Family Matters: Aging gracefully(ish)

By: Claire Mullen

Age is just a number,” they say.

A saying fit for a tattooed septuagenarian with a penchant for Harleys, or perhaps someone who helps
with grandkids during the week and runs marathons on Saturdays.

I imagine that the person who first coined the phrase “age is just a number” intended for it to be inspirational and uplifting, to evoke a sense of youthful energy and a zest for life, even in one’s twilight years. It works, until the unfortunate day comes when you suddenly find yourself actually feeling somewhat older than your number. And lately, I’ve had a string of unignorable instances that have each taken me aback and left me feeling like my number is smacking me in the face much sooner than I ever thought it would, at the hopefully-lessthan- midlife age of 35.71 years old.

The first time this happened, I was wrapping up a solo grocery shopping trip at the register and became increasingly aware that the Justin Bieber-esque young man (seemingly in his early 20s) bagging my groceries was eyeing me in a way that began to make me feel a little uncomfortable. I looked behind me to make sure that the target of his attention wasn’t a pretty, equally 20-something blonde over my shoulder at the next checkout. I went about my business of helping to unload the shopping cart and swiping my credit card, all still very conscious of the fact that the bag boy continued to steal glances. I will admit that while part of me felt flushed and flattered, I mainly wanted to say, “Young man, I am a happily married woman with two little children. Thank you and good day!”

I hurriedly gathered my things and began to wheel my cart toward the doors when that young man stopped me in my tracks with, “Excuse me, ma’am?” I froze and prepared myself for what was coming next… “I’m sorry, but I just have to tell you this…” Oh no. “You remind me SO much of my mom.” Oh. No. Friends, if a brown paper grocery bag had been within reach, I might just have put it over my head while I fled to the closest exit.

And then, it happened again. On a recent carpool to dance practice, my first-grader and her best buddy requested that their booster seats be buckled in next to each other so that they could share a book on the ride.

As my daughter flipped the pages of a hardback copy of a collection of mini biographies of inspirational women of the past and present, she settled on one in particular and began to recount the details of that woman’s life to her little friend. “This lady has her own TV show, and she’s still alive today!”, she explained. “Actually, I think she’s about the same age as my mom!” “And…do you know what her name is?”

As I listened in from the driver’s seat, I tried to think of an inspirational, contemporary young woman with her own television program in that book that we’ve read together dozens of times. Who was I forgetting? Joanna Gains, perhaps? Talk about natural beauty and creativity! Maybe Mindy Kaling? Gosh, she’s hilarious. And then, my enthusiastic daughter dropped a bomb that could very well have made me swerve into oncoming traffic had I not been responsible for such precious cargo. “Her name is Oprah!” Oprah, y’all. Oprah Gail Winfrey is 67 years old, almost double my age. And, while I know that Lady O has the best hair, makeup, nutrition and fitness team that her $2.7 billion can buy, my daughter’s estimation still shook me to my core and really made me question my moisturizer.

Maybe this of-late feeling of sudden warp-speed aging can be attributed to the stress of this pandemic era. Or, maybe it’s just time to face the fact that the years really have flown by like a freight train, leaving me wondering how I’m already a 35-year-old woman with life insurance, crow’s feet, varicose veins, knees that swell and ache when I run, sprouts of wiry white hair (my precious hairdresser calls them “sparkles”) currently threatening the existence of my never-beforecolor- treated brown, and two babies who really aren’t even babies anymore.

In the age of Botox and balayage, we early millennials have some decisions to make on how we’re going to handle this getting older thing. I’d like to think that the answer is easy: with grace. But, like pretty much everything else in life, the path is never straight and no two people’s journeys are exactly the same.

I figured that for myself, taking a little time out of a busy day to make a stop for a new, heavy-duty moisturizer might be a good place to start.

Lately, I’ve had a string of unignorable instances that have each taken me aback and left me feeling like my
number is smacking me in the face much sooner than I ever thought it would.

Apparently, the folks who formulate these lotions and potions have been quite busy over the past 25 years that I’ve been using the same trusty Oil of Olay Original Beauty Fluid that suddenly ain’t doing the trick anymore. I stood agape in the aisle of our local beauty store, faced with shelves upon shelves of bottles and jars of all sorts. What type of skin do I have? Oily? Dry? Combination? Heck, I don’t know! I’d say sort of pale, kind of wrinkly and a lot freckly. Rapid-repair, triple-firming, or micro-sculpting? Is “all of the above” not an option? Pineapple enzymes, shea butter, avocado oil? Ok, now I’m hungry. Cream, serum or gel? Does it come in magic elixir?

Daytime formula or nighttime? Ha! I see through your subtle marketing ploy to get the suckers to buy both! (Adds to basket, adds to basket) What’s a retinoid? I could have sworn it was something from Star Wars. Peptide.

Ceramide. Hyaluronic acid. Why am I having flashbacks to barely passing college chemistry in the aisle of Ulta? Thirty minutes and over 100 bucks later, I left the store with a bag full of promises. Surely I’d have firm, youthful, glowing, toxin-free skin in no time. Over the past months since my purchases, I’ve learned from experience precisely how those anti-aging products work. They slowly burn and peel your skin until you’re basically left with nothing but a shiny, wrinkle-free skull. Mission accomplished.

Vanity and self-deprecation aside, when I really reflect on my 35(.71) trips around the sun, I am grateful. Grateful for the childhood family vacation weeks spent riding waves and hunting crabs in the sunshine at Sunset Beach, the source of most of those fine lines around my eyes. Grateful that my now achy knees once allowed me to run miles and miles all over Fayetteville as a teenager during a time before the distraction of smartphones and when no one really thought twice about a young woman jogging alone outdoors. And grateful for two healthy pregnancies that, while, yes, brought along the stubborn bulging veins in my legs, also produced our beautiful children. I wish I could go back and do it all again, in exactly the same way. I might just wear a little more sunscreen.

Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@gmail.com.