Aging is not lost youth but a new stage
Of opportunity and strength.
Betty Friedan

Every day is a gift. It is an empty glass that I can choose to fill in whatever way I like. Each day that glass contains something that is new like meeting a new friend; a follow- up on something I did yesterday like watering the plants I put in my window box; and something to get me ready for tomorrow like making an appointment to service the car. I did not always have the power to make those selections for myself. That freedom only comes with age.

When I was young, my mother designed my day. She decided what I would eat for breakfast, what I would wear and what would amuse me. She would dress me in a starched Shirley Temple dress with images of the little actress cavorting along the hemline and finish the outfit with white anklets and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes. She scrubbed my face until is had no trace of sleep and combed my hair into long curls she tied back with a ribbon.

She sat me at the breakfast table and gave me the meal she had decided was “good for me.” “You cannot leave this table until you finish everything on your plate,” my mother said. “Wasting food is a crime.”

I can still remember shoving my fork through the cold, slimy eggs I hated and staring at toast that had nothing I cared about on it. Then, there was the milk: I don’t think there was a child in the universe that hated the taste of milk more than I.

Once the breakfast was demolished and my teeth properly brushed, Mother would push me out to the back porch and say “Go play, Lynn Ruth…and don’t get dirty.”

Play? With whom? The boy next door spit at me; Carol May across the street but I was not allowed to leave my side of the block. I didn’t dare make mud pies (I loved that) or dig until I found China because I would get dirty. Besides, I didn’t have a shovel. I didn’t want to play, anyway. I wanted to read.

And so I stood, shifting from one foot to another, waiting until my mother would open the back door and say, ”Lunchtime!!! Did you have fun?”

In my teens, I had a bit more control over my days. Daddy gave me a $5 allowance so I could buy Hershey Bars at the drugstore and chocolate milkshakes at Franklin’s Ice Cream Parlor. I never told my mother why I didn’t have room for her split pea soup or the stew that smelled up the kitchen. I was obedient but I wasn’t stupid.

My mother still decided what clothes were in my closet. She cared not a whit that girls were wearing jeans and baggy shirts for play and strapless dresses for parties. This was the forties. Nice girls covered up.

During that time, my teachers filled at least 50% of my waking hours with classes and homework. If I wanted to get through high school and go to college (this was the only choice I knew) I had to get good grades. I had to study. No drinking, no partying except on weekends and NO television. My parents and all the friends in my circle (selected by my mother) did not even question the value of college. It was what nice girls did after high school so they would find a husband with a good future who would support them for the rest of their lives. Our intention was become wives and mothers just like our own mothers but I knew I wasn’t up to the task. I couldn’t whip up the kind of anger my mother used to keep us in line (her line) and cooking confused me.

I LOVED college. You could wake up when you wanted and no one screamed when you drank too much or kissed a boy from a bad family. But when I graduated, my mother was horrified. “Now what are you going to do. Work?”

I was suitably embarrassed for her. When nice girls got to be my age, they kept house. How could she explain my spinsterhood to her canasta group?

Now that I was out of school, I earned my own money. I could buy that blouse that showed some cleavage and eat chocolate cake for breakfast. I could go to bars and hang out. I could go to an art museum. I could read any book I chose. I decided I wanted to learn to sew and spent years fighting with my aunt’s sewing machine before I realized that sewing was not fun for me. I hated following someone else’s pattern.

Marriage changed the balance for me again. Two of us were spending my money because my husband was a student. Now, I filled my time with what he liked to do. Women were supposed to obey, remember? We played bridge, made friends with his classmates and I became an accomplished hostess. I learned to cook elaborate seven course banquets on a budget. If you came into our front door, I fed you. I had become my mother’s daughter.

Eventually, the husband became an unpleasant memory and I was on my own again. My boss determined at least 8 hours of my day, but I got to decide what to do with the rest. I joined a theater group; I took tap dancing. I studied piano and although I didn’t notice it, I filled each hour with more and more of my own choices and less and less of what others told me I should do.

The years wore on and I adapted to what each moment gave me. I tried to find a balance between my dreams and reality. That is what aging is: a constant adaptation and re-adaptation to the raw materials that are in your life. As you grow older, you sift out the things that don’t really fulfill you and you add the ones you secretly wanted to try but didn’t dare because what would all those other people in your life think. These days, I can sit up all night reading The New Yorker, munching on pecan clusters and ice cream. When I cannot button my slacks, I am the only one to blame. My vocations changed as my interests changed. Once I was a teacher; then I was a reporter; and now I am an entertainer. It is the new fabric of my life.

My friend Ellen married her first love and he gave her a very different kind of life. When she first married, her days were filled with caring for two boys who grew up to marry and have children of their own. She had a dog to walk, a job to help support the family and her church activities to sustain her. As the boys grew older, her responsibilities to her children shifted to her grandchildren. Yet she, too, altered what she wanted and needed to do a tiny bit every day.

I could never be happy the life she has worked so hard to earn. She baby sits her grandchildren now, tends a sickly husband and still walks her dog. She spends every afternoon helping her daughter in law take care of her twins and visits the other son’s children while their mother is at work. Evenings, she cooks family dinners with lots of leftovers to send home with her two sons’ families.

On the other hand, Ellen would be ready for a psychiatric ward if she had to live my routine. I am out every night until one or two in the morning, standing before crowds of young people trying to make them laugh…or at least not fall asleep. I eat dinner at one in the morning and sleep until noon. I drink red wine. I use four letter words. That is my heaven. It would be hell for Ellen.

We all lead unique lives with individual demands and unlimited potential. Now that I am in my seventies, I have freedom I never dreamed I would have. I earned it during all those years someone else controlled what I did and influenced what I thought. It was that discipline that prepared me to take the reins of my life myself and make it work the way I want it to. There are many things I really loved doing when I was younger that do not interest me now. They bore me. When I was ten years old, I devoted hours and hours to learning to ride a two wheeled bike. I am not interested in bicycling these days. I drive.

I am older and my body doesn’t respond the way it once did. I do not remember as easily as I once did, nor am I as strong as I once was. There is a touch of arthritis; the eyes aren’t as sharp….. the bones often ache, the ears miss a few things. These changes have come upon me so gradually I hardly noticed they were happening until one day I realized I couldn’t make out what they were saying in the movies I couldn’t open a plastic bottle. When did that happen?

So it is that each morning I adjust my sights to accommodate what I can do, and what new thing I want to learn. I don’t worry about skipping rope. Instead, I practice lifting five pound weights. I want to open that plastic bottle again. I know that I can do anything I want to do if I am willing to give it the time and energy it needs to make it happen. It isn’t my age that holds me back, nor is it my body. I can re-teach my muscles if I am willing to spend time training them. The only things that limit me are the two challenges we all face: time and money. It takes many years to master cross country skiing or ping pong. I want to do something else with the time I have left. I am going to hula hoop.

Each day is only 24 hours. That is why I am very selective when it comes to filling that gift of time. I don’t want to waste the finite energy I have with negative thoughts or counter productive actions. I am careful NOT to fill the hours with regrets for what I cannot do. Instead, I decide how much I want to learn to bake croissants or make jewelry. Do I want to learn Spanish? Well, then, I will sign up for a course and allow a couple hours each day to go to class and a couple more hours to practice. I won’t be fluent in a day…and I wasn’t fluent in high school even after four years of the language. I didn’t give it enough effort.

Each day we live contributes to the quality of the next day. When your body slows, your memory fades and your face wrinkles, you look to other things to satisfy you, if you are wise. Why waste precious time mourning the loss of firm flesh and flexible knees? When you couldn’t fit into a pair of slacks, you didn’t say “Oh my god, I am too old to ever wear a size 8 again.” You dieted until the slacks buttoned around your middle OR you decided to buy bigger slacks. It was a choice not a sentence.

Now is all you can be sure you have whether you are 20, 50 or 80. You can make it the best time so far or you can continue reinforcing old patterns that don’t work and give you no pleasure. I have no interest in feeding babies or taking line dancing. I want to write a new book or paint a fabulously outrageous picture. How will your fill your time? Only you can decide.

The other day a man asked me what I thought was the best time of life.
"Why," I answered without a thought, "now."
David Grayson