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Bring on the Candles: Owning My (Milestone) Age

Life experience that deepens us helps us embrace birthdays

By Jill Smolowe

To lie or not to lie. This, says a recent New York Times article, is an “age-old dilemma” for women when it comes to discussion of age. The working assumption in the piece is that women feel such “shame” about their age that to state a true number is nothing short of a “feminist issue,” requiring women to be “courageous” and “subversive.”

So, cue the trumpets. A drum roll, please.

I turn 60 this week. Ta-da!

Are you stunned by my fearlessness? Dazzled by my audacity? Inspired by my bravery?

Me, neither. This acknowledgment of my age (and, yes, thank you for your birthday wishes) has not caused my heart to pound harder or moistened my palms with sweat or furrowed my brow with worry that my “numeric honesty” will destroy my career and my life. By being an “intrepid age claimer” (wow, that’s a mouthful), I am neither, as the Times  suggests, waging a campaign to advance the women’s movement’s ongoing quest to tell “the truth about our lives” nor boldly acting on a “matter of principle.”

I am just telling you my age.


‘I’ve Earned Those Candles’

I must have missed the memo somewhere along the years because, for me, the accumulating candle count on my birthday cake has never been a source of concern or stress. (The calorie count, that’s another matter…) I consider the turning of each decade an attainment. Hell, I’ve earned those candles. Every one of them. Why wouldn’t I feel good about all those years of sometimes enchanting, sometimes arduous, always eye-opening experience?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to being older. When I was very young, older meant having the authority to make the all-important decisions in life, like setting my own bedtime. As an adolescent, older meant claiming the later curfew privileges that my big brother enjoyed. While in college, I anticipated the day that syllabi would disappear from my life and I would once again be free to choose which books I read.

Come the twenties, older held the allure of getting out from under tyrannical editors who delighted in torturing young staffers. The thirties? Dreams of a day when the career-marriage balance would make room for baby. Then, in my forties, dreams of a day when I could once again breeze out the door unladen by diaper bags, strollers and a carpool schedule.

As I turned 50, I looked forward to a relaxed decade, one where I would begin to reap all that I had sown. The major joint decisions about marriage, children and home location behind, my relationship with my husband was happier and more harmonious than ever. My daughter was maturing beautifully. My career was where I wanted it to be. Friendships? Family relationships? Health? All solid.

It took just one word from my husband’s hematologist to rearrange my thinking: “Leukemia.” I was 51 at the time. By my mid-fifties, I’d buried not only my husband, but my sister, mother and mother-in-law, too. I’d also buried any romantic notion that the fifties would be a time to kick back and savor.


I’m so glad to be exiting my fifties that when my second husband suggested a birthday party, I immediately said yes. That surprised both of us. I have a slim record of such fetes. (We July babies learn at a tender age to expect little hoopla, what with people scattered in so many directions during the summer.) But this year, I realized, I wanted to mark the occasion, no matter how thin the crowd.

Welcoming a New Decade

It’s not just that I’m relieved to be done with a decade colored by so much sorrow. I enter my sixties equipped with a perspective that will help me navigate the next 10 years with greater grace than decades past. My radar for finding the value in each day is keener. My capacity for tolerating life’s heartaches is sturdier. My ability to listen and lend support, without judgment, is stronger. My trust in the voice inside my own head is deeper. Even my tenacious Achilles heel, impatience, is showing signs of improvement.

Recently, a septuagenarian friend said to me, her eyes bright with enthusiasm, “I feel like 45. Don’t you?!” Well, I certainly don’t feel old. I feel healthy and fit (and should I begin to entertain thoughts of ixnay on the exercise, there’s a 70-year-old retired school teacher in my Pilates class whose teenage-like body ensures my continued sweat discipline).

But do I feel 45? Definitely not — nor would I want to. I’ve been there. Done that. I look back without envy or longing because I know that each added year has augmented my understanding of the world and the people around me. Enriched my cache of experiences and hard-won knowledge. Enlarged my sense of appreciation and gratitude. Steadied my grip on how to ride this roller coaster we call life.

At 60, I also know something about myself that I didn’t know at 45: I am resilient.

It has taken a lot of sorrow and joy to discover that whatever life may throw me, I have the capacity to get through it. It has required a complex mix of disappointment and encouragement to define for myself what it means to live a good life. And it has demanded every one of my years to come to a place where I can trust that however bad this moment may be, it, too, shall pass.

Younger people, they don’t know any of that. Why ever would I want to be like them?

No, I am happy to be turning 60, and I feel neither courageous nor defiant telling you this. I feel, rather, a quiet pride in the many things I’ve learned and created, navigated and endured over the last six decades. That cake with the near-blinding array of candles? Bring it on.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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