The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Age Appropriate June 9, 2013

Years ago, when I lived in Chicago and rode the train nearly everywhere, I’d always make sure to get a seat that allowed me to put my feet up and rest them on a bench perpendicular to me. If I couldn’t find that sweet spot, at the very least I’d hunker down and prop my knees up on the back of the seat ahead of me. I remember getting on the train with Elihu once, when he was still tiny and in his stroller, and very naturally doing the same thing as I always had. And this surprised me. Why? Because I’d always just known that one day I’d become a real grown up. And how would I know that day had come? When I no longer put my feet up on the seat in front of me, of course! Surely real grown ups don’t behave like that, right? Honestly, I just thought that one day I would ride the train in the normal way, feet planted on the floor. And in that rite-of-passage moment, it would finally become clear to me that I was a fully-fledged, responsible, clear-headed adult. But yet here I was, married, living in the suburbs and shuttling a baby around – and clearly, I still hadn’t made that leap to maturity. That moment surprised me. It had me pausing to reflect more deeply on what it meant to grow up. I’d ticked a bunch of the boxes for sure, but this ‘feet on the seat’ thing had me.

I went back to Chicago year before last. Easily put my feet up on the first available seat I could find. Made myself comfortable. I remembered my self-imposed ‘real grown up’ test of years past and checked back in with myself. Did this feel correct? Did it feel silly? Might I look silly to others doing it? Happily, I felt just fine with my feet up. Still didn’t feel it to look suspicious or titilating on any fronts. I’m going to Chicago in two weeks’ time… I’m a bit curious as to how it’ll feel now. I do look a little older, so maybe it’ll be different. But I’ll be with a ten year old boy – and I think it would look entirely natural to see mom and young son sitting together in the same way. Buddies riding the train. Enjoying childhood and it’s casual freedoms. Fast forward ten years and remove the kid. Then would it still look ok for a sixty year old woman to ride the train in such a posture? Or will I simply be too stiff to sit like that?! (I often wonder if it’s not just physical limitations which dictate what behaviors seem appropriate.) I once watched an eighty year old lady run uphill back to a restaurant to retrieve her purse. I offered to go for her, but she waved me off and started to trot… I was impressed. Had a peer of mine done the same thing, not so much. But go Shirley! Highlights the different standards we hold for each other at different times of our lives. Interesting, huh?

I work at my son’s school in the recess yard. My job is just to keep an eye on the kids, be there in case somebody gets hurt, settle minor disputes, make sure everyone gets a fair turn on the swings. And I do all this just fine, only I can’t help but wonder if I’m not crossing that invisible line that I see most teachers – and adults in general – keeping firmly in place between themselves and littler people. I can’t put a finger on it, but I respond and interact with kids a bit more as if I were a kid myself. I don’t always feel like a teacher or a mom, and my feeling is that the children sense this too. When I was younger, I was known to many as ‘the cool babysitter’. Not sure if that’s cuz I arrived on a motorcycle, because I was in bands, or because I just hung with the kids almost as if a peer. I can’t impress em with a bike these days, but I still enjoy a really good relationship with all of the kids in my life. It’s with no small amount of pride that I can report I’ve been told by several that I’m a ‘cool mom’. (Don’t worry, my kid reminds me I’m not that cool. !) So I have to admit to some mixed feelings about acting as a role model. Somehow a tiny voice inside me wonders if they’d really have me in this post if they knew how much of an ‘un grown-up’ I was. It’s not a real concern though; I do my job and follow the rules. And I know quite definitely that I’m not a kid myself… only I don’t think I’m a grown up either. Hanging out somewhere in between.

When I worked as a jazz singer in my twenties, I lamented that audiences didn’t quite get me. I had this feeling when performing that they just didn’t believe what I was singing. Can’t describe it any better than that, but it was my experience many times over – I wasn’t just pulling the observation out of thin air. It seemed I was too young to be a reliable narrator. The songs conveyed stories of an older, more seasoned and experienced woman than I perhaps appeared. Then some ten years later, as a woman in her mid and late thirties, something changed, and audiences became more accepting, more yeilding. I just felt that they finally believed what it was I was singing about. And I think it had everything to do with my age. Finally, my personage matched the material. How can a twenty four year old girl sing about all the loves she’s lost – or wax sentimental about her years-gone-by love and be taken entirely seriously? If one’s being honest about it, it doesn’t really work. But take a gal who’s been around the block a time or two, and you’re more apt to lend an ear. Oh, how well-seasoned I am now! Somebody, get me a gig! Oh how I’d like to sink my teeth into “Ah the Apple Trees” or “Where Are You” now! Ha! Not a dry eye in the house… For me, I suppose this particular phenomenon is a real marker for aging. While as a sixty year old I might raise eyebrows if I were to put my feet up on a seat in the train – if I instead donned a gown, some false eyelashes and a sparkly cocktail ring and started singing about all the loves I’ve lost – I’d have  a roomful of adults nodding their agreement. Crazy. The dos and don’ts, the things that work and the things we think are taboo.

And that bit about ‘age being just a number’. Yeah, right. I know what the phrase is intended to mean. Yeah, I get that on the inside one feels much the same way all throughout life. Ok. But then one day, in a split second it kinda hits you, that is, if you’re old enough, and you realize that the number of years you’ve been on the planet sounds a lot longer than actually it feels. You do some really easy math and see quite clearly that you’re closer to the far end than you are to the the beginning. But you know that your spirit is still just as bright these days (if not even brighter) and then you think that hey, that’s really too bad, because that stupid number marks you in this culture as diminishing in value, when you know damn well that’s not true! So you comfort yourself by saying, ah phooey, who cares. And maybe you really don’t. If not, you have my deepest respect; you are much closer to your God-self than I! Myself, I know that your age isn’t really ‘just a number’. Your age is a number that helps define you to the world, and to yourself. It’s a quantity, yes, but in our culture it speaks to a certain quality of your life too. Sure, some things improve with age, but let’s be downright honest here. Our bodies certainly don’t. Aging is tricky on a human being. On the knees, the ticker, the skin… the ego. And your number is very much a part of that equation. Alright, so maybe you look and feel pretty good for your number. Enjoy yourself! It aint gonna last forever…

I apologize if I sound dark about this whole aging thing. Just working it out, like everybody else. I am confident that I am not the first person to think any of the thoughts I’ve expressed here. Maybe just the one brave enough to say it all out loud. But just for the record – I’m not entirely bummed with this new chapter. I feel good these days. Granted, I should get yoga back into my life. I should walk a half an hour a day. I should meditate regularly. But on the whole, I’m feeling good about things, gray hairs and all. It’s kinda nice to relax a bit. Not to sweat looking killer every time I go out. Looking good is good enough. And at the end of the day, looking good and feeling good are always age appropriate.

 

Mid Century Mama May 5, 2013

Folks that know me – or knew me in the life that preceded this current one – will know me to be a most enthusiastic fan of all things mid century. I cherish the Eames chair in my living room (although I admit it’s a vinyl knockoff – but it’s still gorgeous), and I lament the loss of that stunning, five level ranch home in South Evanston that some may remember from those once-famous Christmas parties. I still have a few mid century things in my life, in fact I’ve created a rather pleasant look in my home here by mixing early American with modern pieces. What I have satisfies my desire for beauty – it still ‘scratches the itch’, as my ex and I used to say. But day after tomorrow, mid century will come to mean something entirely different in my world. Finally, after much ambivalent anticipation I myself will be ‘mid century’. !

Honestly, that’s not a big deal. The bulk of my friends are already past that landmark. I’ve done enough rumination on it to be able to move on. Or have I? Ok. So maybe it is a big deal. There are still a couple of things on my mind at the doorstep of this birthday: I’m alive, many of my dear friends are not. My parents are alive, many of my friend’s parents are not. I’m healthy, many of my friends are not. I have my beloved son with me every day. Many parents do not have their children with them. So – there’s the half-full glass take on it. And that’s my overall, bottom-line assessment of this landmark. However, in the spirit of complete honesty, I feel the need to vent just a teeny bit (I am secure in the knowledge that I am putting a voice to the feelings of many in this forthcoming mini-rant…)

Here goes: Not happy with the funky neck skin (which literally seemed to appear over goddam night just a few months ago), nor the crazy new chin hairs (some white!), nor the now full-time creases around my eyes, nor the deeper lines from my nose to my mouth (when acting in high school  plays I’d pencil in these lines to appear older – the way I look now!), nor the way the arthritis in my hands is causing the joints to become grotesquely oversized, nor the strange way in which the skin on my thighs and butt is more crinkly than seems fitting for my age, nor the way I just can’t lose those last ten pounds, nor the way I now need readers or glasses – no longer can I blow off the glasses when heading out… While not a one of these things came on all at once, and certainly no one thing just up and happened in my fiftieth year specifically, I can say that I didn’t really notice any of this age-related activity in my forty-eighth year. I can honestly say that a whole bunch of stuff really came to the fore just this past year. All of a sudden I had a head of silver when just a year ago it was hardly noticeable. My neck? Just fine and dandy – til recently. I’m sure all these changes happened incrementally, but they seemed to hit a critical mass of sorts this past year. When in my mid forties I still felt I looked pretty good – I didn’t really see what all this crap about aging was about. Didn’t need readers, hell, didn’t really need my glasses so much either. Yeah, physically speaking, my forties were fine (except for a little divorce-related weight gain). But all of a sudden I really feel that I look my age. The jig is up, the charade is over, the cards are on the table. So I’d better quit my bitchin and proceed with a little class and composure. I don’t need to go on and on about the disappointments of growing old when Nora Ephron, bless her soul, so eloquently expressed all of her aging-related predicaments in “I Feel Bad About My Neck”. If you’re a peer of mine or older, read it. She brings such humor and humanity to the experience.

I remember a moment once, when a new awareness washed over me – clarity and perspective came to me in a flash. I can remember being in my bedroom in my beloved Evanston home, looking through the branches of our backyard tree towards the afternoon sun… I was contemplating what it meant to be turning 42… I considered that if I had a life expectancy of 84, that I was now halfway there. That I was, more accurately, on the downslope of my life: I had passed all those years of youth, and before me was nothing but the process of aging… In that moment I realized that I’d had a general sense of hope and expectancy that had been present with me all my life and had been driving me forward… to that next moment of satisfaction, then the next one, and then the next… yet where was the destination? What was that ultimate, one experience that I still ‘hoped’ for? Cold fear grabbed my chest – had I been on a fruitless, vain search for something I’d never find? Or had I already found it – and didn’t know that I’d found it? I’d enjoyed my life – all of it, as best I could, I’d always been aware of my good fortune, and yet, there was always a tiny nudging from inside to move toward something not yet achieved… As endless as the process had always seemed, a certain end was, in fact, coming. To me.

In that moment, I understood – in a way that even evades me now – that I was going to die. Not sure how else to explain it. But I got it for a second. I also got that nothing was to be taken for granted, I got that I was somehow not exempt; that I too, if all went well, would one day be an old woman. That’s mighty hard to truly get when your skin is smooth, your joints flexible, your eyesight perfect… but I got it. For a few moments I think I not only came to know that I was going to be old one day, but in some way I made peace with it. But then life overtook me, vanity returned, the sense of being somehow immune to fate – all of that settled back in and had me forgetting again; living as if things would always be thus. But these days, now that the physical evidence is mounting, I am beginning to learn a little humility. And man, I’m not very good at it. Yet. My aim is to age with humor and dignity. I need to do this well, if for no other reason than as an example for my son. I’ve got to find a way to sink into this new body without that nagging sense of sorrow and loss. I know I enjoyed my youth – I surely did. So I have no regrets – and that should free me up to really embrace this new chapter. It’s liberating not to care so much about the trappings of vanity. I like that my priorities have changed. I’m looking forward to learning things now in a way I never had the time or interest to before. So while I might continue to bitch and moan about stuff, truly I’m coming from the half-full place. Just might not always behave like it. As I’ve said before, it’s a balancing act.

My paternal grandma and my maternal great aunt both lived to be a hundred. So, if I’m to live as long as Bessie or Helen, then I’m right smack in the middle. And I’m ok with that. After all, I’m a mid century mama.