I have now reached an age about which it is impossible to be casual. It’s not like 36 or 42, numbers you toss out nonchalantly while signaling the waiter for more champagne or retying your shoe laces for the 5k. It’s not even like the big 5-0, when friends present you with black balloons and needlepoint cushions that say Over the Hill and everyone laughs about how old you are, and where did the time go?
No, this is different. April marked a watershed birthday for me, the candles on the cake measuring decades instead of years. If I lived in the 19th century, I would almost certainly have been six feet under at this age, or at least a local legend: That Very Old (but still spry) Woman.
Instead, I live in the 21st century, where my prospects for longevity are vastly improved. There’s a trade-off, though. The longer I live, the more invisible I become.
Or so it seems, in our youth-obsessed, media-driven culture. I’m nobody’s target audience, a contemporary of mine remarked recently. A quick look at current advertising confirms this, unless you count the nonstop ads for geriatric medications on cable TV.
There are notable exceptions to the invisibility rule, of course, starting with the current occupant of the White House and his recent rival for that job. Mick Jagger is still touring; Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize a few months ago. Bette Midler is crushing it on Broadway. Mostly, though, baby boomers of my vintage are moving out of the spotlight and into supporting roles. For the generation that was never going to trust anyone over 30, it’s an odd kind of karma.
But maybe high visibility is overrated. It’s not as if I really want to be 25 again, although I’d like to have that limitless energy. I don’t miss the big, yawning caverns of inexperience, the rookie mistakes that shape the learning curve. I can summon up a certain nostalgia for 30, even remember the birthday party my New York friends threw for me in Chinatown and the many glasses of screw-top chardonnay raised to bid farewell to my youth. The 40s passed in a blur of balancing a newspaper career with a houseful of teenagers. By 50, my nest was empty and my mailbox full of AARP newsletters. I wasn’t over the hill, but I was taking a long, hard look at life in the fast lane. At 60, I was starting to cultivate my matriarch persona.
My birthday celebration this year brought the family together at an inn in the Smokies. Three generations strong, we posed for pictures in a mountain meadow ringed with dogwood and admired the stunning views and watched the preteens invent raucous new games for the toddlers. We took gentle nature walks and ate huge meals.
On the evening of my birthday, we gathered for gift giving and homegrown entertainment. I received a photo montage of images old and new charting the decades and the very latest digital picture viewing device, thoughtfully preprogrammed by the tech-savvy millennials. The 7-year-old granddaughters presented a skit in which I was described as the roast chicken main course at the banquet of life, the single most extravagant compliment I have ever been paid.
There were toasts that made us all laugh and toasts that made us all cry and finally, a chocolate cake ablaze with candles. In their flickering light, time slowed to a halt and I saw the faces around the table, summing up the best parts of my story.
And then I thought of something I read once about love, that it comes down to seeing and being seen. I took a deep breath and made my wish: clear eyes, and a quiet heart.
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