Birthdays are a numbers game, and everybody plays according to their own algorithms.
For example, my grandmothers Jean and Alta lived to 96 and (one month shy of) 101, respectively, such that I optimistically calculate 98.5 as my finish line. At 40 years old now, I’m not even halfway dead.
What a relief (knock on wood).
Our brains tickle the magic out of any digit. Instead of thinking about 40-hour work weeks, I self-soothe, reminding myself that pregnancy calendars are 40 weeks long. Four of my five babies waited patiently in their queues to reach that sacred threshold.
If life is a parcel of land, I’ve traversed the creek, plodded over the hill and onto the back 40, clutching a lucky quarter, a nickel, and a dime minted in 1978 against the lifeline of my palm.
We have a woman named Mrs. Theodore Parsons to thank for the rosy view that, as life expectancy improved at the start of the 20th century, life would, in fact, commence upon middle age. In Making the Body Think, published in 1912, she wrote, “The best part of a woman's life begins at forty." Walter Pitkin published his self-help book Life Begins at Forty twenty years later in 1932.
But turning 40 also means time to take inventory, so on Valentine’s Day this year, all seven of us Ulrichs gathered round the flat screen to watch a video recording – now ripped to a DVD – of our 2001 wedding.
“Oh, my god, Mom,” Irie kept saying. “You’re exactly the same.” Mothers never know, when our daughters open their mothers, are they uttering compliments or insults? Had I failed to evolve in 17 years? Worse yet, was I already 40 years old at 23? Surely, she meant I hadn’t aged, or did she?
My own mom always aged herself by one year. She argued, for instance, a baby celebrates her first birthday to mark the end of her first year, by which rationale, I’d been celebrating my fortieth year since I turned 39. As if to commemorate this milestone, Irie, my aspiring Broadway star, began to impersonate me halfway through the year. Imagine an SNL skit except instead of Kristen Wiig as Michele Bachmann or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, my daughter was Irelyn Ulrich as LJ.
“Ohhhhhhhh, I know you,” she’d cry out, annoyingly effervescent. As part of her one-woman sketch, she was pretending to encounter somebody I knew at the store. I always felt obligated to prove how vividly I remembered a person. “You were in my creative writing class four years ago. You sat in the third row, and you wrote that poem about cats.”
She clucked and clacked, pleating her duck lips and using elaborate hand gestures like a mime. Apparently, I hold my right arm away from my body, cocked into the shape of a swan. My hand is the swan’s head; it nods like a bobble-bird lawn ornament. When Irie laughs like me, she slips from chest voice into falsetto. She is an embellished recording of a punchline and canned sitcom laughter.
Imagine yourself as a caricature but in 3-D with sound effects; imagine you’ve been reduced to that silly dance you perform instinctively when you’re buttering toast or the woot-woot of a red caboose you emit when she reports good news. But Irie is such a good actress – such an astonishing understudy – you can’t help but convulse with laughter as she makes fun. You’d toss flowers on the kitchen stage, if it were springtime and tulips agreed to be picked.
“I’m going to imitate you when I audition on Broadway,” she says, tongue in cheek. “Or maybe I’ll just do a one-woman show. Think impersonating my mother could land me the lead in Waitress?” She purses her lips, dips her chin, and I see my reflection.
Then just in time for my fortieth birthday, by simply watching Irie, all the other ducklings stepped in line. Even Leo and Fern, normally nauseated with stage fright, learned the part. Worst of all – or best of all – when I did run into a friend, acquaintance, or former student, and the delighted “Ohhhhhhh” slipped from my lips, I was fact-checking their script, confirming that in the real world, I am myself.
It’s hilarious, but of course, like so many mothers, I’m also, some days, just fodder for a daughter.
But then, two weeks before I officially turned 40, in a moment of her own weakness, Irie appeared beside me in the kitchen and wrapped me in her arms. Water was rushing into the sink, Palmolive-scented and bubbling over the sunken dishes.
“I just love the way you smell,” she said.
“It’s just the dish soap, Honey,” I told her.
“No, it’s you,” she argued back. “You have this smell.”
“Maybe it’s my shampoo or my deodorant.”
“No, Mom, really, it’s your essence.”
Taller than me by nearly two inches now, her shoulders twice as wide, Irie leaned against me to inhale whatever mysterious but comforting oils lay cradled between my clavicle and my neck. And I remembered smelling her this way. After she was born, she smelled intoxicatingly like vernix, breastmilk, and lavender, something even the best mixologist couldn’t reproduce. Smelling babies, they say, is like smoking crack.
On this evening, Irie stood motionless for a long time, sucking in that invisible and intangible essence, something she could not re-create with an accent or a laugh. For a fleeting moment, I was to Irie what she was to me – newly born.
Maybe, just maybe, I thought, life really does begin (all over again) at 40.