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The Big Surprise About Turning 64

Life is mysterious in these ways; one day we are impossibly young, imagining a future for ourselves full of exclamation points; the next day, we are in our 60s, having observed that life is more filled with question marks.
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Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

How it happened so quickly, I will never understand. Wasn't it yesterday that my high school friends and I laughed at the idea of ever being old, singing the Beatles' "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?" Perhaps my parents would turn 64 someday, but no, not me. I had my life in front of me, a great story waiting to be written. And now, as improbable as it seems, here I am, turning 64 this week.

Life is mysterious in these ways; one day we are impossibly young, imagining a future for ourselves full of exclamation points; the next day, we are in our 60s, having observed that life is more filled with question marks. Age brings a kind of clarity lacking in our younger selves, when one believed (even a few short years ago) that there will always be more time, more opportunities, a future tense yet to be lived. Life is more precious these days, less wild, and the surprises that come with age seem like blessings. Here is one big surprise on my mind this week:

It is okay to become your mother: For decades, I fiercely and proudly declared, "I will not be like my mother," as I struggled to unstitch her voice sewn into the pockets of each of my garments. The voice I heard, during my 20s and 30s, was critical and judgmental, inserting itself both in moments of self-doubt and self-confidence. My mother didn't like my clothes ("You're not going to wear That! You look like a hippie!"), didn't like my long hair ("You look like you don't own a comb!), and, of course, my weight ("Are you really going to eat That!") Maybe I needed to fiercely affirm my independence and move across the country to avoid seeing my resemblance. Maybe I needed to unstitch her voice and re-sew it, with a new pattern, to treasure the ways our lives are interwoven.

My mother is a shy, private woman whose own mother died when she was seven, and who fled Germany at age 12 with her father and sister. Her experience growing up in Nazi Germany taught her to stay inconspicuous, avoid controversy, never wear or say anything that might bring attention to herself. More than anything, my mother didn't want our family, in Indiana, to stand out as people from elsewhere. She was acutely aware that life is unpredictable and wanted her daughter to be dressed for an unknowable future.

What hits me now, at 64, is how I filtered my mother's voice to hear her words of criticism rather than her many words of kindness, nor to observe her generosity of spirit and graciousness. It wasn't until I watched my mother embrace my daughters with a wild open love that I began to see her grace. As I listened to my mother praise her granddaughters' colorful mismatched clothes, marvel at their eccentric hairstyles, encourage them forward as independent girls who should call attention to themselves, I began to hear a different voice -- a voice that I wanted to pass forward.

Now I catch myself speaking my mother's encouraging lines to my daughters, even welcoming them, and taking on her generous habits. Like my mother, I send my daughters four-leaf clovers and rabbits' feet, wishing them good luck and safe travels, and put my faith in ladybugs, pennies, and other amulets of good fortune. Acts of love and protection are always needed in a world never safe enough for our children. Like my mother, I bake apples in the fall, look forward to April and the flowering of lilacs, and to August's bounty of plums and nectarines. Though I can't walk into the middle of a clover field, like my mother, and swiftly pluck the one with four leaves, I know the clovers are there for the picking, waiting to see what I can make of them.

At 64, it is a surprise to recognize the bonds of our connection and continuity across the passage of time. Sometimes, in fact, I like to imagine shopping with my mother, laughing together as I try on clothes: "Yes," I say, "I'm wearing That -- that tightly woven garment that comfortably fits, the one with your voice stitched inside."

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