I’m 58 today and wondering when, exactly, it happens that birthdays cause you to look back instead of forward. Whenever that demarcation happened, I’m well past it.
I still have remnants of those past years. I can never see today’s date, November 25, without visualizing it in neon. From my earliest years into my adulthood, my parents would always recount the story of my birth in Ponca City, a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, where you can smell the refinery for miles before you get there. It was the day after Thanksgiving, it had snowed, and Mother had been in labor for three (3!) days. My parents would always mention this, but would fail to mention that, shortly after my birth, Mother went into a steep postpartum depression that required her to be institutionalized for two weeks. You can call it one of those typically airbrushed family memories; on the other hand, what would have been the “right” time to bring it up? There’s never any right time to recount memories like that, especially when they center on subjects that are still considered as shameful as depression. I wish I thought that had changed in the past 58 years, but I’m afraid it hasn’t. Not enough, anyway.
But how strange to be 58, to be part of this enormous generation of Baby Boomers that’s inching its way into old age, surrounded by the beeps and vibrations of cellphones and text-messaging and images that are instantaneously multiplied and recreated and passed around the world.
“Explain the internet to me,” my almost 90-year-old father-in-law said to his two sons at Thanksgiving. I eavesdropped on their attempts, which were accompanied by nudgings and eye-rollings from the younger generation of college kids and recent graduates. My father-in-law still isn’t too clear on what the internet is, but so what? We all draw our lines of I’ll-only-go-so-far ignorance in this wired, intricate and ever-growing world — either that or spend all our waking hours trying (and failing) to comprehend it. I’d die without email; I’ll live just fine without an Iphone and its generations of successors.
So I turn 58, well aware of this age’s aches and limitations. But what’s so odd and what you can’t comprehend, unless you’re my age or older, is that this is surprisingly the happiest time of my life. It’s slowed, mercifully. So much of the striving and posturing and desperately trying to prove myself are behind me. I look at that younger self with a fond, sympathetic shake of my head, knowing how much she’s yearning for, working toward, how exhausted and uneasy she is. She would never have understood the quieter happiness of falling asleep on a good couch or of shared memories with someone you’ve been with for decades or of long talks with old and close friends. It’s a warm and peaceful time of life, satisfying in a way I never anticipated.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)