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Beverly Beckham

Thoughts on a not-so-random number, 65

By Beverly Beckham
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2012
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It’s not as if in 20 days I am going to turn into a giraffe or a starfish or a common housefly. It’s not as if in 20 days I am going to change at all.

If I’m lucky, I will wake up on my birthday as I always have, and morning will turn into afternoon and afternoon will turn into night. And although, during the course of this ordinary, though culturally pivotal 24 hours, friends may phone and say things like, “You’ve hit the big one,’’ and “Congratudolences,’’ when the day ends, if I’m lucky, life will go on as usual.

Sixty-five is just a number, after all.

But this isn’t quite true, not only because at 65 you all of a sudden have to grapple with Medicare parts A and B. (The US government mandates this.)

It isn’t true also because you all of a sudden have to grapple with time, too, the absolute quicksilver-ness of it, as in: How much longer do I have? (Never a given, but incrementally less so now.) How did I get here? And how did I get this old?

Sixty-five, unlike all the numbers before it, doesn’t just give you pause. It takes your breath away. You look around at the very hard-to-find, ridiculously understaffed Social Security office in Norwood and think, “Hey, it wasn’t that long ago that I was in the big old Social Security office on Hancock Street in Quincy Center, filling out a form to get a Social Security card so that I could start my summer job selling ladies’ wear at the Bell Shop.’’

My mother drove me all that summer, and at the end, I bought gray ski pants and a matching sweater in a little store next to the Primrose Shop to bedazzle John White, who didn’t even know I existed and wouldn’t, despite the new outfit. Skeeter Davis was on the radio, singing “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world.’’ JFK was in the White House, and I lived at 9 Davis Road. I was 15 and had my life ahead of me.

Sixty-five has this ricochet effect. You’re in a place you don’t want to be, forced to take a number as if you are in the deli line at Shaw’s, forced to sit and wait, while all the while you are being pushed ahead, pushed over some invisible line, pushed into the new territory of old age, the whole rest of your life now on the other side of some societal divide.

But the very force that propels you forward, that is dizzying and disorienting and disturbing (“out to pasture’’ comes to mind), sends you reeling back, too. Back to 6, turning 7, the “age of reason’’ - 7 no longer a baby but a child responsible for her own actions. Second grade. First Communion. “You’re a big girl now,’’ my mother says. I have two new front teeth. I feel them when I smile.

Back to 12. Twelve means you have to pay as an adult at the Randolph Movie Theater. But it also meant you can see all the adult movies on the single screen Sunday afternoon, 12 a new kind of freedom.

Back to 13 and 16 and 21, then 30, 40, 50, 60.

That’s how it goes, languorous at first, “Mississippi one, Mississippi two, Mississippi three,’’ the cadence of the years for so many years that you never hear the tempo change. You don’t notice when the whole note becomes quarter note, then an eighth note, then a sixteenth, then a sixty-fourth, because the beat just goes on.

In 20 days I am not going to turn into a giraffe or a starfish. But I am going to turn 65.

“You shouldn’t tell people,’’ some have said. “You really don’t want people to know how old you are.’’

But why not? Sixty-five may be an imposed benchmark that comes with government forms, but it’s a number to celebrate, even in these age-phobic times.

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

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