I remember when my parents left their thirties behind. There were black and white paper plates and napkins, festooned with tombstones and screaming “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!!” First was the party for my dad and then, six months later on his half-birthday, one for my mom. The celebrations were happy, full of laughter and clinking flutes of bubbly. Everyone still looked young.
But I also remember the distinct sense that forty marked the pinnacle of life, the top of the mountain that, once reached, meant there was nowhere to go next but down. Wasn’t that why all the decorations were black and marked with graves? Essentially, forty was a milestone but also one that steered all who reached it toward a single, one-lane path to decline.
That’s a pretty grim birthday present, really. Celebrate the big one and then start marching toward the horizon. If you’re a woman, cut your hair; short, like a practical teacher. And pick a highlight color; you’ll need it soon as the grays grow in. Reading glasses will become necessary, and one-piece bathing suits and longer shorts will replace their skimpier kin. Menopause is nigh.
As you might imagine, I thought the big 4-0 sounded old and not particularly fun.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and I’m forty days shy of 40. I did recently find my first frizzy, wiry grays, and although I know it's not recommended, I plucked them immediately and went to get highlights.
My vision isn’t as strong as it once was, and several glasses of wine really wreck my sleep, but minus the physical declines –that which I already notice and those I anticipate- I haven’t a single qualm about my quickly approaching birthday.
You see, I clearly remember many years of feeling out of place. Between the seams. As if I sat precariously on a fault line.
I haven’t forgotten how we middle school girls had to dress out for PE in the middle of the school day (those horrible, awful, poly-blend maroon shorts!), get sweaty during dodge ball and THEN try to prettify ourselves again. All in fifty minutes. We discovered portable curling irons and it was as if we’d discovered Atlantis; our tri-layer bangs were saved from the destructive forces of Louisiana heat and gym humidity.
Because I had my Units outfit (who remembers Units?) and matching bows, I managed to recover. At least I think I did. Those bangs defied gravity. What was the name of the hairspray we all used? It was like shellac.
I haven’t forgotten how much I disliked high school. How my deluge periods made me feel anxious and tubby and hormonal. Do you know how mortifying it is to be playing tennis with your boyfriend, you in a cute crop top and floral-print shorts, and for him to say, “Um, I think you have something on your bottom.” Blood. Everywhere. We didn’t have cell phones then. I had to wait for my mom to come at the appointed time. When she drove up and I stood up from the hot pavement, I’d left my mark. Was my face as red?
Was it worse to stand out or feel invisible? I wasn’t comfortable with either, so who really knows? And now? Oh, thank god for the passage of time, for the gauntlet of one’s twenties in which you learn what’s important and who you are, whether you want to or not. What a challenging, painful, exciting time of enormous growth.
I love everything about getting older except the physical losses. Those can go to hell. But I haven’t forgotten feeling itchy in my own skin, and I’ll take a frozen shoulder or plantar fasciitis or the inability to enjoy more than two cocktails without paying for it sorely the next day. I’ll take glasses and knees that no longer allow me to sit cross-legged on the floor for more than ten minutes without getting stuck there for knowing and using my voice.
I’ll take it for finally feeling comfortable enough. For having grown out my bangs and refusing the presence of poly-blend shorts in my life. For having surgery to deal with my overactive uterus and finding enough peace in myself to feel what I think must be happy. For standing up for my beliefs and for others. This is worth a hell of a celebration, and I intend to do just that.
In honor of the forty-to-40 countdown, I've decided to post daily, a tidbit of wisdom or knowledge I've come across in my decades.
Day 1 (T minus 40): Always wash your feet before getting into bed at night. Who wants grit, odor or dirt in their sheets? Not I! Use a sweet-smelling soap and warm water and then climb into the sack happy.