"Big birthday coming up," My niece Sammie pointed out as we both picked up the same tank top in Abercrombie. I quickly put it down.
"Nah. 49; no major deal. Just another day," I said, spotting my crows feet in the mirror, which seemed to have multiplied since this morning. Sammie imitated the faces I made, rolling her eyes at me.
My niece continued to get me to discuss my age with her. I tried a new tact, "It's much more exciting for you. You're turning 16 this year." I'm amazed at how quickly she grew from the little girl wearing a 'princess' tiara to the young woman sporting diamond stud earrings and who went from reciting ABC's to a full C-cup bra. So are you still planning to go away for the weekend with your friends? Will there be guys?" I ask, both interested and also trying to divert the conversation
But she remained focused." It's very big. 5-0 big. The big 5O. 40 plus 10; 30 plus 20."
"Still showing off your math skills?" I shushed her. Only my grandmother and one of my two brothers (Sammie's father) knew that I was going to be 50, not 49.
She dragged me into Claire's, which appeared to have taken on not only a retro look, but displayed all of the trappings of a seventies revival shop. "So nostalgic," I said. "I was the same age as you are now when this was all in style."
"You're making a comeback," she said, handing me a strand of puka shells.
"Hey, why don't you throw a party with a theme from when you were younger?" she asked.
"That's an awful idea. Then everyone would find out."
"That's the whole point!" she rolled her eyes again. "Hey, didn't your mom pretend that she was younger when she met Grandpa Manny?" It's a maternal family trait to grow younger rather than older. My grandmother claimed she was 42 for most of her life even though she was already 47 when I was born.
My mother was 38 and my stepfather Manny was 33 when they met. She thought it was too much of an age difference but didn't want it to seem too off-kilter to her three kids, so she only subtracted three years and told my brothers and me "never tell, under any circumstances."
Once, when she had a kidney stone, she called me to get to the hospital first. "Go get a Sharpie at the nurses' station and blacken out my age on the side of the bed," she told me. It was by no means a master plan, and had Manny ever looked anywhere but at my mother, making sure she had ice chips, he might have been suspicious about the block of black ink that resided next to "Patient's Age."
When my mother passed away unexpectedly at 55, Manny filled out the death certificate with the date of birth that she had told him. My grandmother and brothers and I decided we should leave it that way to signify that we had "not told under any circumstances."
Then, a few years ago, when my stepfather put in for Social Security, he called me confused and concerned. "There is no record of your mother's number and date of birth." That was the one instance in which I needed to give Manny the correct information.
"Are you kidding? Your mother thought I would love her less if she were three years older?" He loved her despite her age, her kookiness and for everything she was.
"See? It didn't change a thing," Sammie said.
Sammie was right. But for me, it finally did. My mother, who helped me through braces, breakouts and then heartbreaking break ups, my main confidante, had provided me with perhaps the most important life lesson to date: I would celebrate my age and everything else I had accomplished and not be afraid to be loved less or differently.
I sent a group email to my friends explaining the 'lost year' and ending with... yes, this is what 50 looks like for good, bad or indifferent. There is something about seeing yourself in retrospect that offers new perspective. Over 40 was a mere blip. Hopefully, all of you who live nearby will come for my 'coming out' party.
I received a diverse array of responses that ranged from newer friends saying that they had lied by many more years. Those I went to school with thought I'd skipped a grade, not being able to remember many details about their own younger selves.
My ex, with whom I'd recently broken up after six years, immediately responded. "What? I have been seeing an older woman and never knew it? I was aghast (smiley face) to find out via mass email that I am five months younger rather than five months older than you!"
Sammie was right, everyone I knew cared little about the year I misplaced for a while; but all cared about me and wanted to be at the party.
I opted for seventies disco and I realized that it was okay. Sometime in the future I would be grappling with hot flashes and a countless amount of wrinkles around my eyes, But I also knew that, like past photos that I look at today and ask, "why did I only see my flaws?" I would not let that happen again.
I'd grown older but I also had grown up and out of the defenses I had mastered to keep myself from getting too close or feeling too much loss. I'd been thrown into adulthood when I was young, when my parent got divorced, but it had taken me until my forties to start coming of age and learning about myself.
I'm a single woman and never had my own children. But I have a niece and two nephews in my life who make me feel like I belong, who I love with all of my heart and who love me back and accept me as their aunt, friend and confidante.
When both my parents died while I was in my thirties, I became an adult orphan and let it define me for a while. I took on too much and tried to fix everyone's lives instead of concentrating on working on my own. I realized that all of the people and events over the course of my life so far had taught me how to love, stay put, be sad and finally move on when I needed to. I would always grieve somewhere inside for my mother and my father and always a bit for what I wanted but didn't get. Yet, I was tired of seeing mostly what was missing, when there was so much I did have. I had an extended family and a rich history and a hell of a lot to celebrate.
Sammie recently turned 16 and listening to her, I am glad I don't have to relive the teenage angst anymore. I am more together. I have empathy and understanding for her and am able to help her through first heartbreaks (hopefully she will be spared many). I have crossed the threshold to the big 5-O, wiser, with hope in my heart and the bright ornaments of friendship and love all around me.
Beth Bernstein is the author of "My Charmed Life: Rocky Romances, Precious Family Connections and Searching For A Band Of Gold" and is working on a new memoir.