Have you ever noticed that the passage of time isn’t smooth? That days, weeks, months… even years… can unfold but time seems to be standing still? We seem to be standing still? And then all of a sudden, we lurch forward. We’re catapulted from one clearly discernible chunk of time into another. At least that’s how it seems to me.
I love that word “chunk.” I used to use it a lot in teaching, when planning courses with my department, “chunking” up the weeks of a semester, into units, and the units into lessons. It had to be done, no matter how arbitrary it seemed… how arbitrary it was, actually… because otherwise you might get to May and realize with a sinking feeling that you’d only covered one element of the course and the final exam was looming. Time, the days and the weeks, can get away on you when you’re talking to kids, and exploring exciting new activities with them. I used to think there was no better lesson I could teach a student-teacher than how to “chunk up” a course.
I look at my life like that too. In chunks of time.
There’s that whole shadowy, unreal, almost fictional, time in the lives of my family before I was born. Then the chunk that was my early childhood before we moved to the apartment building owned by my grandfather, before my parents separated. To be truthful I don’t remember much of that time. And what I do remember I’m pretty sure aren’t my memories at all, just stories told by my mum and my older siblings.
My first clear memory is of my mum and I flying to Newfoundland to visit my uncle and aunt who had just had a new baby. I remember that time vividly. The early rising and driving through the pre-dawn darkness to the airport. Mum reading to me on the plane from my “Little Golden Book” called The New Baby. I gather from her stories that Mum was not as excited as I was to be flying. That, to her chagrin, every time the pilot issued a warning that there would be turbulence, I kept repeating it. “Turbulence, Mumma. We’re having turbulence.” “Yeee-esss dear. I heard,” I imagine her replying through gritted teeth.
|The 1956 edition of The New Baby… the same one I owned.
I remember that trip in vivid colour. What we had for lunch one day when the wife of a family friend took Mum and me shopping and out for lunch… to an automat. You know, those places where you could see the dishes through the little windows? And you opened the window and put the plate on your tray. Lunch in a restaurant was a rare treat when I was almost six. Apparently I embarrassed Mum by wanting pretty much everything I saw. I mean, it was hard to know when you picked one dish that a few feet down the line there’d be a different one that you just that moment realized you wanted even more than the last one. Sigh. I remember Mrs.Tucker, our host, was very gracious, but I caught hell from Mum afterward. I also remember coming home to my uncle’s house that afternoon with a new pink plastic umbrella, which I promptly hid from my two younger boy cousins. Boys were so trying in those days.
The rest of that time before I started school and Mum went to work is all wrapped up with images of Christmas at my grandparents, books we read, and old movies. When my older brother and sisters were in school, Mum and I would sometimes watch old movies on “Mid-day Matinee” on television. She’d do the ironing. And I’d ask endless questions about what was going to happen to whom in the film. It seemed to me that Mum knew everything. Took me years to break the habit of asking “What’s going to happen now, Mumma?”
And then I started school, and there were school bus rides, new kittens, playing tether ball at recess, report cards, teachers I loved, and those that scared the pants off me. And then that awkward chunk that was junior high, and the year Mum married my step-father and we moved to the farm. That was wonderful. And then the high school chunk. And onward. And, you see, the funny thing is, that even though I was aware that events might be months or years apart, within each of these chunks, I was unaware of the process that was happening. I was growing up, changing, learning, becoming an independent person. But it seemed to me as if I stayed the same for years until I lurched forward into a different chunk of my life and became an entirely new person.
And with each lurch into a new phase of “me,” I was sure that eventually I would lurch into a “finished” phase where I would be confident, successful, beautiful, and have everything under control. Where I would have all the answers, and life would be smooth sailing and easy peasy. Ha. I stopped waiting for that phase when I turned thirty. But I still experienced my life in chunks. Learning, changing, and inexorably growing older. I welcomed the advent of some of the changes. Like the day I realized that somehow without my realizing it, I had become an experienced teacher. Comfortable in my classroom, able to relax and enjoy myself and not stress so much about whether I was doing a good enough job. That felt great. Other changes, however, were not so welcome.
I remember one day in my late thirties, I was “turning my closet” as my friend Margaret says. And I tried on a lovely, royal blue corduroy, full-skirted dress from Laura Ashley, which I loved, and which was several years old. And like a dash of cold water, I knew that I had suddenly, in a moment, become too old to wear the dress. Of course it’s not like my face morphed into wrinkles and frown lines that exact moment. Just that I suddenly realized the reality. I was almost forty. And the dress did NOT go with my face anymore. I looked silly in it. Like mutton dressed as lamb. It was a bit of a shock. Not a huge emotional moment or anything, just… surprising. “When did that happen?” I remember thinking.
But I was not so sanguine about another big shift in reality moment. My most traumatic lurch forward, into a new chunk of my life, happened when I was almost fifty-one. I had been going for physio for my back for two months. The young guy who was my physiotherapist was from Australia, a cross-country skier, working in Canada, and training for the World Championships the next year. We bonded over talk of Australia (Hubby and I had been there on an extended trip a couple of years before), and talk of skiing, and cycling. And his assistant, the kinesiologist, was an equally young, equally athletic extrovert. We had lots of laughs as I lay with a heat pack on my back, or tried in my motor-moron way to master the exercises I was supposed to do. Those two kibitzed and ribbed each other and I always chimed in. I want to make very clear that our chat was friendly banter, not flirting. More like the jokey way I interacted with students in the hallway; teasing, laughing, as people who like each other do.
But one day after I left, I climbed into my car, and adjusted the mirror to fix my hair. Oh. My. God. I was old. Bright sunshine on my face illuminated every single line and furrow. Every single one. It was like a kick in my solar plexus. I was a pathetic, middle-aged, wrinkly old woman. How stupid I must look making jokes and joining in the banter with those two young guys! It seemed as if in that moment I saw who I really was. The reality of being fifty-one. And it literally hurt. It did. I remember I almost cried. Maybe I did cry. The next day I told one person, my friend Marina. “What an idiot, I am,” I said. “Who do I think I am going around acting as if I’m still in my twenties, as if I’m the same age as those young guys?” I don’t remember what she said. Something sympathetic, I know. But I walked around for days, in mourning for my youth. For the years when I was young, or even young-ish, and attractive and not some sad old git who was only pretending. How had I not noticed that I wasn’t me anymore? Or at least the me I thought I was seeing in the mirror. Whew! Talk about an emotional over-reaction. But that’s how I felt. And then, in a week or two, it subsided.
It had been years since I thought about that day, the day I realized I was middle-aged, and the ensuing weeks of self-doubt. Until last May, when I turned sixty, I read in The New York Times an article called I’m Too Old For This by Dominique Browning, who was also sixty. Browning says that turning sixty was “profoundly liberating” for her. She says that she always felt insecure about her looks. Until one day she unearthed a trunk full of old photos, and as she looked at them she thought: “Even when I was in the depths of despair about my looks, I’d been beautiful.” And it was a revelation to her. She says that when we get to be sixty, we should consider ourselves “too old” to worry anymore about all that insecurity nonsense. All that torturous, self defeating, I’m not good-looking enough, or smart enough crap.
That’s kind of how I felt when I turned sixty. Sort of liberated. I remember thinking: “Okay, so you’re sixty. This is your life. This is your face. This is your body. This is you.” And I felt pretty good. Good enough, anyway. I think maybe I’ve been catapulted into that “finished” chunk that I dreamed about when I was young. Except not in the way that I thought. Not beautiful, but wise enough to realize that beauty ain’t everything. Successful, in that I’ve had a successful career. Certainly confident… most of the time, anyway. I don’t have all the answers, but I now know that no one does. And while life is not all smooth sailing, easy peasy… I’m pretty lucky. I’m even beginning to take a more sanguine view of that day when I was almost fifty-one. To feel empathy for myself instead of exasperation. I know, I know… I seriously over-reacted. But I was only fifty-one. I was deep into menopause. I wasn’t ready then for reality, not ready then to be the woman I saw in the mirror.
But I am now.
And I keep thinking of this bit from Browning’s article: “I have no doubt that when I’m eighty I’ll look at pictures of myself when I was sixty and think how young I was then, how filled with joy and beauty.”
Well, I don’t know if that’s what I’ll think when I’m eighty. I’ll have to get back to you on that. In twenty years.
How about you my wise readers? How do you fare when reality bites… and you are faced with the evidence of time passing?