I’ve been dreading turning 50. I knew I was scraping rock bottom when I shelled out $131.82 for Cindy Crawford’s “Meaningful Beauty” skin care line after watching an informercial. Yes, an informercial. Somehow, I identified with Cindy because, well, she turned 50 this year. Of course, that’s about the only thing we have in common.
I hate to admit it, but face cream has become a bit of an obsession. I poll pretty much every woman of a certain age, ignoring the overly injected ones. In the end, I know it comes down to using sunscreen, slathering on moisturizer, drinking plenty of water, and good genes.
But more than that, meaningful beauty comes from the inside, not a face cream. It’s about living a meaningful life—and having fun.
My parents are the best role models I know for what it takes to live fun, meaningful lives. My mother’s career as an artist took off in earnest in her 50s, and continues to thrive. Now in her late 70s, she is coming off the heels of a museum retrospective, with work constantly selling in galleries. When she turned 50, she took up French and started going to France to paint in the summers. And she did this on top of volunteering as an art teacher in a women’s prison and raising three unruly teenagers.
At nearly 85, my father is still working as an environmentalist and dabbling in politics. He also can shoot under his age in golf! And like my mother, he loves to sing and dance, a genetic trait that has been passed down to me and now my children.
On a recent visit to see my parents with my teenage girls, we all ended up dancing in the living room after dinner. At one point, Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” came on. Dad sang along and I was struck by the poignancy of the moment.
“Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you when you’re young at heart
For it’s hard, you will find
To be narrow of mind if you’re young at heart….”
So as I end one decade and begin another, I will probably continue worrying about skincare and looking my best. My vanity runs pretty deep, after all. But I will also keep this song and this scene in mind: Dad and the girls laughing and singing in the living room, with Mom twirling about like a teenager in between them. It’s a reminder to be grateful and notice what we have right now. And to be open and hopeful for what is to come.
“And if you should survive to a hundred and five
Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart.”
There’s no more “meaningful beauty” than that—at any age.
I love most Christmas carols, particularly if they are sung by Ella Fitzgerald. But “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is the most annoying song of the year. Depending on my mood, this song just seems like a slap in the face. Actually, it makes me want to slap someone in the face. This time of year is not always the most wonderful.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Trust me, I know how lucky I am. Though divorced, I have two healthy kids, healthy parents, a house, “the most wonderful” dog. I am, as is so often hashtagged, “blessed.”
But sometimes, even when we are #blessed, a funk sets in. And frankly, you feel a little lonely—even if you’re not alone.
As a first time empty-nester, I felt a little (okay, a lot) sorry for myself getting our Christmas tree alone. Like anything, the hype is bigger than the actual process of picking a tree. It’s really not as big a deal as I made it out to be. The whole shebang took less than an hour. I drove up to the lot, parked my car, hopped out and went straight to the one I wanted: a seven-foot, narrow Fraser Fir that would fit perfectly in the dining room, giving us enough room to pull chairs around the table without getting impaled by a branch.
Driving home with the Christmas tree stuffed in the back of the station wagon I flipped on the radio. Oozing through the speakers was that “most wonderful” song, that “hap, happiest” song. Was this a cosmic joke? This was most certainly not the song I wanted to hear. I turned off the radio and began humming the song that matched my mood: America’s “This is for all the lonely people.”
Who doesn’t love everything by America, particularly when you are throwing a pity party for one?
This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don’t give up
Until you drink from the silver cup
You never know until you try
I realized how ridiculous I was being, complaining about being alone while passing a homeless man shuffling his way up Wisconsin Avenue, wrapped in a gray blanket that wasn’t even a blanket, but a scratchy carpet pad. I’m feeling sad about buying a Christmas tree alone when so many people A) can’t afford a tree, or B) don’t have a home—let alone, a room—for one?
And full disclosure: my boyfriend had offered to help me with the tree, but I secretly wanted to go it alone so I could maintain my I-am-woman-hear-me-roar mode. Was I intentionally being a martyr? Even my ex-husband kindly offered to help. But it was as if I had something to prove. I can do this by myself. I really don’t need help from anyone—children or men. Though I was grateful Angus was around for moral support. The dog, I do need. That’s not debatable.
After parking on P Street, I half-carried, half-dragged the tree across the street and up the few stairs to my house. I pulled it through the doorway, positioning it on its side in the corner of the dining room. I decided it would be easier to attach the stand to the sawed-off trunk before standing it upright. And then a Christmas miracle occurred. I pushed the tree upward and it stayed. The tree stood there like a soldier standing at attention. No Leaning Tower of Pisa. No swaying. It seemed to be calling out to me, “What are you staring at? String on the lights and let’s get on with it.” It was an easy as that.
That’s when my own little lightbulb turned on. I no longer felt lonely. I felt empowered. And grateful my girls would soon be home to help with the decorating.
Of course, I don’t need a song to tell me how “wonderful” that is.
My oldest daughter left for college in August. Two weeks after that, my youngest started her freshman year at boarding school. The house went from one filled with teenagers bickering over borrowed clothes, hair clogged in drains, cereal boxes left open on counters, and sandals and sneakers strewn about the floors to what I have now: a tidy, quiet house. An empty house.
My empty nest syndrome has gotten so bad that I’m considering putting a baby bonnet on my Lab and pushing him around Georgetown in a stroller. I think Angus might like that. He already responds to “Mama’s baby,” sleeps in my bed, and gets a “treat-treat” whenever he looks cute—which is pretty much most of the time.
Walking with a friend, we discuss how it feels when your children are no longer in the house. It’s as if two limbs have been cut off, but you still feel them— my phantom children. For 18 years, their father and I fed them, drove them, kept them clean, clothed, educated, out of jail. The other day, around carpool time, I kept thinking I had to be somewhere. I had an eerie feeling that my phantom child was about to call me. “Mom, where are you? You’re late picking me up.”
But I received no such call. Not being yelled at for being late is a good thing in some ways. But I miss not being late. I miss the conversations we had after school, driving to Starbucks for a snack, hearing about “all the drama that went on today.”
Of course, we are still very much in touch. My high school freshman is a fast and furious texter, keeping me up to date on high school hijinks, how soccer practice is going, what clothes she needs. Plus, my ex-husband and I live close enough to go to most of her games, and she can come home on weekends. My college freshman, well, I pretty much see pictures of her on Facebook, holding the ubiquitous red solo cup. (Filled with ice water, obviously, because I’ve hammered home the importance of staying hydrated.)
Lately, I think I’ve creeped out young mothers in the playground at Montrose Park when up there walking Angus. “I feel like it was just yesterday that I was pushing my baby in a stroller.” They look at me, giving me a half smile, before scurrying away, probably thinking I’m about to kidnap their offspring.
But, jeez, it does feel like just yesterday. Truth be told, it’s not all bad having the girls out of the house. I’m free on weekends and most nights to come and go as I please. I’m also free to work and travel more. Having an empty nest feels a bit like a second act, a time to be more professionally and personally productive. But it’s a huge transition—for all of us. Just as the girls are figuring out friend groups and honing study habits, I seem to be figuring out my future.
I’m excited about what lies ahead for both myself and the girls. But that doesn't keep me from reaching for my missing limbs—or the box of tissues. I’ve been told the ache gets better and you adjust to an empty house and your children’s burgeoning independence. Until then, I’ll reach for the leash and the one child left behind at the end of it.