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When it was my turn to speak, the words tumbled from my mouth before my inner censor had a chance to swallow them back. “I’m Lesley, from New York City. I’m a writer and a teacher of writing. I turned 73 this year.”
On this, the first morning of Next Tribe’s annual week-long beach retreat at Present Moment in Troncones, Mexico, the booming Pacific Ocean supplied the soundtrack to our meet and greet. After a day of travel, we women, most of us strangers to each other, had formed a circle on the breezy yoga platform. We were taking the first step toward beginning to know each other, and maybe ourselves, a little better. No other woman in the circle had offered her age.
I did because saying the number, out loud, to myself and others, was a personal challenge I’d given myself a few few years back. I wanted to conquer, if not my own boomer disbelief, then the shame and embarrassment the number seemed to come cloaked in. How did such age shame happen? Why did it? Those inherited feelings (inherited from whom?) had already begun to feel as stale and stupid as a “”Take my wife” joke. Yuk. I wanted to feel as boldly proud of my age as I felt about my other accomplishments. As the ever-glamorous Gloria Steinem forthrightly replied to a complimentary but disbelieving man on one of her birthdays: “This is what forty looks like.”
My Birthday Promise
Aging happens. For the fortunate, it keeps happening. I didn’t ask to be 73. I’m just as shocked by the number as any woman whose inner self is, say, a solid forty wrapped around a calendar that includes, depending on the moment or the day, all the selves she’s been from kindergarten on. Still, I had made a specific promise to myself to own my age, out loud, to just say it, anytime I was asked. I figured, I didn’t make it to 73 without learning how to own myself —setbacks, triumphs, disappointments included.
Apparently, I wasn’t done talking that morning on the yoga platform. “My mother died at 73,” I told the group. The fact of it had been shadowing me since my October birthday. Outliving your own mother. Wasn’t that a trauma when a daughter’s mom died, well, younger than 73? Like 25. Maybe 40. But no, age doesn’t seem to be a factor at all in this mother-daughter mortality equation.
The Meaning of 73
I had been my mother’s daughter since, well, since forever and always. Past, present, future. Yet a deeply buried piece of myself, a piece stubbornly therapy-resistant despite having done the years-long work of disentangling myself from her—couldn’t, wouldn’t separate myself from her at all. How could I exist if my mother didn’t exist? We had had a difficult time of it, we two, and for a long time neither one of us understood why.
Now every day past my 73rd birthday seems to erase my mother and enlarge her both. I feel wistful for the more intimate bond we never shared. On the other hand, it was only after my mother’s death that I began to say Yes. I turned to a more challenging, more fulfilling kind of writing. I became a fine teacher. I traveled the world on my own. I had my own mortality scare when I faced down breast cancer. I drew on the support of everyone who offered it.
Look. That’s me in Troncones, Mexico, saying yes to horseback riding, to kayaking, to grabbing an iguana by the tail, to letting the powerful ocean waves tumble me about. I long for my mother sometimes. So often I find myself wondering how the bold woman I am—in the classroom, on the computer, or in the protest crowd—created herself from the timid, silent, separate daughter she used to be.
A Fraught Relationship
My glamorous mother was a regular guest at a few manicured spas, the kind for calorie counting, facials and massage. Those spas stood (and some still stand) at a generational and sensibility distance from the wellness, yoga-focused, sunset on horseback bliss of a retreat like Present Moment. (Of course there’s massage here, too. a gazillion different flavors). My mom had routinely begged me to join her on one of those spa trips; I had always begged off. Except once, to a spa she liked in Florida. We were only there a day before she wanted to go home. Apparently, Parkinson’s Disease, not yet officially diagnosed, had been turning her body into a stranger to her for some time now. That day she wasn’t hiding her fear. She was nakedly scared. I had never seen my mother so vulnerable.
On that first beachside morning at Present Moment, I felt flattered by the surprise and compliments from the 17 fine women sitting around me. I figured I was the oldest woman there. True, I’m tiny, one year into getting fit again after the post-gym years of slap dash yoga, half- hearted Pilates, a pile of rarely used home equipment I finally schlepped to Good Will. After my showdown with breast cancer two springs ago, I found Barre3, one block away from my apartment, and it siren-songed me so thoroughly my biceps are back. I just hope they survive the plague.
Grabbing an Iguana by the Tail
When I was in my mid-forties, and my mother caught me frowning at my jawline in the mirror, she’d say, “I’ll tell you when it’s time.” It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear I had a facelift mother. Who died just after I turned fifty. Now who would tell me “when it was time”? Just me. I had my eyes done and my jaw neatened up two months later, a photograph of my mother clutched in my hand.
Sure, I get a shot of Botox maybe once a year. Fillers? I’ve had a few. I didn’t have great skin when I was a young woman, but boy do I make up for it now. I’m a glutton for serums, moisturizers and masks. And yes, my skin is, well, glowing.
Aside from the currently terrified moment we all live in, the glow is on the inside, too. I was a successful magazine writer who changed course, at 50, to write fiction. That took some nerve. And when I was asked to teach an advanced course at The Writers Studio in Greenwich Village, I said yes. I married at 42. Hell, I tap-danced in a Cole Porter musical at 26. All of which is to say, age has nothing to do with any of it. A woman can get bold whatever her age. Just wade into the life that calls you until the waves crest, and then ride them toward the shore as we did that week in Troncones.