The first time I remember being concerned about how much older really old folks were, I must have been about four. “How old is Nana?” I asked my parents.
Their answer was way, way out of my arithimetic comfort zone. “Fifty-eight.”
At first, I just frowned and tried to comprehend that number. I knew I had six marbles in my little drawstring pouch and that each Sky Bar came in four sections. Anything beyond that was as bewildering as adding up all the stars in space. Then I got scared and burst out crying. If my grandparents had been around for whatever that forever-sounding number was, I knew they must be ready to die any minute.
Fortunately, I was too busy being a kid to worry myself for very long. After all, my parents weren’t upset that their parents had one foot already in Heaven. And Nana was always smiling. Plus, she had soft, crinkly, Nana skin on her hands and arms that I found oddly comforting. It wasn’t until early grade school had broadened my mathematical reach that I questioned old-age relativity again.
“How many birthdays have you had, Mommy?” I asked.
“Thirty-four,” she answered.
This time I didn’t cry. But I was still pretty darn scared. “Gee,” I said, “that’s even more than the number of days I have to wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas!” Of course, I desperately wanted to be older myself. Not as old as she was or, Heaven help me, my grandparents—just a year or so wiser, taller and worldly enough to hang with the “big” kids.
During middle school, when the desire to age myself out of braces and away from bullies had become a constant daydream, I overheard a conversation that made me ponder the wisdom of wishing away time. “Tammy’s got a tummy!” my mom announced moments after we were driving away from visiting family friends. Not a caddy woman by nature, Mum was delighted to discover that her once skinny college pal now had a mid-life paunch, especially since she could make the observation into a taunting little rhyme. “Yup,” my dad concurred from behind the wheel. “She let herself go.”
“Go where?” I remember wondering from the back seat. Not to the mall or the beach, it didn’t sound like. And with emphasis as much on the letting part as on the going part of his statement, I knew there was a great deal of loss of control implied. “She let herself go,” he said again with authority. Suddenly that other mother went from a cool mom with a great backyard who bought the good kind of chips to Mrs. Tammy Tummy.
“Could she have hung on?” I began to ask myself as a teen when I’d hear my dad make the remark. “And why is it always a she?” I drew a mental picture of a poor woman teetering on the brink of 40, hanging onto a wimpy branch for dear life while nature’s relentless pull raged just beneath her like a waterfall. One moment of weakness, one lapse in concentration and…woosh…away she’d go to the point of no return. I started checking out my mother with a whole different eye. Blessed by genes from the tall, lanky side of the family, she was still a bean pole, but for how long? Would I get some sort of a warning that she was slipping so I could somehow give her a heads up? Or, would Dad just pronounce her gone when she was too far downstream for help? And, when I got to be her age, would I instinctively know how to muckle onto the branch where she let go?
In hindsight, I think it’s a good thing women in my mother’s generation didn’t know what we know now. They hit 40 back before coed gyms, body mass calculators, and good carbs versus bad carbs. Back then, if anybody’s mom said she was “working out,” she meant in the garden, not spotting you on the weight bench. So, they could let gravity and lower metabolism take over without the added torment of Dr. Oz or Dr. Atkins telling them they had only themselves to blame. Healthy eating meant ordering a Fillet o’ Fish with small fries and no shake. There wasn’t Biggest Loser Bob showing you how to take charge of your own proactive lifestyle, how to get up off the couch, elevate your cardio and steel your abs. There was Jack LaLanne doing a few jumping jacks with you in front of the TV. And, if that didn’t do the trick, you couldn’t turn on an infomercial and know that a Spanx body shaper would answer all your prayers. You were just incredibly grateful panty hose had been invented so you didn’t have to squeeze your shape into a real girdle like your mother did.
“Joy’s keeping herself up real nice,” I overheard my dad telling one of his fishing buddies when I was almost 40. By then, the remark should have gotten him slapped, sued, or both, but I took it as a supreme compliment. I was forever bemoaning my slant toward the short, stocky side of the family and beginning to wonder if the dryer was shrinking my jeans. Suddenly everyone, including me, was jumping around the gym in their Reeboks and ripping the skin off their baked chicken. Still, it seemed harder and harder to not get sucked under, into the flow of middle-aged complacency. But then I’d think about Mum and lift my real self above those troubles. As it turned out, she didn’t let herself go. Before she had time, she got swept away by an undetected “defect” she’d been born with and would have been powerless to hold in check. She never suffered, though, and left with a smile, a teeny pot belly on her lanky frame, and the very beginnings of Nana skin. Nana herself, on the other hand, ended up living way longer than I originally predicted. While in her seventies, she’d waged war with her short, stockiness and shrunk herself about five dress sizes by eating little but plain yogurt and Melba toast. Even if she had let herself go, though, or had stayed gone, it didn’t matter. Soon after, she forgot where she was completely, how she’d gotten there, who was with her, or what she’d had for breakfast before leaving.
Dad who, ironically, was the patriarch of stockiness (or, as he called it, barrel chestedness)—became a gym rat later in life. When he wasn’t out fishing, he was horsing around weights at the health club, keeping an eye on whether or not the women in Spandex were letting themselves go. He’d puff out his chest, flex his biceps and say, “Not bad for almost 70!” But his coronary arteries did not agree. Eventually, all his pre-Dr. Oz years of letting himself eat whatever he wanted took him down at 68.
Dad watches me, though, I can feel it. And, hopefully, he still brags. Mum was with me, too, as always, when I celebrated a landmark birthday the other day. I’ve now lived ten years longer than she did, as much by hanging on as by letting myself stay in the moment. I remember them when I turn down chocolate in favor of carrot sticks. But I think of them just as vividly when I decide to say yes to a pair of “just because” earrings or to savoring every last bite of cherry cheesecake. They’re my hiking buddies, now that I’ve traded my gym membership for long walks along the lake they brought me back to. “We’re doing just fine,” I tell them as my heart gets pumping and I take deep breaths of Rangeley balsam.
My daughters concur. They’re keeping an eye on me for any signs of slippage and they swear I don’t need pleated pants or a swimsuit skirt. They tell me I “don’t even look scary yet” in my underwear. And, if I promise to not start wearing bright pink lipstick, they promise to warn me when it’s time to give up the hair dye and let myself go grey with dignity. Plus, best of all, they’ve taken the opportunity to keep me young and run wild with it like I never could with my mother. I’ve decided, with their help, that the Nana skin on my hands looks just as wonderful gripping a fishing rod against a West Kennebago sunset as it does wrapped around a roller coaster handle bar at Six Flags, screaming like a 12-year-old, and hanging on for dear life.