Listen, all you have to do is turn 60 — or any other age ending in an 0 or a 5 — and go around telling people and they give you presents. Which is kind of the point of telling people. That and the too-occasional protests about how good you look, you know, for your age and everything.
But my friend Laurie was typically straightforward. “I’m giving you something so you won’t feel so old,” she announced. She left the room to retrieve my present. I was staying with her and her husband Rob in Dallas, while I worked on an article, since they’re more interesting and fun than almost anyone else I know and also because they put up with me, for some reason.
“Look at this,” Laurie said, when she came back. She held a fossil in her palm. “It’s more than a million years old. Doesn’t that make you feel young?”
She’d found it in a creekbed outside Kerrville, Texas, last summer. During the long Central Texas drought, the creeks have dried up and you can find fossils embedded in the earth that’s usually covered by water, Laurie said. She’d returned to Dallas with a few fossils she soaked in water, cleaned with dental tools, then sandblasted.
“They’re from an ancient period, when all of Texas was covered in water,” Laurie said. “Look at it. Stephen Jay Gould called them vulva stones.” She turned it over in her hand.
Now that she mentioned it, my birthday present did have a certain markedly female shape to it.
“A million years old,” Laurie repeated, so I wouldn’t forget.
I brought the fossil back with me to New York, carefully wrapped in a paper towel at the bottom of my purse. I felt deeply touched. No one’s ever given me a fossil before.
And how funny to be given a fossil in Dallas, of all places — a city with such an uneasy relationship with its own short history. Buildings and houses there are routinely razed to make way for newer and grander structures. Many in the city had wanted to destroy the Texas Schoolbook Depository after Kennedy’s assassination; building a museum, the Sixth Floor Exhibit, on the site had been painfully controversial. Dallas is a city, my husband always said, that preferred to look to the future and try to forget its dark past.
For me, though, Dallas is a place I’ll always remember fondly, where our son was born, where we still have so many wonderful friends who knew us before we began to resemble a couple of shar-peis. Visiting there, I had a new awareness of some losses — years and decades that had passed, houses now inhabited by other families, friends who were sick.
“A million years,” said Laurie, who had been such a loyal friend to me after my breast cancer diagnosis and who had since suffered the unbearable loss of her younger son, Tommy. “Just think about it. Our lives are just grains of sand on the beach.”
Grains of sand, millions of years, droughts and sorrows and death, the fragile places where we build our lives. My fossil doesn’t really make me or my vulva feel any younger. It just reminds me of how temporary I am, we all are. Day after day, I try not to forget.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about something I should have said