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Crowding Fifty

I remember sleeping next to my fiftyish grandmother under her chenille bedspread; she lay with her creamed nose pointed straight up to the ceiling and her wire hair curlers under a net. I wore her polyester Queen of Sheba bathrobe in the morning while she sponged on a pink Avon face around a crease of dark red lipstick-- her eyebrows were penciled into thin curls, and she wore her beige slacks permanently pressed. She was always respectable. Now, when I dress to pick my daughter up from school, nothing is pressed. I worry that she may be late, and I will have to go into the office to ask for her, wearing pajama pants and my husband’s t-shirt. Most days it is enough that he sees me as rare and lovely, but I long to be desired despite my falling estrogen levels and thighs. My mother and my daughter call me beautiful. They have other, kinder eyes.

Lately, the kinder eyes of women call me like love affairs. These women are dark and light, thin and fat, tall and small-- many have wounds. One showed me a mastectomy scar like a great gash of lightening across her chest-- I found her achingly beautiful. It is a time of fresh affinities; perhaps this is a compensation for age. It is what my grandmother found after my grandfather died. There were countless love affairs for her then: none of the flesh, but all pieces of new desire.

She thrived in her new life beyond marriage, but I am afraid my older husband will die before me-- although this did not concern me when I married him. I say to him that I never expected to live as long as I have. I did not contemplate this older self; my early life was filled with danger and instability due to untreated mental illness. Now, like Marilyn Monroe, I realize I have forgotten to envision myself as an older woman. One evening we went to a pizza parlor: a young waitress with lovely features wore a pair of chunky designer glasses. They drew her face into a long intellectual point. I wondered at her preference for individualism above beauty. That wondering stayed with me. She possessed some vital wisdom which eludes me still. I would not have my youthful angst returned, but the slope of my young calves still fills me with longing.

A palm reader told me that the second half of my life would be twice as productive as the first. I think this is likely to be true. I can see that my writing is blooming and spreading tendriled leaves everywhere… in the autumn of my life this is an unexpected spring. I do know what my father’s hopes for me, that I would become a person of some great importance, will not be realized. The truth is that I am prosaic-- like wild flowers, fertile earth, and the shoots that grow up from it. I recognize that I have been given a handful of living seed: this much and no more. I find myself casting my eyes down the row of a long garden that meets the horizon. I see countless women like myself bending at the knees, crouching in the grass, and shouldering the sun. I have planted children and lovers and friends and words, and I am still planting.

I have kept a journal since I was fifteen. These are now piled up in hatboxes in the attic, row on row. One can imagine them whispering to each other like dried moth wings in a small breeze. I intend to take them out when I am mostly done living, when I have shed nearly all of the wings I need to fly. I plan to read them and learn who I am; the constant flow of events will be like a river that brings with it understanding. Then, I will tie them back up for my daughters, who have been given another handful of seeds. They will need to know what this corner of the earth will grow; they plant on top of the soil I have prepared.

This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Northwest Prime Time, the Puget Sound region’s monthly publication celebrating life after 50.

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