Out There: Seeking maturity

Life is funny, in that the stages of life never quite fit your idealized version of them; how you think they will be.

Herb cartoon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herb cartoon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Life, from the very beginning, is full of the signposts of age. There's the brit mila (circumcision) at eight days; the bat/bar mitzva at 12 and 13; driver’s license at 16 or 17, depending on where you live; the right to vote at 18; drinking at 18 or 21, again depending on your place of residence; and then the changing of all those decades: 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 ad infinitum.
Some of those milestones, obviously, have more impact than others.
The brit, both physically and spiritually, does of course have lasting significance. But regarding the bar mitzva, honestly, I didn't feel – or act – much differently the day after my bar mitzva, than I did the day before. And I’m not unique.
By contrast, starting to drive at 16 was a truly liberating and memorable moment. Casting my first ever ballot in the US in 1980 for Independent Party presidential candidate John Anderson, however, proved far less memorable than anticipated. (Who remembers Anderson?)
I'm not a big drinker, so being able to legally order a whiskey sour in a bar at the age of 21 did nothing to float my boat; and the changing of the first digit of my age never really freaked me out.
But in another 21 days – if all goes well – I'll be reaching another milestone, one which not everyone hits, and one which really has me thinking. In another 21 days I will have lived longer than my mother.
My mom died suddenly 27 years ago, just two weeks past her 52nd birthday. She was a wonderful woman and mother: kind and wise, giving and caring, and inspiringly resilient. My mom was a Holocaust survivor, and I was always amazed at her ability – despite everything she went through -- to carry on, raise a normal family, and live a good, creative and productive life.
The realization that I'm almost at the age when she died is, if nothing else, an odd feeling; odd because in my mind she seemed so mature, so complete, so grown-up when she passed away. And now at her age, I’m so – well -- none of the above.
“This is an interesting family,” a friend of my youngest son deadpanned last week after spending Shabbat with us. Numbering me in with my four kids, but keeping The Wife apart, he said, “What you have here is five kids, and a mother.” My son’s friend was commenting on why I was trying to fop off the bad tasting jelly beans on him, leaving the better-tasting ones for me and the family.
I never saw my mother like that – like one of the kids. She would never give the bad jelly beans to the guest, or complain if the company brought red dry wine, not chocolates, as a gift. She was always up there in my eyes – wise, good, mature, very parental.
LIFE IS funny, in that the stages of life never quite fit your idealized version of them; how you think they will be. Everything looks so much more dramatic, important, and significant from a distance.
I remember in elementary school looking at a cousin who was 16 and thinking how mature he seemed, and how I couldn't wait to be that age.
Then you get to that age and you envy those in college, thinking they are different, cool, don't worry about acne, know how to act and what to do in all of life's complex situations.
Then you go to college, don't feel that different, understand your friends are as clueless as you -- even if they might be able to cover it up a bit better -- and say that life's long awaited grown-up period must come with marriage. Marriage arrives and with it the realization that you remain who you are, just now with someone else by your side, and you think that the long-sought after aha maturing moment will come with the kids.
Until you have the kids -- even a job, insurance policy and a mortgage -- and it finally dawns on you that you still are who you are, only now with little people tugging at your pant leg, some authority and a whole lot of responsibility.
What pleased you before pleases you now. What bothered you before bothers you now. Your strengths remain what they always were, as do your weaknesses. Maybe you can control them better, maybe not. You grow, you learn, you accumulate information, your thoughts develop. But there is no transformative moment when it all changes and comes together and you finally get it all under control; finally get life all figured out; finally feel and think and act like you imagined beforehand that people in your station in life feel, think and act. Life's proverbial goal line is never crossed.
When I was 24, I thought my mother had crossed that goal line before she died. But now, as I approach the age of her death, I realize that she probably didn’t. We never do, regardless of how old we live. She was as I am now: incomplete, unfinished, full of joys and fears and pleasures and insecurities and hopes and dreams, some realized, some not. A work very much in progress.
It's a lot more fun turning 16. Or, at least, so it seems from a safe distance.