A good friend told me about going to a psychology conference and running into a college acquaintance she hadn't seen in more than 30 years. "We looked at each other's name tags, and the memories came flooding back," she told me. Then she paused and whispered half-jokingly, "But she looked so middle-aged!"
I know what my friend means. It doesn't matter that we're the same age as the people we run into. We can see so clearly the signs of aging on them, but it's much harder to see them in ourselves.
There must be a self-protective device at work here. Perhaps it's in the same league as forgetting how bad labor was so you could be persuaded to have more children. When you look in a mirror after a certain age, you might be jolted by the spreading wrinkles or the wiry gray hairs threaded through the darker ones. But then your eyes adjust; they de-focus. Somehow, you will your face back to what you remember from an earlier time. Or you blink and leave the mirror.
Glancing at old photographs, it's harder to minimize the changes. But on a day-to-day basis, it feels like one's equanimity -- and sense of self -- depends on it.
I remember talking about this with my friend Jenna on one of our walks. I mentioned that, these days, when I push my hair back, I can see a certain thinning along the hairline. It exposes a wider forehead that's now accented by age spots, and it's completely reminiscent of my father and his mother.
Jenna said something then that took me by surprise. In speaking of her adopted daughter, she blurted out:
"Rachel will never know how her birth parents aged. You, at least, have that blueprint to carry around in your head."
As disconcerting as it is to watch ourselves grow older, Jenna is right: Most of us do have some kind of blueprint to come back to. And though the reality can be unnerving ("Whose arms are these? They're just like my mother's!"), it does soften some of the incredulity. It's happened before. It happened to our parents, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents. And, though we will always be behind them chronologically, that same process will nail us, as well.
But what, as they say, is the alternative? Or as the Yiddish proverb states, "Az me vil nit alt vern, zol men zich yungerheit oifhengen./If you want to avoid old age, hang yourself in youth."
Most of us have chosen to tough it out, despite aging's pitfalls. In fact, many of the youthful, angst-ridden issues that might have driven us then to self-destructive behavior have, with any luck, been laid to rest by whatever wisdom we've managed to accrue thus far. I would not trade my current hard-won sense of self for the confusion and uncertainty of my 20s.
We have different concerns now. We must come to terms with, as my cousin Scott says, "being in training to become old Jewish men and women." That training involves being taken (or surely mistaken!) for being "middle-aged." And it includes an increasing tendency to resemble the people who once seemed so far removed from our youthful selves.
When I told Jenna how I can see my father and grandmother creeping into my features, I wasn't really looking for sympathy. My father and his mother were handsome, and they aged well. They never tried to look younger, but with their good carriage and high cheekbones, they reminded me of how I would imagine Native American tribal elders aged.
I don't suppose anyone goes happily into old age. Maybe the best you can do is bear the weight of your years with a kind of dignity that serves as a banner announcing how far you've come and how much you've seen. Good carriage helps. So does the knowledge that these blueprints are universal -- and me vet alt vern/we'll grow old with lots of company.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org .