Every year when I was growing up, my grandma and I would celebrate our birthdays together. We were both Leos, both doomed to the bear the ugliness of the peridot birth stone, both born in August, during the one month Wisconsin was actually sweltering hot. Grandma was born just one day and 66 years before me, on August 4, 1919. She was born just after the great war and a decade shy of the great depression. I was born in the midst of big hair, shoulder pads and the decline of American culture. We were born to different worlds, different times but Grandma and I always shared this one special day.
Although to be honest when I was little, “our” party was really all mine. To an 8, 9 or 10 year old what is a birthday besides overindulging in cake and rapidly opening as many presents as possible? The concept of having a birthday to celebrate a lifetime accumulation of years seems ridiculous. What could wisdom bring you that a new set of Lincoln logs and a face-full of chocolate cake couldn’t? However after I turned 18, birthdays started to shift. I usually celebrated with friends and fake IDs instead of family and Grandma started to celebrate real things, like making it to 85 without cancer or dementia.
Today, grandma and I celebrated another birthday. I turned 29; Grandma owned 95.
I went to the assisted living home where grandma lives to bring her some McDonald’s coffee and paint her nails. We were gabbing, drinking our coffee and blowing on our nails when I said to grandma, “Can you believe I’m turning 29 today. Gosh I’m old! Don’t’ you think I’m getting old grandma?”
I said it meaning it, even though I knew it would sound silly to a 95 year old. I feel old often in life. Sometimes I feel like I’m lagging behind some mythic standard of success. I am in a graduate program that is often populated with younger people, people just starting their careers and their twenties. Many of my friends are married, more than a few have babies. I can’t help but think that is what I should be doing, paying a mortgage, researching organic baby wipes, establishing life in a more traditional way. I can’t help but sometimes feel I’m too old at 29.
Grandma looked at me with some annoyance but mostly with uninterrupted wisdom. “I certainly do not think you are old.” She sipped her coffee again, careful not smudge the light pink nail polish. “Nik, you are only as old as you choose to feel.”
For the next hour, grandma talked about all the stuff she had done in her twenties. She said she was a rather “late bloomer,” not getting married until 24, not having her first baby until 28, which in the 40’s was old maid status. She spent her twenties in secretary school, working for the telephone company, one harrowing solo trip to Chicago she still raves about and traveling the U.S. to visit family and her beau, until she eventually married grandpa “illegally” (since air force bombaders were not supposed to be married) and traveled down to Louisiana to be with the love of her life. Grandma never regretted not starting her family sooner, not marrying younger. She spend her twenties living, exploring, becoming the woman who would eventually be the matriarch of our crazy Wisconsin family. She would not be the Millie our family relies on and cherishes without the wandering of her twenties.
This is not the first birthday I plummeted into a kind of “I’m so old” self-pity. I very vividly remember a solid 2 hours of crying on my 21st. There was the “I’ll die alone” birthdays at 25 and at 26 again. I often freak out around my birthday succumbing to the fear of that late blooming is pathetic blooming, that no matter what age I am, I am “too old.” But every year, grandma has the one line that centers me, grounds me, brings me back to my roots, the roots of independent women, of stoic iron-willed matriarchs, of late bloomers. This year, at 29 I know “old” is only a feeling that you can choose to feel or not feel and that blooming late just means that my nineties will be that much more kick-ass.