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.