it’s got me wondering how I’ll make it all work. Yesterday, while plucking my eyebrows (in the car’s rear view mirror as that’s the only place with enough light to do a proper job of it with my middle-aged eyes), I saw my image in the mirror as if I were a stranger. I no longer looked with the familiar, forgiving awareness that this was me, that this was normal, that this image was the same one I’d seen looking back at me for decades… In one instant, I saw a complete stranger. I saw an older woman. It was a mere flash of insight, but it jarred me. It passed almost instantly too; perhaps an on board self-preservation instinct or something, I don’t know, but a second later my image seemed to return to a more normal state. Nothing had changed. And yet… everything had changed.

My mom’s been going to Weight Watchers for months now, she started even before dad died. She’s succeeded in losing some thirty-plus pounds and is for the first time in many years, skinnier than me. By a lot. At first I thought she’d been losing the weight in order to have her knee replaced, but it appears it’s not a current goal. I can understand her wanting to maintain her new weight (unlike her daughter who promptly blew her successful weight loss with one season of home-baked pies and bread), but she seems so vigilant, and I can’t help but wonder – why? What is the end goal of all this dieting? I suppose that’s not really a fair question. Who enjoys carrying around an extra thirty pounds? I know it’s got me puffing and cussing under my breath… But sometimes I think that maybe I still have a shot at dating, meeting someone, maybe again one day. And for me, vanity is the driving force for diets and weight loss (call me shallow, I accept; I just don’t feel good enough in my current state to even consider anything resembling a romantic relationship). Could some form of vanity also be a motivator for my mother, a woman who we can probably assume won’t be dating again in her lifetime? This has me pondering the power and makeup of self-image, of what makes a person feel they are looking the very best that they can, and how important (or not) it is in the overall scheme of things. It seems that the concern never really ends.

Vain though I may be, I find mobility and flexibility are probably most important things to maintain as one grows older. What has me scared is that I see these things already eroding in my own body lately. In chatting with folks about when they began to feel a marked difference in their bodies, I’ve heard a few cite the window of 46 – 50, while others (my mother in this group) felt a noticeable decline in their abilities towards their late 50s. Some folks just experience a barely perceptible decline which never quite slows em down all that much. Hell, either way, it’s coming. I wish I felt more empowered to do something. Instead I feel like a deer standing in the middle of the goddam road. I feel so zapped by life’s commitments that I have no oomph left to shape up. And I remember when I worked out six days a week… I remember a 10K in Bermuda that had me going up and down the steepest grades in tropical humidity… I remember when riding my bike to downtown Chicago was nothin but a thing, when I loaded and unloaded hundreds of pounds of gear in and out of my trunk all day, from rehearsal to show and home again… No one helped me, nothing hurt, and I didn’t think twice about my abilities. But now… Seriously, isn’t this shit the stuff that’s supposed to happen to everyone else but you? Well, me, I’ve always been vain enough to think so.

Because of her months-long deprivation, recently my mom’s been craving a good, rare piece of red meat. Planned for weeks now, Elihu, mom and I finally went to Cliff’s on Saturday – the local joint known for its steak. I myself hadn’t had beef in a long time and I enjoyed every last bite of my gorgeous (and rare) filet mignon. (Mom was so jonesin for rare/raw meat she first asked if they had steak tartare. This is a hometown steak joint in the US of A. Mom’s disappointing but predictable answer was ‘no’.) When we first walked in I saw two enormous chunks of meat on a table and had to stop to inquire as to the type of cut they were. “Prime rib” they answered, “the twelve-inch”. I’d never before seen such a thick cut of prime rib, and there were two thicker cuts yet available. The slices were nearly the diameter of the plates and stood an inch and a half tall. Prime for sure. It had me considering the true meaning of the word. Just a few days ago I was discussing the definition with my son, and even more recently one of his classmates and I had used the word… Yeah, the word ‘prime’ was kinda loaded for me right now.

Elihu and his fifth grade class had gone this past week to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thanks to some schedule-shuffling and calling in of small favors, I was able to go along too. Can’t begin to express how needed such a trip was; it was soul-restoring. The first faint image of the distant skyline, the great chunks of graffiti-covered rock that grow up on either side of the expressway, the first blocks of relentlessly unending brick apartment buildings – all of it finally giving way to the glorious and elegant upper East Side, with its mature elm trees and bustling streets… It’s been a while since I’d seen humanity like that. Not even Chicago comes close. Nay, there is not a city in the world like it. I imagined my parents, some sixty years ago, the beginning of their courtship here, their first jobs as young adults, here. I remembered too my ex-husband and our many cherished moments in the city, I remembered performing here, eating here, exploring here… To think of it all makes me feel young, invigorated. For just a brief moment, I feel anything is possible. For the electric kind of hope I’m feeling inside my chest, it’s just as if it were thirty years ago, and everything is yet before me…

In the lobby our docent stopped in front of a large, Egyptian sculpture of a seated pharaoh. Shirtless and buff, she meant to use him as an example… “What age does this man appear to be?” she asked the group. There were varying answers – from seventeen to twenty-nine (a reflection of our modern, expanded idea of what constitutes youth and its vigorous appearance). While depicted as a young man, this king lived to be quite old. “Why did he have a statue made of him like this? Do you think he should have had one made of him as an old man?” she baited the kids. “NO!” they all screamed, and the adults all smiled knowingly at each other. “He’s in his prime” I leaned in and said to Ben. “Yeah, I know.” he answered. “And you’re past yours!” he added, perhaps a bit too loudly and while smiling with great enthusiasm. It didn’t hurt, it didn’t zap me, but I did feel something. That little tug that I keep trying to push away. Ben is a bright kid, and not insensitive, but I didn’t expect an apology, so I was surprised when he turned back to me and leaned in close, saying “No offense” with great sincerity. I assured him none was taken. Call it a defensive response if you like – but my mind drifted to all the ways in which I had become such a better person since those days of my heavy lifting. Really, I had so much more together. I pondered how I might relay this insight to my son’s classmate, but in the chaos of the echoey Great Hall there was really no point. He’d know it for himself one day.

The other morning, as Elihu and I lay in bed talking about everything from incubating eggs to making delta wings, we struck upon the idea of growing up, and growing old. I told him about my experience with Ben. He was quiet for a moment. “It’s just not fair”, he said. “What’s not?” I asked. “That you have one thing but not another. That you’re either young or you’re old. Why can’t you have it all at the same time?” “I guess that’s just God’s way of keeping it all even.” We lay there, looking up at the origami cranes hanging from his ceiling. “I guess.”

I get a kick out of asking kids what age they think they’d like to be. Which age seems to have it all. It’s fascinating to me the times that we choose to round our ages up or down. In the beginning it’s all about the weeks. Then the months. And then, something happens… Young children can’t wait to be one year older…. it’s always about the older kids, their freedoms, their abilities… and then… What the hell happens? It does seem that kids these days are pretty realistic at least when it comes to matters of age. What then is the ‘perfect’ age? My very casual observations is that elementary school kids seem to think it’ll be in their mid twenties. Yeah, I can get that. Certainly a more realistic answer than ‘seventeen’. But what of the behaviors and emotional maturity of a twenty-something? I read some of my writing from those days and I want to hide under a rock. How self-absorbed and ridiculous. Ok, so maybe I’m still fairly self-absorbed and only just a bit less ridiculous, but the blog doesn’t make me want to cringe the way my twenty-something journals do. So when I take in the whole mix of all the elements in my life, I guess I can feel ok about it. Not great, but better when I think of my personal progress. I’m definitely a more insightful human than I was a couple of decades ago.

It might sound like sour grapes here. Yeah, maybe in part it is. I would by lying if I said I was good with this aging thing. I’ll figure out how to adapt as we all must, but I’ll probably always think of myself as a thirty-five year old woman in my heart. And the next time I hear someone say that ‘age is nothing but a number’ I might just tell em that’s bullshit. But hey, what can I do? Gotta retain a little dignity here. I’ll go along with the program and consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to grow older. After all, we can agree that a truly outstanding cut of beef must be properly aged before it can reach its prime.