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A birthday is a number the heart sees beyond

By Beverly Beckham
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2011

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My father called at the crack of dawn the day I turned 40. “Good morning, daughter,’’ he said, the way he always did, preferring “daughter’’ to “Beverly’’ because, as he liked to remind me, I was Beverly to a lot of people, but nobody’s daughter but his.

So on my 40th birthday, he began talking in this usual way, but then made a beeline to his point, which was not “I called to wish you a happy birthday, daughter.’’ Instead, with a combination of bewilderment and betrayal, he declared, “You know, having a 40-year-old daughter makes me feel old.’’

He was 64 then, a number that should have bothered him more than my comparatively youthful 40. But it didn’t. He was fine with his age. It was my age that rankled. How could it be, he kept asking. How did this happen?

My daughter turned 40 last week, a number that has rattled her, too. She’s been obsessing about 40 since she turned 39, and for months I’ve been trying to say all the right things. That 40 is not old, that it’s just a number. That a birthday, any birthday, is fun, your own personal celebration - taking care to avoid my father’s not-so-helpful annual rejoinder: “As bad as you think 40 is (or 29 or 50; he was an equal opportunity offender), remember this: You are as young right now as you’re ever going to be.’’

There has been none of this for this birthday. No gallows humor. Not even “Over the Hill’’ wrapping paper. Because 40 is a benchmark, a checkpoint, a way station, something you have to go through before you move on. And you were moving, driving full throttle or stuck in traffic but inching ahead.

But 40 comes and it’s assessment time. What have I done with my life? Am I where I thought I would be? And how did I get here so fast? And do I look 40? Do I look old?

It happens to everyone.

I remember staring into mirrors, inspecting my neck, pulling at my cheeks, saying to family and friends, “See? Don’t I look better with my face a little tucked?’’ joking but not joking, too. Not happy with the number 40.

What I didn’t believe is that 40 really is just a number. And the bigger truth? It’s an inaccurate one.

Forty is inaccurate because it doesn’t stand alone. Forty is 39 and 28 and 24 and 16 and 10 and 4 and 6 months, every age a person was - not simply the sum of its parts but every one of its parts.

Forty is the infant, the child, the teenager, the young adult, the new bride, the new mother, standing side by side. It’s the toddler, the Cub Scout, the college freshman, the college graduate.

But you look in a mirror and with human eyes see only what is now. One moment. One person. You don’t see, because people aren’t like Russian nesting dolls, all the people who are inside the 40-year-old.

The heart sees. My heart sees Lauren, in a pink furry coat I bought her when she was 1; on an Easter Sunday morning, squinting into the sun; climbing the school bus in patent leather shoes; hugging her cat, Lucky; walking across the lawn on her first day of high school; storming up the steps because I wouldn’t let her do something; dressing for her senior prom; dressing for her wedding.

The heart sees then and now and everything in between.

My father’s heart saw, too. He saw me on the bike he taught me to ride and behind the wheel of the car he taught me to drive. He saw me on the Flying Rockets at Paragon Park sitting next to him. He saw me as child more often than he saw me as an adult, which is why my turning 40 stunned him.

I am not stunned by my daughter’s age. I look in the rearview mirror and see all she has been. I look at her now and see all that she is. And I think 40 is good. It has all been good.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at bevbeckham@aol.com.