The Lead-Up

People have birthdays everyday, for heaven’s sake. So no reason to get all intense about it, right? Wrong.

71 is some business.

You try being 71 and come tell me birthdays are mundane, everyone has them, and, oh, age is just a number. 71 is some shit.

Earlier this week, I read in the morning paper about a colleague who had died. He was 82. I went in the shower and did the math. Just 11 years older than me. Just 11. I have shoes that are 11 years old. And they look like new. Time flies. Go figure.

It depressed me mightily, thinking about my dead colleague and my rapidly advancing age. I fell quickly into thinking like a patient with a terminal illness, my days are numbered, I thought, but whose aren’t? Living is a fatal illness when you get right down to it.

My dad died when he was 89. So if I’m my dad’s girl, I might live another 18 years. And I could be tooling around the two lanes just like him in his big Oldsmobile, hitting the hills in the Michigan countryside like Steve McQueen sending his Shelby Mustang flying over the hills of San Francisco. Honest to God, I sat in the passenger seat and heard the bottom of my dad’s car hit the pavement on the way down. He was no piker when it came to driving. All in, the man was, all in.

Growing up, I heard the term “hell bent for leather” a lot. My dad was often hell bent for leather but I hung back. It wasn’t my nature. First of all, you have to be pretty out there to be hell bent. And secondly, there’s a fair amount of risk implied being hell bent for leather and I never liked risk unless the odds fell entirely in my favor which is contrary to the whole notion of risk.

But I’ve changed. I’m not afraid of risk anymore. I don’t know what happened. The only thing different about me is age. A lot of age. A lot of age got me out from behind my safety glasses. And it’s great. I can see better and drive a lot faster.

The definition of “hell bent for leather” uses the term “recklessly determined” which I think is impossibly perfect and beautiful for what I want to be in my remaining minutes or 18 years. Recklessly determined to be healthy, to be strong, to make change, to show up, to drive like a wild woman who scares the passengers.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Here’s to 71. It’s the shit.


I prayed for days that it would be sunny on my birthday. It was the only thing I wanted. My plan was to get in the car and drive west or north and hike by myself in a state park somewhere. I do a lot of walking but I’ve never hiked alone in the woods. I thought it was time.

But the day had other things that required tending so a walk along the lakefront would be my hike, leaving the real hike alone in the forest something for my next birthday, a watershed birthday, 70.

My back hurts from having lost a terrible battle with ivy roots in the way back of my yard where, every year by mid-summer, the vines and weeds collect up in impenetrable piles. This year has not started well; though I succeeded, I am paying a stiff price. The pain in my back means that I walk slow with my hands in my pockets.

I am right away depressed. Oh, I think, some mornings I just wake up worried, like I am moments away from weeping, and I start to hope that this isn’t one of those mornings. I suspect it is, though, and I am already disappointed that my birthday will be ruined because of this nameless thing.

Birthday Walk Water
Lake Michigan glimmers but, along the break wall, debris gathers. Plastic bags, a bloated squirrel, a large shoe floating upside down. This saddens me more and I give in to the bad luck of today being one of my waking up worried days. Here I am, after all, beside this beautiful lake and what I see are the dead things.

I decide to miss my mother. I think about her face, how I wish I could touch her face. I miss my mother, I say almost out loud, and then I start to cry just a little. A young woman with thick powerful legs runs past me. I am an old woman in jeans and an old sweater, walking slow with my hands in my pockets.

I stop to take a picture of the moorings where large ships sometimes tie up.

Birthday Walk Mooring

I brighten because of the sun on the water but it is fleeting. The pain in my back spreads and I feel off-kilter. Am I limping? The strong-legged girl runs toward me, having made the loop at the end of the park. She doesn’t look at me or nod hello. She looks straight ahead and keeps her pace and so do I. I don’t envy her even though I probably should. I had my chance.

I turn around short of the end point because I see a gaggle of people up ahead and I want to avoid them. I don’t want to step around anyone or say excuse me. When I turn I see a new park bench and on the bench there is a plaque of dedication that says “Share and Share Alike” in memory of a mother of nine children. And next to the plaque was painted “Amen.” Yes, indeed, Amen to that. Will they remove that someday? Maybe they started to but thought better of it. Why erase affirmation?

I decide that I am lucky to have seen the bench and the plaque and the affirmation and then I see the tree I have been waiting for, the right tree at the right time. It looked as if placed in my way as a present so I decide to think of it that way. I take a picture looking up at its branches against the bluest sky and I say thank you for celebrating my birthday with me in this extraordinary way. And then I say again, Amen.

Birthday Walk Tree

My Day in Fifths

1. My day had elements of road rage woven throughout. A guy cut me off on the freeway ramp and then gave me the finger for the next mile while I mouthed the words “Fuck yourself, asshole.” Later, I thought it would have been way better to have blown him kisses. He sped up once we got on the freeway and started passing people. I wondered for a minute what would happen if he ended up being the person I was going to meet. Does that ever happen? If it does, do you just pretend it didn’t happen or does it queer whatever deal you had going?

2. Later that same day, some student parked her car so it blocked my driveway. Disbelieving, I backed my car up, staring at the tan sedan in my rear view mirror, a huge part of me wanting to back my car to within a centimeter of hers, a wee part of me thinking I’d like to just ram her car, you know, how sometimes you think that if you veered just so, you could take your car sailing right off a bridge? It occurred to me that I was getting overly intense, especially later when I moved a lawn chair to the sidewalk to await her return. The sensation of having gone around the bend made my hair fly and gave me vertigo so I went in the house.


3. It struck me at various points today that I was having a lot of trouble with mood control. Shooting baskets helped for a while. And so did going to Target where I calmed myself by buying a metal bottle of walnut oil because it looked so sturdy, like something that would have been in my grandmother’s kitchen in Hastings. Like she would ever have walnut oil.

4. There was work today. I met with an alderwoman in a neighboring city about homelessness. She sat across the table from me, looking every inch the stereotypical suburban matron, her hair done in a beautiful french twist, so carefully done. She teased me that we should have gone to scarf arranging school together and gave me a tip that a nice pin could hold a scarf nicely at the shoulder. Then she turned her attention to homelessness in her city. She laid it all out for me. She unwrapped the problem, rearranged the parts, stacked them up in a new way, retied the ribbon and handed it back to me. While I sat with my mouth hanging open and my scarf askew.

5. It’s the night before my 67th birthday. All day I have been intermittently (between bouts of road rage) dwelling on regretting having gone out with my roommate’s boyfriend after she had spent a year and a half writing him letters on that thin airmail paper that used to fold in on itself. He was a Seabee in Vietnam and then he came home, immediately got in a motorcycle accident and broke his jaw. When I met him, stopping in to say hi for her when I was visiting from out of town, his jaw was wired shut. It set a tone of minimalism in our relationship. Thinking about him and what a crummy friend I’d been to her convinced me that the whole notion of saying you’ve lived life with no regrets is a pile of crap, although there was the immediate Karma of another friend stealing him from me. He had by then become unwired. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right. So I regret my part in that chain of events.

Turning 65

Keys Bridge

The saltwater was the perfect treatment for the blisters I got from wearing the wrong shoes for a walk on the Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys that I had been planning for weeks to mark my 65th birthday.

It is so like me to have one detail wrong so what I end up remembering, in this case the utterly sublime and priceless experience of walking on a strip of concrete high above where the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay meet, where you can see tarpon and dolphins and watch the old fishing boats and a few gleaming yachts beneath you, instead of the glory filling the whole frame of the birthday picture, there are the blisters.

Sitting here, writing this, I watch a woman my age walking by the patio of our hotel room in Islamorada. She is wearing white pants and a striped shirt, black strappy sandals, and, without even looking, I know she has a beautiful manicure and pedicure because, unlike me, she didn’t decide that buying the lavender pants at Kohl’s Department Store cancels out the planned mani/pedi. She lives in the world absent of mutually exclusive choices. I wish I lived there.

Everything in my life is about choices. The full bag of Chex Mix or the moment of righteousness. Another drink or a cup of coffee. Now, thinking about turning 65, the choices are unclear. I don’t know my next move. It’s stumped me for weeks.

I tell my kids when they are troubled to go toward the light. To go toward what makes them feel right and worthwhile. I tell them to choose the light.

That is the choice I always try to make.

When it was clear that my 65th birthday was going to arrive despite my disbelief and resistance, I decided that I had to come back to Islamorada in the Florida Keys. I had to hang out with my husband, drive US 1, stand on the Seven Mile Bridge, drink rum, float in the ocean, listen to the crazy birds, and see the palm trees waving.

And if I did that, I figured, I would make it through okay.

I just wanted to get to the other side. I gave up trying to figure it all out – how to make peace with age, how to look forward with calm, how to envision myself a respected, yet still very hip, elder.

The grand wisdom I’d hoped would come with age hasn’t shown up and I’m not sure it ever will. All the wisdom I have seems to apply to other people’s situations, not my own.

In its stead, I’ll take my own advice. To go toward the light. To do what feels right and worthwhile.

Today. That’s all. Just today.

On My Mother’s Birthday

We weren’t much for celebrating birthdays in our family.  Oh, occasionally, there would be a cake and I do remember one party with an assortment of kids around our dining room table.  But it was only once.  It’s a family’s mom who organizes things like birthdays and if she’s unhappy or not well or preoccupied, not a lot of celebrating goes on.

And because my mother was frequently sad and seemingly living in her mind somewhere else besides in our house, birthdays were small; not forgotten, no, just small.  Later, when I had my own kids who were spending their time with friends whose parents let them pin the tail on live donkeys and gave everyone hot air balloon rides for their birthdays, I realized how minimalist my birthday training had been.  Once, after I’d baked a chocolate sheet cake and covered it with Pillsbury frosting for my 8-year old daughter’s birthday, my boyfriend at the time wrote the words “INSTITUTIONAL CAKE” on it when I wasn’t looking.  After I’d put the sugar letters from the grocery store spelling out her name, I had to agree.  My birthday making was not only small but crummy as well.

My mother deserved so much better, though.  So when I was growing up I endeavored to never forget her birthday.  Anxiety about possibly forgetting would grip me for days before. That and not finding the right present for her.  The last thing I remember giving her for her birthday was a flat of pansies for her garden.  And there is probably no gift that could have been more appropriate.  So like her, so modest, so delicate, shunning the sun, preferring to be small and close to the ground, the pansies were her.

You understand by now that I loved my mother though I never understood her and cannot even now describe her to anyone else.  She grew up in an era when opportunities for women were almost non-existent.  She wanted to be a nurse but her father said that would be unladylike and sent her to business school instead.  There she met my father, married at the age of 20, and had three children.  She worked with him in our Ben Franklin store practically her whole life – at least when she wasn’t laid low by depression.  Maybe that wasn’t the life she planned or wanted but it was the one she had.  She never talked about regrets but then again I never asked.  When she was around to ask, I didn’t know it mattered what she had dreamt about when she was young. Now it does but it’s too late.

After she died, my father, on many occasions, recounted her descent into the long, deep well of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He’d always end up by saying, “She was always so smart.” And she was.  You can see that in this picture.  Her gaze, her glasses, her matter of factness.  She tailored every stitch of herself, inside and out, to be clean and classic.  The sorrow that she had, the thoughts and feelings that kept her laying in a dark room all day so often while I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about those things.  She never described them.  She was just so sad so much of the time.

I miss my mother.  I miss her standing in the kitchen with her heels kicked off, leaning against the sink, smoking a Benson and Hedges (she only smoked in the kitchen because it was unladylike anywhere else).  I miss her tucked in shirt and pencil skirt with the ever-present belt, how slim and finished she always was.  I miss her mystery and wish I had tried harder to solve it.

I really do – today, on what would have been her 95th birthday, I miss my mom.

It’s Not the First Tomollow, Honey

Jan Wilberg, Michigan, 1950

When our granddaughter comes for the weekend on Friday night, she asks what we’re going to do on the first tomollow (Saturday) and on the second tomollow (Sunday) and then the semi-dreaded but kind of nice third tomollow (School, also known as Monday).  I can tell she likes the prospect of three tomollows, each one with special things that we could do.

Time. The loveliness of Friday night.  The beauty of tomollows.

This weekend, she didn’t come on Friday night or Saturday night, instead coming late this afternoon.  While she was putting her puzzle together, she remarked that she had missed swimming, so could we go tomollow? “No, honey, tomorrow’s school,” I told her.  You mean tomollow’s not the first tomollow?  “No, sweetie, it’s not.”

So it really hit me – this being my birthday week and all — that from a lifespan point of view, I am probably staring the third tomollow in the face.  And for those of you who are younger than me (and that seems to be about 90% of the people I know), this is a very weird feeling.

I haven’t felt like that kid sitting in the inner tube for a long time.  She’s not even thinking about tomollows.  What an incredible, lovely thing to have – mindlessness about how much time you’ll be alive.

To me, time has become a finite thing.

It’s not like I’ve got a terminal illness but unless I move to Russia and start eating yogurt all day long, I’m not going to be one of those people who live to be 114.

The meter is definitely running and I need to get used to it.