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The Geometry of Life

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In a photo taken when I was twenty-one, I wear a red silk dress and spiked heels. The dress has cap sleeves—the latest style—and a skirt that sashays as I step smartly along, my heels clicking.

I look so young, the sales clerk at Macy’s asks, “Does your mother know you’re using her credit card?”

My high school students call me “Miss.” For lunch duty I check the girls’ restroom. When I enter, students greet me with, “Hi! Wanna cigarette?” until they realize I’m the teacher.

I think fifty is really old.

At that time, I think life is a pyramid—with age fifty tottering on the top. In the first half of life, childhood through adulthood, we creep steeply upward with mincing steps. It takes luck to make it to the top. If we’re too cautious, we make no progress at all: We stand frozen, wringing our hands. If we’re too rash, we could lose ground, careen into a boulder and crack our heads. We look to the future, often wishing we were older.

The downhill half of life—age fifty to death—lasts a millisecond. While looking over our shoulders to the past, we stub our toe and plummet into oblivion.

Now that I’m sixty-seven, my brain still thinks I’m twelve—able to climb trees, roll down grassy hills, balance on a pogo stick. But when I look in the mirror, my body parts are showing their age. My knees and hips are waving the white flag.

The clerk at Burger King calls me “Ma’am” and offers the senior rate, students ask me how old I was during the “big” war. And last year when I bought my new Toyota, I kid you not, the salesman asked if this might be my last car.

Today, I wear sensible shoes, a sweatshirt, and jeans. When I walk something still sashays. Old age is ninety. And I’m still waiting to mature.

Life is no longer a pyramid. It’s a bumpy line. As we step forward, we stop to turn over stones. Beneath some are orchids and tropical birds.

Beneath others are hurricanes and hornets.

I always thought at sixty I’d be wise, serene like the Dali Lama, amusement lighting up my eyes as though I were privy to the great mysteries of the universe. Yet, I still worry that I’m on the verge of another great blunder—that I’ll trip over the next stone and tumble into a pit. My confidence, like my chin, is sagging.

It helps that I have lowered my expectations. I celebrate when I can climb all the steps to enter Dodger Stadium, when I can parallel park, and when I can remember George Clooney’s name.

I have yet to exhibit the signs of old age that I dread: I don’t take my teeth out at night, I don’t drive for miles with my turn indicator on, and lipstick doesn’t run down my chin. I do, however, wear reading glasses on a chain around my neck. And often I answer my husband’s questions with “What”?

My geometric view of life shifts when my son announces that he and his wife are expecting a baby. With relief I realize that grandparents don’t have to grow up. The best grannies are the ones who wear flowers in their hats and striped stockings rolled up beneath their knees. They spontaneously bellow songs from Mary Poppins or launch into the Mexican Hat Dance, a rose between their lips. They smell like chocolate.

If grandparents can reenter childhood, life must be a circle.

Last month, my seventy-year-old friend, Judy, and I decided to be children, and we bought personal license plates for our old bicycles. Off we flew, the sun winking in and out of the clouds and the wind singing in our ears. After ten miles, we found ourselves cycling up a hill. Toward the end, sweating and gasping for breath, I dismounted and pushed my bike; Judy, doggedly tenacious, pedaled all the way to the top. There we were greeted by other cyclists—twenty-somethings. They looked first at our license plates—one said Cleopatra and the other, Lady Godiva—then at our “experienced” faces, and shouted, “Way to go girls!”

Girls—much better than ma’am.

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