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Playing both ends against middle age

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000

At 7 months my daughter did the unthinkable.

She gave up her pacifier.

This was of course taken in my household as a sign of her spunk and further proof of her perfection.

She went to school, birthday parties, the supermarket, even on airplanes, without a pacifier. She was told endlessly what a big girl she was. She is 2.

Then, the other night, as bedtime approached, she laid down on a rug by her bed and let out several soft but powerful sobs. In between the sobs she said in a small voice, "Passy, passy."

Her parents did what parents do at such moments. They cried a little. Her father went out in the dark to buy pacifiers, and she fell asleep clutching one in each hand.

This is a benchmark story, about a moment when this child of mine, on the verge of moving on to buttoning her shirts, brushing her teeth without a fight, and saying yes occasionally instead of no to every request, hesitated. She's scared of the next step out of babyhood. She wants to retreat.

It is also a lesson.

For her mama.

This child of mine managed to mirror my soul. I don't want to go on to the next step, my own, in which I move further into midlife.

And then, oh God, get old.

Like my daughter, I want to go back. I long for the days when I was addressed by strangers only as Miss, not Ma'am. I reach for familiar objects.

I do have the sense to avoid short skirts.

I am hooked instead on shoes, clunky, oversized, refashioned out of disco days (when I was too serious to go dancing) and designed to draw attention to the curve of your legs.

These shoes are not practical. They expose too much. Not even Julia Roberts' feet improve with age.

I just bought another pair of these shoes. I have my eye on another, in another store. I will not be stopped.

The fight is too urgent.

And I am already behind the curve. I bloomed way late. I became a parent at an age when most parents are thinking of college tuition. I put up with strangers asking if this pretty little girl I'm holding is my granddaughter. Or well-meaning friends who tell me she'll keep me young. Who needs keeping young? Who says I'm old?

This is what you get for reaching middle age.

Middle age is when you realize you are not the center of all things but just one more awkward stranger standing in line. It hits you that the choices you've made limit the chances you still have.

This is when you get mad at yourself for not making decisions fast enough. Even a stack of papers needing to be filed can leave you blustery with impatience.

You wish you could again feel the high of falling in love. You wish you could stay up all night.

You did these things once, when you were a kid like the kids who work alongside you -- although you would never call them kids to their faces. They have so much confidence. Were you ever like that?

And what comes next, in 10 years or 15? Why do the years have to come and go so fast, when you remember being a kid and complaining how bored you were, how time dragged? What will I do when the 15 years are over? What will I see when I look in the mirror?

Now and then I have to give a speech, and somebody clever in the back of the room inevitably asks if there are subjects I avoid. I never tell the truth that I resist writing about old people. I don't know what to say. There are too few years now between me and them.

This is a preposterous admission to make to an audience so dominated by the elderly. You scare me. More accurately, I scare myself.

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