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Forever Young

A Grandmother Shares How Age Didn't Change Her

Not long ago my mother, Irene, called me sounding frantic. The retirement home where she lived was holding its annual black-tie dinner that evening and she was beside herself over what to wear. “Please help me, Barb,” she said, “the bronze silk suit or the leopard chiffon?”

It didn't matter to my mother that she was 95, impossibly frail and very ill. In her mind she was still who she'd always been: glamorous, eternally youthful, charming and flirtatious, adored by men, envied by women, the undisputed Belle of Pittsburgh. Sadly, a month after the gala, my mother passed away.

Though clearly irrational, her stubborn, magical belief that aging and its inescapable corollary, death, happen only to other people is also deeply human. It strikes me — and sages have been saying so forever — that we each carry within us a core sense of self that develops when we're young and persists throughout our lives. No wonder my mother continued to think of herself as that 19-year-old Belle of Pittsburgh. On the inside she felt vibrant, curious and full of life, despite outward appearances. To her, the woman she saw in the mirror in her later years was a shocking imposter, not her true self. ...Read More

I didn't discover my true self until I reached 30, but even as a teenager I knew that being a free spirit was a big part of who I am. During the '60s I was an unconventional adventure-seeker who, along with other members of my generation, was rewriting the world. At 19 I dropped out of college. The year I turned 21, I traveled across Europe in a beat-up Volkswagen bus. By the time I was 24, my man and I were living with our baby boy in a plywood A-frame on a mountaintop in California, with no running water or electricity.

But at a certain point, this lifestyle stopped working for me.

Motherhood made me realize that I needed to find out what I stood for, not just what I opposed. That process started in my mid-20s, when I separated from my son's father and went back to college, and culminated around age 30. That was the year I had my first big success as a playwright. I was doing work I loved, I was comfortable as a single mother and at ease in my own skin. My sense of adventure was still intact, but now my feet touched the ground. At 30 I came home to myself.

Today, three decades later, I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I'm married to a kindhearted man, Hugh. I am the grandmother of Isabelle and Azalia, two little girls who make my heart leap. What could be more conventional than this? A friend told me just last week that her daughter couldn't believe it when she heard that I'd been a rebel hippie chick back in the day. And yet the thrill of adventure, the sense of possibility, my trademark irreverence and the joy I feel in not knowing what the day will bring are with me still— just as they were at age 30, when I finally understood that responsibility would not crush my freewheeling spirit.

I may be a 62-year-old grandmother now, but at heart I am my 30-year-old self — my virtual age. I feel in my prime. I work out, hike, travel, chase after my granddaughters. I work hard too: Since I'm a freelance writer, the r-word — retirement — has no place in my vocabulary. And I still love to turn on a dime. Just this morning I told my husband not to count on me being around next week — I'm heading to a spa for a desperately needed break with my friend Audrey.

Still, there are times when my impulsiveness gets me into trouble. A few years ago, in the dead of winter, I rented a charming 300-year-old country farmhouse on the spur of the moment for our summer vacation. By the time we arrived, the mice and the snakes had come out of hiding. On the plus side, we never would have laughed (or screamed) as hard as we did if I hadn't jumped at the place quite so spontaneously.

And though I love my nice house and all the beautiful objects I've collected during my travels, I never confuse my sense of self-worth with those things. Or with my youthful looks, thank God — and that is one big difference between my mother and me. Because she thought of herself as eternally young, each creeping, telltale sign of her real age filled her with shame. I pray that I'll be able to accept my own inevitable physical decline with more equanimity.

The great Satchel Paige once said, “How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?” I've been pondering the wisdom of that question in the weeks since my mother died. On some basic level I feel pretty much the way I did at 30: not as wild and reckless as I was in my 20s, but not ready to pack it in, either. The siren call of the next unexpected adventure will sound any day now, and I'll be ready. And though it's true that my past casts an ever longer shadow behind me, the future does not seem foreshortened. Not yet, anyway.

Barbara Graham is the editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother.

  • Who you are inside doesn't have to change as you age.

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Forever Young
A Grandmother Shares How Age Didn't Change Her
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