I have been thinking a lot about ageing this week.
My birthday is Saturday and that always makes me think about ageing. When I was a child, it was exciting to grow older, to be one step closer to adulthood and all the fun I saw come with being grown up. When I was a teenager, it was still exciting to grow older, to start having some of that fun of being a grown-up but also to start shouldering some of the responsibilities that come with years. When I was a young adult, it was still exciting to grow older, because the possibilities of my youth were coming true, so I was having that adult fun and yet also being An Adult and carrying more responsibility and obligation around with me. And now I am in well into my middle years, well into them, and I still love birthdays (most especially mine) but they’re not so much exciting now as they are nostalgic, sometimes Romantic, always emotional.
I must have an angel food cake for my birthday. This is because my grandmother, Grandma Gert (whose name was really Hazel Isobel but we called her Gert), would bake one for me every summer. We would troop up to their cottage, eat barbecued hot dogs, corn on the cob and angel food cake with a kind of inner ‘moat’ of mixed whipped cream, sliced bananas, mandarin oranges and tinned pineapple. Sort of like this:
Having an angel food cake like this meets all my late middle years birthday needs. It is emotional and nostalgic, remember my grandparents and the fun having those birthday lunches with my family always meant. And now an angel food cake is Romantic because Jeffrey (almost always) bakes one for me, foregoing the ‘moat’ to make the cake last longer for just two people, but serving the whipped cream and tropical fruits on the side. The down side of having this angel food cake birthday was the location.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I loved the cottage life, and I loved spending all summer, every summer, at the cottage, but I never had a birthday party like my friends at school did because I was never around my school friends. I was at the cottage! And as much as I loved my family, it wasn’t the same thing, having hot dogs with them and not my friends. So the year I turned 9, I decided to have a party for my cousins and “summer cousins” at the cottage.
Probably should have told my mother I wanted to do this BEFORE I invited everyone but… it all worked out in the end. My grandmother came to the rescue with a cake, we had a field’s worth of corn on the cob, played silly party games, went swimming, and I got presents!
That was my last birthday party until I turned 18, which happened when I was in Australia, and then the next one after that was 30 and then 40. That last one (a party planned by me but turned into a surprise by Jeff & my parents when they made it all happen a week earlier than I thought!) was especially lovely but also, in retrospect, sort of sad. My mother was not feeling well and sort of held herself away from the crowd. As it turns out, she really wasn’t well and died before my next birthday. And that was when I started marking birthdays not just a matter of getting older but also of change.
This birthday brings more changes and more ageing, not so much for me, but for my in-law family. My parents-in-law are just weeks away from their 92nd birthdays and 70th wedding anniversary, but both are facing the many changes and challenges of ageing, especially my father-in-law. I watch them, I see how Mom deals with Dad, her impatience sometimes but mostly, especially, her love and devotion, and I feel so blessed to have them in my life, to have had them welcome and value me in their lives.
Wikipedia sugggests that ageing well consists of doing so with a low probability of disease or disability, enjoying high cognitive functions, and having an active engagement with life. In other words, you’re healthy, your mind still works, and you’re out there having fun. Okay, I’m three for three so far. Well, maybe 2.5 for three, but let’s not quibble. And I am grateful for ageing well, as opposed to badly, and especially as opposed to the complete alternative. But still, this birthday reminds me I am ageing and while I have always changed with age, for the first time, I am seeing those changes, or more accurately seeing those changes more clearly, and some of them are… well, let’s just say I wish one needn’t see them quite so clearly.
I have a copy of the Musselman family tree (as of 20 years ago) and almost all of my mother’s father’s relatives on that very large and well spread out tree lived long lives. I mean, long lives. Even back in the 17th century, my ancestors lived long lives, and in the 20th, very long lives and apparently mostly healthy ones. My maternal grandfather, who was born in 1899, once told me he wanted to live to be 101, because that would mean his life would touch three centuries; he missed by three years. I think I am more Musselman than Staines; goodness knows I look like a Pennsylvania Dutch/Swiss farm peasant! Perhaps this means I will enjoy that lifespan too. I don’t know.
In biology, senescence is the state or process of ageing. In life, the process of ageing is about grace. It’s about facing what you have and who you are, it’s about enjoying those things you still can and remembering those things you cannot, it’s about family, still with us and still with us only in our hearts. Ageing is also another angel food cake, a bottle of champagne and a few birthday cards. It’s also a little time reading old diaries, leafing through a few photo albums, and then enjoying a day with family and friends.
For Robert DeNiro, Mae West, Davy Crocket, Jim Courier, Belinda Carlisle, and especially for my dear friend, Richard Prazmowski, this wish for us all….