Growing Old, Growing Up
By Yaffa Ganz
I have learned that I will never conquer the world. I used to think I would, someday. My plans and hopes were succulent and fat; my desire for success was ripe and juicy. In short, I was young.
One day, to my extreme discomfort and surprise, I turned forty. I tried hard not to pay attention, but whichever way I turned, there were little reminders. As panic began to set in, I decided the time had come to try and do whatever it was I had been planning and dreaming about for the past twenty years, before it was too late. The children weren’t babies anymore, and as the Sage Hillel said, “Im lo achshav, eimasai? If not now, then when?” I bought a new typewriter ribbon and a stack of typing paper and I went to work. Thus began another mid-life career.
I discovered that with a lot of hard work, generously spiced with siyatta di-Shemaya (Divine help), I achieved a certain amount of success and much satisfaction. But one of the most interesting things I discovered was the women.
I always knew there were women out there keeping things in order, even though the feminists try to make us think the men hold all the cards. But 1) I never realized what original, exciting spaces women had carved out for themselves, and 2) I had assumed that the women who were doing something of value outside the home were mostly young. I was wrong.
It was an understandable mistake, because we have been programmed to believe that the world belongs to the young. But it’s just not true. I now know that the majority of really interesting people, the ones who consistently accomplish something, are inevitably older. This is as it should be; after all, it takes time to get something done. Yet we’re so brain-washed by the Cult of Youth that once past thirty-five, we automatically assume that from here on in, it’s all downhill. My mental computer now flashes ERROR. .. ERROR. .. ERROR whenever I come across the message.
Interestingly enough, most of them have the sense not to allow their projects to grow too much. They intuitively realize how much they can handle and they’re careful not to overextend themselves, aware that, even without babies, a woman’s job is really “never done.” The responsibility to home and family is still high on the list. So they shift things around a bit, cut corners here and there, and allow themselves certain luxuries (without feeling guilty about it) to make their lives easier, and manage to handle several worlds at once. They’re a busy gang, these Late Bloomers, and it’s a pleasure to meet them, although I must warn you: they don’t sit around coffee-klatching!
A quick mental rundown of some of my friends and acquaintances produces the following: superb teachers; a top-notch realtor; a flower arranger; a head librarian in a prestigious university; owner of a charming dress store; an editor-translator; several successful writers and many more who are out there trying; several poets; manager of a catering service; a marvelous seamstress; owner of a smashingly successful bridal-gown rental business; baker of fancy cakes; three registered nurses; head of a department in a women’s college; a highly skilled secretary; three parental advisers; two marital advisers; professional and highly dedicated volunteer workers whose help and influence extends to thousands of people. The list is not complete.
The common factor uniting these women is their age and the fact that they began their jobs or careers (in public or private capacities) After Forty. They picked up, began or went back to school, started at the very bottom of the ladder and climbed steadily up the rungs while continuing to run their homes, marry off their children, help out with the grandchildren and fulfill their responsibilities as loving, devoted wives. Personally, I find it (as the younger generation would say) … awesome. At the very least, it’s inspiring!
I no longer felt the need to prove to the world what a marvelous balabusta I was. If my home was tidy and decently organized, my kids clean and healthy and relatively well-behaved, my husband happy, it was more than enough to be thankful for. If I didn’t quite measure up to someone’s mythical expectations, so be it. For Pesach, family celebrations, and other special occasions I had a different, more complex yardstick. But even then, I was in the driver’s seat. It was I who decided what was really important, what was possible. It was quite a heady, bracing feeling, too – wholesome, clean, and somehow right.
Then, before I knew what happened, Forty slid away and Fifty settled in. It was a shock, to say the least.
My friends were developing funny lines and marks on their faces, things that were never there before. Their skin seemed to be more relaxed. It draped gently in places where once there had been nothing to spare. They talked a lot more about aches and pains, too. And suddenly, the people who were dying didn’t seem so old anymore. It definitely made one stop and gulp. I started doing some mental calculations. How old will I be when my last grandchild gets married (which is hard to calculate since the last grandchild, please God, is still a way off!)? Will I be around at all?? If I am around, will I be able to dance? Or will they have to sit me in the middle of the circle while they all dance around me?
I consoled myself by thinking that at that age, I probably won’t mind sitting in the middle of the dancers and tapping my cane in time to the music. Besides, sitting in the circle isn’t a sign of old age. They dance around the bride, don’t they? And she’s not old!
Nonetheless, fifty was a time for reflection. At fifty, one definitely withdraws from large parts of the arena. The options narrow sharply. There is no doubt that I will no longer be a dancer, a singer, a mountain climber, or a champion swimmer. I am satisfied if I can walk four miles an hour (on level ground; mountainous terrain is harder) and still keep going. There is no doubt that I no longer look like the young bride in my wedding album. There is no doubt that my objective chances of earning a doctorate in history or finding the time to learn the entire Nach (books of prophets) in depth are swiftly fading. There is no doubt that the heavy hand of Time constricts.
We have already made certain choices in life – some wise, some foolish – which firmly placed us in certain paths from which we can no longer turn away. All we can do is keep on and do the best we can, wherever we are. It is enough.
It’s a good time. Old enough to understand what you cannot do; still young enough to try your hand at the possible, in a wiser, more mature way. It’s not yet time to rest, but now that you know you won’t conquer the world, you needn’t knock yourself out trying. You direct your energy towards more modest goals which hold some promise of success. At twenty we search for perfection; at fifty we pray for help.
Fifty means that much time has passed, but it also means more time is available as life slows down a pace or two. Time for intimacy – with friends, with a husband or wife, with God. He is an old friend by now. We’ve bothered and badgered Him with endless requests and complaints, and we’ve learned to yield and submit with a bit more grace. And to trust Him more implicitly, realizing our own limitations and blind spots. It’s comforting not to have to worry about everything, to know that Someone Else is in charge.
Sixty will surely bring some new, enlightening revelation in its wake, but I’m not pushing it. Time enough when it makes its appearance. Meanwhile, I try hard to revel in each mundane day, in not-so-mundane friends, in family, in God’s world, in the endless possibilities stretching out before us each new morning. Few days are perfect, but each one is a priceless gift. Enjoy it.