Yesterday was my beloved grandma’s 84th birthday, which was a terrific thing to celebrate after she suffered a health scare last month. At a birthday lunch yesterday, grandma.of.a.lesser.god revealed that my grandfather gave her a card that said “I never thought I’d be sleeping with an 84-year-old crab.” I have to admit that’s cute. But soon enough, the discussion turned to death and a cremation vs. burial debate, which was enough to make me lose my appetite despite the delicious French fries on my plate. I realize that people thinking about their mortality is nothing new, especially when said person is an octogenarian. Still, I wished that my grandmother had been able to just celebrate the fact that she had made it to such an impressive age, and with all her faculties intact.
My mother had done much the same thing last Wednesday, when she celebrated her own birthday. She turned 55, and bemoaned her age instead of thinking of the fact that she’s in good health and has accomplished so much in those five and a half decades. Of course most of the comments that rolled in focused on her appearance. “You don’t look a day over 45!” was a common refrain. It’s true, but it’s irrelevant. mother.of.a.lesser.god is far from a vain woman, but these comments really seemed to make her feel good about herself. Oh, and did I mention that one of my sister’s friends said to tell my mom “happy MILF day”? So the best words of kindness anyone can find for a woman on her birthday is to reassure her she still looks gorgeous.
My own birthday is seven weeks away (but really, who’s counting?) and I understand the impulse to feel that marking another year’s passing is a call to focus on the shortcomings of your life as well as your mortality. SarahMC wrote eloquently about the phenomenon of melancholy colliding with birthdays, and I wonder if it is always more pronounced when one is thirty or sixty years older than we Harpies are. And while I know this is not solely something that women grapple with — father.of.a.lesser.god has great anxiety about this as well, probably in part due to the fact that he has Alzheimer’s disease at 61 — it seems that society does not really do
much anything to positively reinforce women as they age. All that’s usually offered are some cursory references to how aging is affecting a body and a face, because looking a day over twenty-nine or thirty-nine or forty-nine is seemingly a mortal sin that every woman should be ashamed of.
I hope that when May 13 rolls around next year, my mom and those around her will be able to think more about the things she has accomplished — a law career, raising two daughters, a very happy marriage, and training some difficult dogs — instead of the fact that her face is notably lacking in wrinkles. And next May 17, maybe my grandma can think about what the past eight-and-a-half decades have brought her. This is not to say that one should never look forward on a birthday, but getting older is as much an opportunity to reflect on the good things that have happened in the past as it is a call to feel terrified about the “horrible” prospect of aging.