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Starting Point

Gratitude in one hand, expectation in the other


We celebrated the life and passing of Sophie, one of our most venerable parishioners. I asked if she was cogent until the end. “Oh, yes. Well, she would sometimes walk into a room and forget why she was there, but otherwise … ”

We buried Sophie on her 97th birthday, which makes her exactly 50 years older than I am. For several years, I, too, have been walking into rooms with great determination only to forget why I’m there. It is not unusual for me to leave my office on the main floor of the rectory, run downstairs to our business office, pause, and then ask if anyone has any idea why I came down there. At least it’s exercise.

There are other things I don’t like about what is indisputably middle age. Gravity for one. Every time I turn around, another part of my body is going south. And a crown broke, one I’ve had for 20 years, which the 12-year-old dental hygienist pronounced “pretty old for a crown.” And I actually rejected a book at the library because of the size of the print.

I don’t much like it that wisdom figures -- priests, doctors, college professors, presidents of the United States -- are my age or younger. I don’t like it that I don’t understand any of the television shows or care about the characters. Are they really as funny as Mary Tyler Moore? I don’t like it that my music is played in elevators.

When I was 20, people who were almost 50 were not nearly as cool as I am. They were old people. They had old hair, old shoes and carried old handbags.

Yet they were wise people, not struggling through life as I am, seeking the truth. They had arrived. The other day, looking through some old correspondence, I came across a letter from a mentor whose advice in that letter I took very seriously. I carried that letter around for several years. It was creased, well-read. But, doing the arithmetic, I realize that my mentor was 36 when he wrote that letter! A kid!

That’s when it dawned on me: Folks listen to me as I listened to that mentor. A few folks -- not my children, of course, but other people’s children. And I like that.

And I like other things about middle age. Confession, for instance, is much less embarrassing now that I’m a happily married, mature woman. The most difficult thing I have to confess is anger with the church, and it’s only embarrassing because a representative of the object of my anger is sitting in the catbird seat. Try confessing that sometime. It gets him going about how angry he is, and you don’t have to say another word!

I like middle age because no one forces me to spend hours with a group of people who are segregated solely by the year they were born. My friends range in age from mid-20s to 70-plus, and I enjoy them all.

I like it that I am secure, knowing who I am. I watch younger folks walking around wondering if they look OK, dress OK, their day ruined by a pimple or a boss being grumpy with them. Middle-aged people can dress funny, say a private “no big deal” to their boss and go home and have a nice legal glass of wine.

There’s a certain sadness at this time of life. “My babies are growing up.” And there’s a certain joy. “My babies are growing up!!!” There’s a poignancy about each day, knowing that we don’t have forever. But this poignancy, this mild sense of crisis, makes each day seem all the more precious: each fire in the hearth, each new spring a letter from an old friend, a good conversation. It’s good to live with gratitude in one hand and pleasant expectation in the other. That’s middle age: gratitude and pleasant expectation. At least today.

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001