I am 73 years old. That astonishes me, because in vast areas of my mental chronicles and cartographies, I am so much younger. I can still smell the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey when I was 9— ocean, sweat, and the sharp tang of Coppertone suntan oil.
I am the youngest of three kids, not old enough to leave at home alone. The upholstery on the back seat of Dad’s Nash feels like a winter coat and smells like my mother’s Pall Mall cigarettes. “Come with us to visit your grandmother, Dottie.” A broken snow chain on a back tire clips the rear bumper, so I pretend we are in a horse-drawn sleigh clopping across the countryside to my Pennsylvania Dutch relatives.
Someone jostles past me in the cafeteria at Temple University in 1963 to reach a back table of athletes; loud cheers break out. It’s Bill Cosby, a few days after his initial appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Pain slices my guts in the labor room at Jefferson Hospital. This is my first child; I know absolutely nothing about babies! I’m 31, terrified, tired beyond belief, and my husband Anthony wakes, head resting at the bottom of the gurney. “Can I help you?” Exhausted from just finishing laying new tile on the floor of our house, he is out of the action here, not necessary, and asks only because he feels obliged to.
Now, looking at that child as she approaches middle-age, I glimpse a country where I have no rights, no citizenship, only a visa that affords diplomatic courtesies. That was a country I once laid claim to, waged wars to preserve, and dedicated whole treasuries to maintaining.
This new landscape—the country of Seventy—is frightening in its own unique ways. Forgetting why I entered a room, or the name of an actress (the one in that movie that so affected us when we saw it how many years ago?). Worse, for a writer, having to use a damned computer dictionary to find a synonym that would have leapt unbidden from the keys a few years ago, or spelling that wretched word bureaucrat without Microsoft Word throwing a hissy fit.
This Seventy is also a land with leaking borders. Not an “illegal immigrants” or a “barbarians-at-the-gate” kind of leak. These marauders know me intimately: knees whose piercing pain tell me all the cushion has worn away and needs to be replaced; vertebrae that grind when bending; and eyes that close while reading my favorite author because fatigue swoops down. And sudden realizations that I have been misled, or stupid.
It has taken over 70 years to reach a point where I can finally see the lay of my land, beyond the confines of other people’s interpretations, other persons’ maps. As if I were standing on a ledge, I can see where my borders have been broken, infiltrated, or obliterated long ago. Where I allowed incursions because others demanded my attention, lied to me about duty, or refused to take responsibility for themselves.
I finally understand that what I see, what I feel, is as valid and deserving of consideration as the next person’s explanation. Perhaps I am not as singularly odd as I have always thought.
Perhaps I can finally say I allow you to go here, but no farther.
What is the difference between being merely naïve and overtly gullible? Between the childhood mandate to obey without question or hesitation, and the need to believe in both compassion and truth? How long did it take before I could stop denying the reality I knew for the manipulations others devised, and to have the courage to weigh their actions against their words?
Most of my life.