The Upside of Acting Your Age

Barbara Kingsolver appreciates her age and the maturity that comes with it

by Barbara Kingsolver
illutstration of two women
Photograph: Eduarod Recife

Among the family photos hanging in my hallway is one of my parents’ wedding. They look like a pair of giddy, dressed-up kids, flanked by parents who appear sober and, frankly, old. The fathers were working men shoehorned into their Sunday best. The mothers’ anxious expressions matched their sensible hats and dark, belted dresses. I looked at that photo for years before it struck me that those stodgy folk were in their midforties. A decade younger than I am now.

In time, the fresh-faced bride and groom would add me to a booming generation that has rewritten the rules on everything from child rearing to fashion and now even aging—as in “We don’t.” We were weaned on TV ads in which mother and daughter were mistaken for sisters, thanks to the magic of hair dye and the right soap. I once wrote that my generation would wear our jeans right into the nursing home, kicking out easy listening and cranking up “Bad Moon Rising.” I confess I have studied the matrons in that wedding portrait with a certain conviction that I would never look quite that . . . mature.

Now I’m about to take my place in my daughter’s wedding photos. At 25, she belongs to the cohort that walked from college commencement straight into the economic crash. I’ve watched her apply astonishing perseverance to the project of adulthood, taking any job that came along—even facing customers who snapped their fingers over the bakery case without pausing their phone calls to consider that the girl in the hairnet could have an honors degree in biology. As some of her peers retreated to their parents’ basements, she worked steadily into more fulfilling employment, paid her bills, secured a home and engaged herself to be married. With unflagging resourcefulness, she and her fiancé are planning a life together, starting with a sweet, unfussy wedding for which they’ve enlisted friends and family to help make everything by hand, including the wedding dress. In all the years I was raising her, I never quite understood what joy lay beyond those perilous straits: this safe haven where I now stand with a sense of mission accomplished, watching my child being an adult. 

Some baby boom innovations were good ones. We did not spank our children, for instance, reasoning that if we expected civility and kindness, we should never model violence as a problem-solving tool. Now it’s time for my generation to take another logical step regarding the way we model the business of growing up. If we appreciate adult children who act their years and not their shoe size, we could do the same ourselves, starting with an admission that 55 is not the new 30. It’s 55.

At the upcoming wedding, no one will mistake me for a bridesmaid. I’ll be wearing a vivid shade of coral, but the dress is sensibly cut and my hair generously threaded with the color women my age have all but extirpated. If my daughter can pull off this stunning act of adulthood, I can thank her by turning out as the mother of a grownup. Probably I’ll look happier than my grandparents did in their portrait; we’re not worrying about polio, for one thing. But also I’m freshly dazzled by the surprising upside of maturity: that a family accrues it together.

And if I relapse at the reception when the DJ plays “Bad Moon Rising,” forgive me. Dancing is good for the aging heart.

BARBARA KINGSOLVER’s work includes the novels The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and, most recently, Flight Behavior.

Next: Why I Don't Want a Midlife Dog

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Judy Kaplan06.29.2014

I really liked this article. Thank you for writing it.

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