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Coming of Age With an Older Mom

Embarrassed by her in the 1970s, this daughter is now in awe of the centenarian


“Paula, how old is your mother?” my friend Kathy asked, causing snickers among the other third-graders.

“She’s, um, (never pause in the middle of a lie), she’s 39,” I said.

Paula Licanzi and her motherCredit: Courtesy of Paula Ganzi Licata
Paula Ganzi Licata and her mother Cathy

“She is not!” Kathy howled, and the group erupted in laughter.

I’m a late-in-life, or “oops!” baby. When I was born, my parents were in their forties, my three siblings were teenagers. Today a fortysomething woman giving birth isn’t news, but in 1959, it wasn’t the norm.

I’ve only known my mother with gray hair. My first inkling that our mother/daughter relationship was unusual happened while we were shopping for earrings. I was seven; Mom was 50.

The saleswoman put each pair in a gift box and with a playful flourish presented them:  “One for you and one for Grandma!”

“That’s my Mommy,” I said.

The woman’s cheery face crumpled into startled mortification.

“It’s the gray hair,” my mother assured her with a smile.

An Old-Fashioned Mom

Soon I was the one who was mortified. My mother wasn’t just old, she was old-fashioned. Coming of age in the 1970s was difficult for a girl whose mother read movie reviews in The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. I wasn’t allowed to watch Laugh-In, had to sneak out to see The Exorcist and hide my copy of Love Story.

Her conservative ways contrasted with the young liberal mothers who wore miniskirts and teased hair, repeated risqué jokes and talked about sex. To their kids! Summertime in our garden apartment complex in Queens, New York would find my friends’ mothers sunning themselves on lounge chairs, skin glistening with oil, a reflector beneath the chin, hand gestures punctuating stories with a smoldering cigarette. While they were holding onto their girlish youth, my mother was embracing middle age, wearing sensible shoes and eschewing hair dye.

By the time I started college, my parents were getting ready to retire — and expecting me to tag along.

The other mothers’ parenting style was very Shirley Partridge; my mom was more Mother Superior. At 15, I couldn’t stay out after dark; couldn’t have a boyfriend (I hid the ankle bracelet Pat gave me); and my clothes — halter tops and ripped jeans — sparked confrontations: “You’re not going outside like that!”

A Fresh Start

Somehow Mom and I survived my adolescence. By the time I started college, my parents were getting ready to retire — and expecting me to tag along. They chose affordable Central Florida, an area that attracted middle-income World War II northerners who’d saved for sunny, safe, slow days. Their final act. But I was 19, my life was just beginning.

mother and daughterCredit: Courtesy of Paula Ganzi Licata
Paula Ganzi Licata and her mother Cathy

“I got an apartment with Ellen,” I declared, presenting my decision to stay in New York as a done deal.

Surprisingly, Mom didn’t argue. I moved out. My folks moved south.

But the transition was more than my academic career could withstand and I ended up dropping out of college and working a string of meaningless jobs, thanks to an overwhelming social life and too many Grateful Dead concerts.

A few years later, I made a fresh start. Less distracted and more focused, I returned to my A-student status, finished my undergraduate degree, got my master’s degree and met my husband-to-be. Despite the blip in my education, living on my own was a great experience, fostering independence and financial responsibility.

Proud of My Mom Today

Eventually, the gap in years became less significant.

By the time I married at 26, I started feeling like an adult around my family. As a kid, I wanted younger siblings as playmates and confidantes; as a grown-up, I discovered the blessing of retired siblings. After Dad died, my sister Karen moved in with our then 86-year old mother. And when my husband was diagnosed with liver disease and given two weeks to live, my brother Joey was at my side and my sister Joan flew in from out-of-state and lived with me for five weeks, helping me segue from wife to widow.

Who would have guessed that my mother would outlive my husband, and most of my friends’ parents? Cathy Ganzi survived The Great Depression, breast cancer and having a Deadhead for a daughter.

I used to be embarrassed by her age, now I’m bursting with pride telling anyone who asks: “My mom is 102 years young!”

By Paula Ganzi Licata
Paula Ganzi Licata is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other publications. She blogs about surviving life with an alcoholic, navigating widowhood and dating after 50 at paulalicata.com. Most recently, she completed a manuscript, Last Call: Surviving an Alcoholic—A Widow’s Memoir.  

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