Not Time's Fool
If your children are getting older, are you old too?
By Margaret Renkl
APRIL 24, 2000: A college professor of mine, then in her 60s, once remarked, "When I look in the mirror I can't believe that old woman looking out is me. In my heart, I'm still 16."
Her comment interested me--it was in fact so memorable that I can recall it verbatim 18 years later--but I didn't really understand it. At the time I was 20, and in my heart, I very much wanted to feel anything other than 16 years old. Twenty-five sounded pretty good to me. Twenty-eight sounded even better. At 28, I thought, I'd be truly in charge of my life I'd be confident and competent, at the top of my game. At 20, I still hadn't figured out what my game was.
In none of that dreaming of true adulthood, however, did I ever actively long to be 38 years old. I remember doing the math and realizing that in the year 2000 I would turn 39. But the year 2000 seemed incalculably far into the future, and 39 seemed almost impossibly old. So though I wasn't at all anxious to remain in the psychic state of a 16-year-old, I wasn't exactly looking forward to being the age I presently am, either.
And the thing is, I really am a little startled when I look into the mirror. Not because I'm an old woman yet, but because there are incontrovertible signs that with God's good grace, I am headed that way.
Normally, I'm not a person who worries too much about the way I look, and certainly not about the normal signs of passing time. "Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been," Mark Twain once wrote, and I've always loved that homophonic pun on my name. A few laugh lines around the eyes, I tell myself, are nothing to have an existential crisis over.
But when my baby learned to climb out of his crib last month, I suddenly found myself considering the whole messy business of age. If you're a childbearing woman, you grow accustomed to thinking of the future in terms of progress, as the fulfillment of hope. "If I can just get through the next eight weeks, the morning sickness will pass," you tell yourself. "If I can just make it till spring, the baby will be born and I'll get my body back." Pregnant women and the mothers of babies are, of their nature, allied with youth. If you're still making babies, you can't be old.
But this is my last baby, and once he climbed out of his crib, he demonstrated pretty incontrovertibly that he's not a baby anymore. And if there were any lingering doubts in the matter, he dispelled them a week later by climbing to the top of his changing table. So my husband and I had no choice but to put the newly dangerous crib and the newly dangerous changing table away.
Suddenly I live in a house where there are no babies and not even any remnants of baby gear. I'm not a "young mother" anymore. I'm one of those women who say to young mothers, "When my children were babies...." I'm one of those women who are secretly ignored by polite young mothers on the grounds that the advice I have to give is totally out of date.
This is just the way of things, I guess, though it's still a little startling to look in the mirror and see that time is unwinding just as inexorably for me as it is for my toddler who's sleeping now in a big-boy bed. When I look in the mirror, I understand why I haven't been carded since 1996. I understand why, when I was dressing for a friend's hometown wedding last year, my mother stood in the bathroom doorway, studied me dispassionately, and asked, "You are planning to put on a little color, aren't you?"
None of which particularly bothers me. What does bother me, just a little, is that when I look in the mirror now I understand why handsome young men have started to call me "Ma'am."
"I wonder if I'm turning into Mrs. Robinson," I reported to my husband sadly the other night. In less than a week, four different men in their 20s--beautiful young men I had studied with the same aesthetic appreciation with which I would have regarded them when I was 16 years old--had answered me with the dreaded words, "Yes, ma'am."
One of them wasn't even a properly brought up Southern boy who throws "ma'am"s and "sir"s around like "um"s and "y'know"s. This was an honest-to-God Yankee--he had Wisconsin plates on his truck--for whom a word like "ma'am" is as alien as "y'all."
It didn't help that he was a carpenter installing a hardwood floor in our new family room, a guy who spent a lot of time bending over from the waist. "Look at that butt, will you?" I had just remarked appreciatively to a friend who'd come by to peek through the window at the beautiful carpenter I'd been remarking on, when the owner of the butt in question came in and asked, "Do you mind if I use the phone, ma'am?"
For just a moment it was enough to make me think of dying my hair. It was enough to make me contemplate stopping at a department-store cosmetics counter and whispering, "So what's all this I'm hearing about Retin A and wrinkles?" It was enough to make me seriously consider giving up my evening walk through the neighborhood and joining all those beautiful human hamsters targeting specific muscle clusters on their exercise machines at the YMCA.
But thankfully the moment passed. I went back to ignoring stray wrinkles and strands of silver glinting in my brown hair. Because the real truth is that I don't feel 16 at all anymore. The real truth is that I like being the age I am. In my youth I worried excessively about pimples on my nose, about the way I looked in a bathing suit, about whether or not beautiful young men thought I was beautiful myself. I didn't spend a lot of time admiring the wonder of my own young body. I was too busy looking in the mirror, fixating on its flaws.
These days it's a relief to think less about what my body looks like and more about what it can do. Because it can do a lot of miraculous things: Make love, make a baby, hug a friend, wave at the neighbors, dig a garden, pick strawberries. It took a lot of years for me to get over that paralyzing adolescent mind-body dualism and wear my own skin as comfortably as I live in my own thoughts, but I'm finally old enough to understand that the human body is a gift better used for reveling in than for fixing up to display.
So I'm not really worried about the wrinkles around my eyes or the random gray hairs sticking out like twisty-ties all over my head or the fact that young men call me "ma'am." I think the only thing that would really worry me is if I got so old I never even noticed a man's beautiful rear end.
In the end, gorgeous young men interest me in the same distant way that exotic birds interest me, in the same way that watching a horse gallop across a field can make me marvel at how this sorry old world is still filled with fresh, springing beauty. Because these days, I understand that a man isn't truly interesting till he's lost a little hair or added some lines around the eyes--till he's finally gotten old enough himself to have figured a few things out.
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