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Shining like Nobody’s Business: Reflections on Turning Fifty

“I can tell you’re old, because I see all those veins on your head.” Ethan sat across from me at the picnic table in the shelter at Annie’s Woods, the park where we spent some time together on the late July evening that marked my fiftieth birthday. He did not offer time for my reaction to his comment as he quickly abandoned his half-eaten Whopper in favor of exploring the playground equipment.

Aaron, not to be outdone by his brother, looked up at me and offered this: “I will still think about you when you are dead.”

That’s good to know. In my mind though, I am really not that old. I may be old enough to be the mother of the mothers of my small son’s friends, but I am pretty sure that I still have about half of my living left to do. I am pretty sure that I am still the same kid that so loved sitting under the trees and picking grass. Now, though, I just know more…or less, depending on how you see it.

I may be halfway done, but I’m still in here; it’s still me inside.

During my working years I was assigned to see a young mom whose baby had been born with a cleft lip. The family was working with a team of medical professionals at what was to be the beginning of a long road of services and medical procedures. This girl, probably all of about twenty years at the time, looked at me with eyes that sparkled like the richest crystals and expressed from the deepest place in her soul that when she first saw her son, what she saw was beauty beyond words. Her baby was more than the issues that he would have or the surgeries that he would need. I held back my tears as I wondered how I could possibly offer anything to someone that quite clearly already knew what this life was about.

I remember that anticipation…when the tiny life within was to be my whole world. My friend Bernadette, herself just a couple years from motherhood at the time, and I spent long hours folding and admiring the tiny Halloween themed sleepers and baseball suits that awaited newborn Elliott. Now, he’s grown and long since gone, working at carving a future for himself. As the brothers move on to explore what their next days offer, I stand in the wake of their memories, hoping that they think of me, even before I am dead. Until these days, I hadn’t given a thought to how my own mom may have felt when I had spent my last summer at home, when I had spilled nail polish on the carpet, accidentally left the water running, or ate the only remaining chocolate cupcake for the last time. When our family stopped in Alabama last year on our spring break vacation to visit my parents, my dear friend Rose gave me a carton bearing a dozen glorious eggs…robust and not of colors ever to grace the grocery shelves…laid by her hens. Some of our chickens have started laying, and they are learning to find the nest boxes. We have had a few “experimental” eggs, some speckled, and some that have not been so pretty, but they are perfect just the same, as they came from our beloved chickens.

As a little girl, I loved being outside. I still do. Now, though, I pick weeds. It’s functional, and I do not like to have idle hands. I can tell how easily the weeds will come up by how they look, but I don’t know their names. I could chop them close to the surface, which would be much quicker than pulling them all up by hand. It would look nice for a few days, but underneath the roots would still be strong, even manipulative, and in the middle of the next garden party, the old thorns might come back to make me bleed. This time, though, they are stronger and probably more resistant. Maybe that is what happens as we grow older.

Last week, I found myself waiting in line for an estate sale. It was hot, and I didn’t expect to be standing outside. I looked up at the window framing the front porch where intricate leaded glass strained as a sunflower peering toward the sun to show itself beneath the knotty pine panelling. It made me wonder what other things of beauty had been boarded over, and not just at this house. As I picked my number, I surmised that it must have been decades since I had waited this long for a sale. Perhaps it had been the time when we bought our old piano. Dan had been eager to go to this particular sale, which is not usually the case. I didn’t know that he had, though, seen the ad for the estate sale: the ad that noted for sale a 1952 Starck spinet. We bought our piano that day, with six-month-old Elliott in tow. The man running the sale told me that I should put a bit of lemon oil on it so it would “shine like nobody’s business.” It was perfect and beautiful, and it served its purpose well for a long time. Some years ago, it cracked through the motherboard. Still they played, they sang, and they filled our home. My mom inherited a piano, and then my parents moved away and could not take it with them. The inherited piano, blond wood and in perfect tune, came to replace our beloved piano, the one where baby Elliott had played his first notes atop my young husband’s lap; the one that could no longer hold a tune but for the decades of memories captured within; the one that we had loved desperately but that no longer met standards of the real musicians. When we moved to the farm, we left the “replacement” piano at our house in town, just “temporarily,” I say. I miss having a piano, previously worn, blond, or otherwise. I had great aspirations of learning to play as a college student. I found a teacher who offered lessons in the loft of the building directly across from what was my apartment at the time. My piano career ended pretty quickly, though, after my instructor’s poignant question.

“So you have a piano, right, because you are going to have to practice your lesson?”

Oh, a piano. I didn’t have a piano. I needed a piano. We need a piano.

Over half our lifetimes ago on a crisp September day, we were at Oakbrook Mall when Dan asked me to grow old with him. The diamond sparkled like my friend’s eyes when she spoke of her son. In that moment, life’s richest blessings were right in front of me, and I was eager to start work at gathering them.

And I wonder, if you could go back, would you? Would you spend your days over and again, knowing what you know? Through the trials and the deep love, would you stand before our Maker, and would you play the piano and dig up the weeds? I don’t know how I could not. I guess I thought the age spots might be more dignified, but it seems they have come in the form of bites, bruises, the extra ten or fifteen pounds, and the anxiety that comes from years of night waking and being on edge.

I wouldn’t, though, change the wisdom imparted from the words of a young mom, or the opportunity to hold my child to keep him from harm, or the chance to hear my husband play a song for our children, or the daily chore of gathering fresh eggs, however misshapen.

And I think it’s time to bring the piano to the farm. It’s not the old Starck that we so loved, but it’s still going to make beautiful music.

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