For a million years when I was a young girl, I thought my mom was 36. If anyone asked me her age, I’d kind of glance about for a second and say, “I don’t know, 36? Something like that.”
It’s possible when I dressed as a business woman at my elementary school’s Halloween party, I raided her closet for a button down jacket in an effort to look grown, like the 36-year old she was. It’s possible when I saw her in her long nightgown, slightly pink from the pattern of faded country flowers, I looked at her as the woman with reigns, like the gatekeeper of all the milk and all the honey, and she was 36. It’s possible when I wrote that I hated her (an awful teenage blemish) in my plastic white diary, its shiny key hidden under my pillow, she was 36. It’s possible when I raided the family albums, carefully peeling plastic away from the yellowed adhesive, to find old photographs of her for a Mother’s Day gift, she was 36.
How strange is it, then, that I recently turned 36. The sliding scale of what I remember about my mom when she “was 36” is inching closer to my reality now. A magical mirror is held up against my perception of this number now.
There are incredible caverns unveiled each time a woman blows out a birthday candle. Somehow, that breath blows away the dust and sand covering the blocks of untapped strength and beauty. It’s strange to recognize that it took 35 for the threadbare puppet strings to release me mercifully into a new space. Walking through last year reminds me of the slim gorge leading to Petra, a marvel I visited over 10 years ago when I went to Jordan.
In The Condé Nast Traveler’s Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Edmund White describes Petra, one of the world’s wonders which was once ruled by Nabataeans to Romans to Byzantines, and then somewhat forgotten by the outside world for about 600 years, as a place where at ” every turn you’re hard-pressed to distinguish between natural and human creations.”
At the time, I didn’t know of White’s advice in his travel essay: “Be prepared for lots of walking.” What I remember, though, is that walking and sweating, walking and wondering, mostly with absent-minded appreciation, and finally getting through the Siq, or the main entrance. At the end of the gnarled hallway, I gasped with surprise at the sheer architecture that unfolded under the sunlight. I was so taken by it that it took a few seconds before I realized I was crying.
Like my friend says, I caught the surprise. I hadn’t researched where we were and what to expect from Petra, but I trusted it would be worth it. I feel maybe I meandered this way when I first became a mom, something so many of us do. Like then I have blind trust in future attractions–both as a parent and as a woman.
I’m convinced that the women I’m lucky to have in my life are consistently folding out of rocks and sand and emerging a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more interesting to even themselves. And with this beautiful nod to the women ahead of me and before me, I want to marvel at their magic. When I see a woman standing at the rock of her 40s, I imagine her strength even if its only coming from the soft place of acceptance of herself.
Sometimes I wonder if these are the middle years, the formative years that we’ll need as the next big stuff in our lives change–not only as our kids grow into and out of things but also as we attend more funerals or get more midnight phone calls or get surprised by others’ life changes. I wonder if women have been created from the strongest bones as I am convinced we are, in many ways, the superior gender.
Maybe looking older is worth the swap for intelligence, camaraderie, and subtle self acceptance that comes with it. Maybe what White says about Petra is similar to our own journey: “As we pushed farther into the valley, the strangeness of Petra overwhelmed us. Everything here is improbable–the remoteness, the mineral force, and especially the bizarre juxtapositions of color, which sometimes looked like watered silk, sometimes like batik, sometimes like old rag rugs.” What was improbable was the most surprising.
I laugh at my naive assumption that mothers of 14- year olds were always around 36-years old. No matter my appreciation of my mother, I likely considered her a flat character of our lives during that time. It makes me wonder about my kids’ impression of me and what they will feel when, one day years from now, they may have the magic mirror held up to their beautiful, older faces.