I've always looked younger than my age. In grade school I was little and chubby—"baby fat" is the humiliating phrase I recall. In junior high I was the last girl to wear a bra, both because I didn't need one and because my mother was a feminist. Her mortifying counsel was to enjoy being free from the constraints of female undergarments for as long as possible. I did everything I could to appear older in high school, but gazing at the yearbook today, I look about 12, while the other girls on the page seemed to be in their 20s.
Sometime post-college, I began to enjoy my mistaken identity. As the years piled up, the career escalated and the kids came along, I got a kick out of being carded when ordering a glass of wine. And on days when I felt like a wizened old witch, it helped to be mistaken for the babysitter.
My youthful appearance was a fluke of my DNA. I did nothing in particular to earn it—no special face cream or eight glasses of water a day. My father went to his grave with a full head of brown hair and a physique that would put most 30-year-olds to shame. My mother was trim and fit up to the day she died.
Recently, I think I've started to look my age. I no longer get shocked responses when I tell people how old my kids are, or that I founded my organization more than 30 years ago. "What, like when you were 10?" people used to joke. I haven't heard that one in a while.
Sometimes I miss it. Looking younger than I was had the effect of convincing me that I really wasn't 40, or 50, or what I am now—a 57-year-old woman with wrecked knees. (Which may not be a problem, because as one of my jollier friends says, "We're on the down escalator now.")
But something wonderful—even transformational—happened last week. Something made me once and for all want to be exactly who I am, and how old I am, wrecked knees and all.
I was strolling my grandson in the streets of Berkeley.
"What a cute baby," a passing stranger exclaimed. "How old is he?"
"Five months," I replied.
"Yes, my first grandchild!" I said proudly, preparing to launch into my rant on the joys of being a grandmother.
"Oh," said the woman. "I thought you were the mom."
"Me too," said her friend.
Normally, that kind of comment would make my whole day. But this time, I didn't want to be confused for baby Will's mother. I didn't want to be a 30-something harried, worried, sleep-deprived mom-in-training. Been there, survived that. No, I was Will's grandma, and I wanted the world to know it. And in that moment, I caught up with my chronological age and realized: I could appreciate—even enjoy—the rest of the ride down the escalator. This is the gift that grandmotherhood is bestowing on me. I'm becoming comfortable with aging
. I'm discovering that being an elder is not just about my face sagging and my waist expanding; it's also about mentoring and mellowing and receiving some long, sought-after gifts: