Skipped

candles
By Roberto Cacho Toca/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

I stopped lying about my age when I was sixteen years old. This might not sound like much, but if I were to consider some of my life’s greatest moments of relief (a single but breathtakingly beautiful epidural injection shot perfectly into my spine comes to mind) that would be right up there at the top.

To make some sense of this, I should explain that this happened during the second half of my senior year of high school. I was actually not yet sixteen. My birthday was coming up, however, and my mother thought it would be a fun idea to have a sweet sixteen party for me. Or so she claimed. I’m not even sure what she was thinking, but I suspect she liked the idea of decorating and redecorating our apartment for an actual reason.

One night, about a month before my birthday, she and my stepfather came into my room. “We need to talk to you,” she began, which was enough to cause the panicked terrifying feeling that shot through the entirety of my teenage years. Had she looked through my journal yet again and discovered yet again that I was counting the days until I could leave home? I couldn’t begin to imagine what she imagined I had done. But no. It was simply this: “How old do your friends think you are?” she asked me, with a strange quizzical look.

“I don’t know,” I answered, as my panic increased.

“Do they have any idea how old you are?” she demanded.

And I told her that I guessed they probably didn’t.

Well! It turns out that my mother had called one of my best friends to plan this so-called party and discovered that my friend had no idea how old, or rather how young, I was. My mother suspected that none of my friends knew. And then here’s the part that seems like a miraculous gift to me now but, at the time, seemed like the cruelest punishment imaginable. She demanded that I tell every one of my friends, right this very minute, how old I was. The lie could not go on for a single minute longer.

Which is curious, in a way, because my mother has been lying about her age since I was a tiny child, although she always takes years off instead of adding years on. And she is fiercely protective of her birth date, which has changed slightly as the years have gone on. But for some reason, she would not sit by and watch while I kept my real (remarkably young) age from my friends. Perhaps she thought that I should have been proud of such a thing, but for years I had, of course, been ashamed of it.

For reasons unknown—but I suspect simply because my mother wanted me out of the house—I had started school an entire year before I should have. This wasn’t so terrible, as my birthday is in March and there were some kids born in the fall who were just a few months older than me. You were tall, my mother always told me, as though this was a good reason to start school a year early. I went to a small groovy private school that was happy enough to bend the rules.

But then when I was in fifth grade, this small groovy private school was suddenly no longer the place for me (I was never given a reason for this either), and when I switched to public school, my insane reading ability deemed it perfectly acceptable for me to skip another year. I was tall, remember.

And there I was, suddenly in sixth grade, aged nine-and-a-half, and in a permanent state of panic that people would find out. But as luck would have it, my sixth-grade teacher would not let anyone forget. We began learning Spanish that year, which played out like an exotic form of torture, in which I crossed my fingers tightly under my desk, praying that I would not be called on.

“Cuentos años tienes?” my teacher would ask, strolling around the room. How many years do you have? And in the sweetly vicious voice of a classic bully, she would add, “Reyna?”

“Tengo nueve años.” I have nine years. I would answer her as quietly as I could, my face burning with shame, noticing or possibly just imagining a murmuring sound everywhere in the room.

As the years went past, it became much easier to let people make assumptions about my real age, and if questioned, to lie about it.

“How old are you?” asked the meanest girl of a group of mean girls in my eighth grade class who called themselves The Dizzy Crew.

“How old do I look?” eleven-year-old me answered. She snorted.

“Ha! How old do you look??” Somehow this bought me some time.

And so, on the night I was forced to tell my friends my real age, the usual panicky feeling carried me along as I began to dial the first number, until I realized that something was happening to me. That enormous weight that that I had been carrying with me all this time, the weight of the two full years I had skipped, was slowly, and almost imperceptibly at first, lightening. My friends were surprised and kind of impressed by my confession. None of them thought less of me, as I had feared, and soon it just became part of who I was: their much younger, but still likable, friend.

And I carried on, graduating college at the tender age of twenty and, thus, headed out into the world, still too young to drink legally (confession: I did not let this stop me). I spent years thinking that I had an extra two years to do with as I liked, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to figure out an actual career (if I have, in fact, actually figured one out), since I really had plenty of time. In fact, I had two extra years! I would always have two extra years! It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that has made me a lifelong procrastinator, but I’m considering that simple thought to be a good candidate.

The fact is that being two years younger than my peers was truly the most significant thing in my life, until one day…it wasn’t. One day, in fact, I was more likely to be the oldest person in a room than the youngest. It’s not really a revelation to point out that there is practically no difference at all between, say, forty-four and forty-six, but it astonishes me every time. After my marriage ended (to a man older than me, of course), I dated someone ten years younger, and my friend Rachel exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there was anyone younger than you!” I knew what she meant. I mean, in theory, there always had been people younger than me. But now, it was obvious. To people looking at me, I’m really just “a woman in her forties.” Or possibly, worse, a “middle-aged woman.” There is literally no evidence that I once felt constantly and hopelessly out of my element, that I tried desperately to catch up with things I was never quite sure I had fully processed. Suddenly, now I am wise. I have perspective. I can offer advice. Getting older has made me feel the one thing I’d never felt before: older.

And so, to the girl who spent several hours on the phone one night not long before her sixteenth birthday, I would like to say this: That thing that bothers you, that nags at you, that drives you to worry and exhaustion nearly every minute you think about it? One day it won’t even matter. In fact, it will cease to be something about you, about who you are at all. One day, and I know you probably won’t even believe this, but one day you might not even remember how old you are. And I am certain that nearly sixteen-year-old me would look at her future self—a maybe forty-something woman?—and turn right back around to what she was doing. I’m pretty certain she’d hardly notice me at all.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com. At the time of this writing, she is forty-four-and-a-half years old.

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Taking Notes

birthday candles
By Steve Jurvetson/ Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The moment I poured the runnier-than-my-usual batter into the pan, I had a feeling. I had an hour or so on Saturday morning to make this cake—before I took my nearly six year-old-daughter to her gymnastics class. Later that day came the party. For the eleven children in attendance, I still needed pizza, gluten-free cupcakes for the girl allergic to gluten who’d bring her own pizza, and some ice cream maybe. It’s safe to say that by this—our fourth turning-six-years-old party—we’ve become relaxed. To call dancing a theme would be stretching it. To say we’d prepared would be stretching it.

That the cake did not come out of the pan in one piece wasn’t a surprise. Even the help of a carefully wielded spatula, the larger part of the cake headed to the wire rack with a halfhearted momentum, accompanied by the sad inertia from the rest still glommed to the pan.

A friend called right as I began to contemplate cake triage.

Her kids were fine. Her brother wasn’t. “He’d gotten clean,” she launched in. “And then he stole my stepmom’s jewelry.”

This guy had been in and out of trouble, more in than out, for years. His parents disagreed at this point about what to do. He stayed with them much of the time, because he was out of work. His mom—my friend’s stepmom—was at a rope’s end, and the jewelry theft—family treasures much more than dollar values—made her feel violated, stripped of all dignity. “She just wants him out. It must have felt so hostile,” she said of her stepmother’s response. “I can understand how she feels, although I don’t relate to jewelry like that.”

“Your dad?” I asked.

“He can’t abide the possibility that my brother would hurt someone else or himself,” she says. “He wants to have my brother on his watch, because he says he couldn’t live with himself if something happened and they were estranged.” The something my friend’s father imagined: homicide or suicide.

“I guess you never want to give up on your child, and yet you know that unless he gets help and it works, this can’t end well,” I said.

If you try to spackle chocolate cake with yellow frosting, you get little crumbled bits of chocolate cake interspersed in your thick yellow paste no matter how hard you try not to, like tiny flecks of dirt. “This cake could be on Cakewrecks,” I said. I had just enough frosting and enough salvageable cake to restore about three-quarters of the disastrous top layer, the one I’d meant to be the bottom layer.

“It’s made with love,” she reasoned. “It’s cake, and you put it in a bowl with ice cream and no one notices.”

I had already decided this particular cake required ice cream. In the morning, I’d told myself I had just enough time to make a cake. I’d done so little for this party and asked myself why should the smallest one lose out on a homemade cake? The bakeries that offered pretty decorations had shut down and no way would I buy a supermarket cake, for no reason other than I didn’t want to. My cakes are generally good. They are generally pretty enough. Not so this time. Then again, it wasn’t my son stealing my jewelry to buy heroin so there was that.

“Small children, small problems, big children, big problems,” I quoted one of those in-the-ether parenting aphorisms.

“Ooh boy, I know. I can’t imagine what I’d do,” she said. Her oldest is four. She cannot imagine. That’s the truth. My oldest is eighteen and I can’t imagine but more so. Enough distress of the way-beyond-Band-Aids kind has occurred now to make me appreciate how small the small children problems really are. I let myself marvel at my cake in this light and was surprised by how unworried I felt by its imperfection. It’s a cake. It’s not a drug addicted, jewelry thieving son. Let my problems start and end at cake—memorably cakewrecked cake. If only the wish could make it so.

•••

A few weeks ago for some work-related research, I had to read through a stack of alumnae quarterlies’ class notes sections. According to convention, class notes start with the earliest classes and advance in time. The most recent grads go last. This means the first pages focus solely upon who died. Reports then drift back through the life cycle: ailments, assisted living and family travel, retirement, adventurous travel, gatherings of friends and grandchildren, professional accomplishments and empty nests, full nests, babies, weddings, engagements, first jobs. You can see years like ribbons—swaths of experiences, one after another across the thick, matte pages. Stories repeated.

One of the milestones that many women described were their seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. Quite a few took trips: with children or spouses or friends, to far-off places or somewhere cushy for family gatherings. That was the week my mother turned seventy-five. When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she remembered how hard her sixtieth birthday had been. Her sister had cancer and was only a few weeks from death. She was just a month shy of sixty-five.

“We did this big Chinese dinner with our closest friends when I turned sixty,” my mom recalled. “It was as if, in the face of everything that hurt we had to affirm the friendships. I didn’t feel like celebrating at all, not at all. I was so sad. In retrospect, until then, other than my divorce, I really hadn’t experienced loss.”

Following her sister’s death, my mother got a crash course in loss, including but not limited to her brother-in-law’s death and her mother’s. We did, too; ours included my father-in-law’s death and two of my peers, both of whom had small children.

We’d been so stunned by all the losses—numbed, crushed, battered, humbled, calloused. By the time we weren’t in the midst of some crisis, I felt different. There was no more denying the inevitability that life ends. Although I felt heartbroken more than once, I also felt more grateful, even for the hard parts. I understood that it was a privilege to get to be sad.

It turned out that my mother spent the weekend before her seventy-fifth birthday in search of a nursing home for her brother-in-law. He’s younger than she is, but his MS has progressed that far. “Nursing homes are depressing places,” she told me. Both of her parents managed to avoid them. I asked how about her birthday celebration. She and my stepfather had gone out to lunch. “We’re both so defeated,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to muster energy to do anything more than that. I couldn’t have pretended to have fun today.”

Unlike the women who wrote of their milestone travel adventures or spa vacations with their female family members, my mother has no such plans. “The girlfriends’ lunch is in a couple of weeks,” she reported when I suggested the celebration didn’t have to happen that very day. She knows my sister in California will make cake with her three girls and that when she and I go with my kids to Florida next month, we’ll eat ice cream from the homemade ice cream place we ride a trolley to reach. None of that—ice cream and cake with her grandchildren—would be notable enough that she’d think to submit to the alumnae quarterly for her college.

•••

So much doesn’t go into the class notes. What of those moments? The burning baby tummies and bottoms of feet, their slack eyes and wan skin that made the red cheeks look clownish. The first time I experienced it, there were two sick, the baby and the preschooler. The labored breaths and the gloppy, encrusted noses, the coughs like wounded seals, and all that heat—and it was on me because their dad had it too. So did our housemate. By the time I’d reached the doctor’s office, I’d wrung about a million tepid washcloths between them.

While I clutched seven-month-old-baby, the doctor patted my arm. We were standing in the exam room. “I’d like to get a chest x-ray,” she said. “If the baby has pneumonia, we want to treat it, but it’s hard to tell when they’re so little.” I couldn’t say anything just then. I’m sure I looked crazed, crestfallen, and scared. “It’s okay—it’s a precaution to check,” she reassured me and added, “You’ll never forget this.”

This: the illness that filled the house with all that labored breathing and filled me with exhaustion and panic in equal measure. This: the patience needed to care for all those patients. And beyond our household, more exhaustion and patience and panic while my mother’s sister, my beloved aunt was dying and my father-in-law had just received a diagnosis of myeloma. There was no place calm. No one could really help us and there was no way to help anyone else beyond the sick people I could touch. Islands of illness—and only ours promised a happy ending.

It was snowing. Big flakes flew at the windshield and tossed slickness on the roads. The flakes fell by the handful. I leaned in toward the windshield to squint between the wiper swipes, and I gripped the steering wheel as if I held tight enough, it would take over and deliver me safely to my destination. I am never a happy driver in the snow, and that day I was even less happy with the sick baby in the backseat and the need to pass home for the hospital. Cars inched along, the roads narrowed by snow. The tracks where tires tread muddied by sand and salt remained slick despite the intervention.

At the hospital, the x-ray technicians fawned over my chubby, ill baby. I stripped him down to a diaper as requested, his hot, velveteen skin under my rough, desperate hands. The way you take a chest x-ray for a baby unable to stand is this: You place him in a cylindrical plastic contraption, which holds him upright, his arms aloft so that the machine can capture an image of what’s beneath the skin. His chubby fingers waved like tassels to some comical, fleecy hat atop his head. “He’ll cry,” the technician promised. “That’s good. We want him to cry because crying expands the lungs so we get a good image.”

He cried as they placed him in the cone-shaped seat and pulled his hands up onto the top of his head. Then, all set in the odd little seat, he smiled at the technician.

“We’ve never had a baby smile here,” she said, as she stepped away toward the switch. “Maybe, he’ll get bothered, now that he’s alone.”

Nope. He just chilled in the seat with those tassel fingers and smiled. The technicians paused. “He’s a happy baby,” one concluded. “Let’s try to take the image,” she suggested and they did.

“I hope this works,” the technician said, as I slipped my sick baby back into his clothes. I added the possibility that the x-ray would be inconclusive to my long list of worries. I took him home.

He did not have pneumonia. Eventually, the household recovered. After that storm, which went on for a couple of days, like a prairie blizzard, there was a thaw. I walked to town.

The sun shone and the snow melted with such palpability it was as if we all were thawed ourselves. The high thirties felt like summer. Snow dropped in clumps from trees and in sheets from roofs, and there were puddles the size of swimming pools on the sidewalks and streets. I reached town and ate a frozen yogurt cone outside. I turned my head to drink in the sun. I gulped the fresh, warm air, grateful to be removed from the house and the clinging arms, the hot skin, the raw winter and for a few minutes to feel myself alone. It was my first outing away from everyone since illness overtook.

Anxiety and sadness flashed there, too, blinding as sunshine. My aunt, my strong, tall, smart, capable aunt, she was practically gone and my mother was inconsolably sad. Unlike my parents’ divorce when I was a child, there wouldn’t be a next chapter to imagine that could exactly ameliorate her loss. Sure, we all understood life would go on and we’d experience happiness again. You don’t get a second sister if you have one, though. Besides, right then, the loss loomed so close, like all those big snowflakes that had walled us in. I took more breaths. I clomped back in my soggy boots, my pants legs soaked. I cried on the way home. The sunshine and freedom gave me the chance to cry. I couldn’t let in the idea that all this might happen again, with my father-in-law, but then it did—about eighteen months later.

•••

The thing that salvaged the cake wasn’t the ice cream, although I got both chocolate and vanilla. (We had more takers for chocolate; the vanilla was much better.) I bought rainbow sprinkles. I stuck two Playmobil figures, a knight and a princess on the low platform left by the lack of a complete top layer. I stuck two red plastic toothpicks with big lips bright as Taylor Swift’s red pucker. I placed all seven candles, six plus the one for a new year around the top layer’s ledge. The cake blazed; the loving lips and the smiling figures led the way. She blew. Her friends clapped. The candlelight danced against the glint in her happy, nearly six-year-old eyes. The imperfection didn’t change her joy. Imperfection really never does. The trick, I guess, if it’s a trick, is to see where you slip from problems you can spackle together with butter and confectioners’ sugar to the ones that require something else—and the ones that simply require your acceptance of them as part of a natural order. I saw the cake and heard the six year-olds’ squeals and remembered to look at it all.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER has had essays in the New York Times, Salon, the New Haven Review, and Brain, Child magazine amongst others. Her articles have recently appeared in American Craft, Ceramics Monthly, and Berkshires Magazine. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is on twitter: @standshadows.