Many years ago I declared to myself that I would become a global citizen. That I wanted to speak five languages; I wanted to feel comfortable with any person, in any location in the world. I think of this as I fly across the Atlantic, from Philadelphia to Rome to Vienna to the International AIDS Conference, alone—no, solo—neither speaking Italian nor German yet not feeling nervous or afraid. When did I become this woman, so comfortable, confident and secure? How did I birth her out of the anxious perfectionist of my youth, and when? If I have achieved this at 48, who and how will I be at 50, 55, 75, 90, I wonder? I stare these numbers on the screen, having written them in to describe my (future) self for the first time and am surprised that they do not scare me.
I say a prayer of thanks to my mother. Because of her I do not share the obsession with youth possessed by so many American women. I don't want to turn back the clock or change any of the choices that have placed me in window-seat 9F on US Airways flight 718, now bumping through night's blackness at some incalculable altitude. On the rare occasions when I look at myself closely in the mirror, I enjoy the sunrays that splay from the corners of my eyes, brightening the world with my kindness. I am cool with the halo of whiteness that illuminates my face, surprising me each time I notice the lightness streak across my temple at a new angle--surprising my friends, especially those older than I am, who continue to compliment my "color". Apparently saying the words "grey hair" out loud has become impolite. I find this very bizarre. Fortunately I didn't get the memo.
My feelings may change, of course—I am comfortable enough at 48 to alter my choices or course in midstream without apology or explanation—but I have no desire to cover my hair color, celebrate another 29th birthday or pretend that 50 is the new 40. Age is honored in traditional African societies. Elders are respected for achieving longevity, for having solved and overcome the issues of life, for their wisdom, for their collection of friends, for the esteem in which others hold them, for favors that people owe them. Neither wrinkles nor dementia can diminish these achievements.
My mother embraced her maturity, as well. Even as she grappled with breast cancer, feared dying, felt uncertain that the disease the doctors pronounced her cured of was really gone for good, Mommy enjoyed growing older. She took pleasure in her work as a college counselor, felt proud of her grown children, all living in different cities; hot-air ballooned over farmhouses (you can hear the people talking below, she told me, amazed); toured Europe as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; accidentally on purpose drifted away from her tour guide to walk the streets of Peking, taking pictures of the children who flocked around her, some of whom were seeing their photograph for the first time, and whose excitement revealed her location to the authorities; delivered meals to the elderly every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother's sister, Aunt Bonnie, believes that while in Europe my mother visited Vienna.
At every age my mother lived a life of meaning and of service. This is the model that I long to live up to—a rich and joyful, time-tested way of living that served her so well. The way of life that made the golden flecks in her forest-green eyes sparkle, that caused her to spin in circles and shout "Yipee!" whenever she greeted me at the airport, that lay down the footsteps that I hope to trace, as I hurtle above the clouds toward the rose-colored horizon, toward Rome, toward Vienna, my destiny.