The other day I was meandering through a department store when a purse caught my eye. I picked it up, slung it over my shoulder and then caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
I recoiled in horror: It was an old lady’s bag.
I all but flung it back onto the shelf as if an errant spider had landed on my arm.
So this is how it happens, I thought. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, one innocent purse purchase at a time. Next thing you know my candy dishes will start spontaneously filling with Caramel Nips and my pockets with crumpled Kleenex. I’ll start buying “slacks” and insisting on wrapping up the contents of restaurant bread baskets to take home from my early bird dinners.
I have just celebrated my 45th birthday. I am, by any reasonable definition, solidly, inescapably middle-aged. I have all of the trappings of a full-fledged grown-up: I own a home. I pay taxes. I (mostly) remember to floss and get a yearly mammogram. I was just written a prescription for progressive lenses and have come to terms with the fact that I will never win a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal. I realized not long ago that I am no longer a contemporary of the contestants on shows like American Idol, but rather of their parents, those, those—middle-aged people!—who hover in the wings. And so it goes. Whimpers, not bangs.
And yet, despite the fact that I find gray strands on my head with alarming regularity, my overwhelming response to all of this is a feeling of indignant incredulity. THIS CAN’T REALLY BE HAPPENING! I’M STILL JUST A KID!
I know exactly when it started. I was in my late 20s, still single and living in an apartment in D.C.’s Dupont Circle. A dear friend and her new husband had just bought their first home together, a gleaming, sturdy Colonial in a tree-filled Howard County suburb. They had grown-up furniture and a spare bedroom and a lawn mower. They invited me over for dinner one night not long after they moved in and as we sat in the kitchen, lingering over post-dinner coffee, I burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” my friends asked.
“I keep waiting for the parents to come home,” I confessed.
As the last of five children, being young has always been a central part of my identity. “So you’re the baby!” people would say knowingly when they met me. Being the youngest had weight. It meant something about my place in and view of the world. But it also meant that I spent my childhood with my nose pressed against the metaphorical glass, impatiently watching as my four older brothers got to navigate the sophisticated life waters ahead. The eldest was bar mitzvahed when I was still in diapers; he left for college just before I started second grade.
I came to believe that only age conferred privilege and credibility. I longed to be older, to cast off my youth like an albatross. I wanted to hurry through and get to the next thing, the next phase, the next milestone, just as I had watched my brothers before me. I couldn’t wait to finally arrive and be handed the keys to the kingdom of adulthood. But like a dog perpetually chasing its tail, it never seemed to dawn on me that I would never, ever catch up to them, and if I didn’t take the time to enjoy things while they were happening, that I’d miss out.
I was also the child of older parents. Their 1940s high school yearbooks seemed as quaintly old-fashioned to me as if they’d been born in Colonial times. Their taste in music never evolved much past the Big Band era. But that somehow only solidified their Grownup ™ status to me. They’d been around. They knew the ropes.
Even now that I’m a parent myself, I still can’t shake that impostor feeling, still can’t wait to legitimately arrive. Where? I’m not sure. But surely my kids can’t really think I’m a grown-up? I still have no idea how to change a tire or what the Federal Reserve does, exactly. The workings of the boiler
remain a total mystery, and I’m fuzzy at best on my world history.
And yet, there’s my 1980s high school yearbook. It may not be in black and white, but it looks unmistakably, almost comically dated. The ’80s station I often listen to in the car plays songs that are just as old as Tommy Dorsey’s were when I was in elementary school. My pre-Internet childhood seems as unimaginable to my kids as my parents’ pre-television ones did to me. I have no clue what kinds of clothes teenage girls think are cool anymore. More whimpers. No bangs. It just kind of…happens.
But then my 9-year-old looks up from his book and asks, “Mom, what does ‘mum’s the word’ mean?” and I know I can answer with total confidence. I know how to drive a car and order books online. I can make dinner magically appear on the table and clean clothes emerge from the tangle in the hamper. I’ve been around. I know the ropes.
Not long ago, my 6-year-old was home sick. I mopped his feverish brow and rubbed his back. And then something came out of my mouth that I remembered my own mother saying to me. They were the words that always made me feel better, because grown-ups always knew what to do.
“Don’t worry. Mama’s going to take care of you,” I heard myself murmuring reassuringly.
I saw the way my son relaxed in response. He doesn’t need to know that I sometimes feel like I’m making it up as I go along. I realized that my mother probably did, too, and her mother before her. And maybe that’s the most grown-up realization of all.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”