My husband and I had just sweated through an hour in line so our daughters, ages 8 and 6, could get balloon animals at a local street fair. No run-of-the-mill pirate swords or wiener dogs here. The balloon artist nimbly twisted balloons into space-helmeted aliens in flying saucers and bracelets adorned with turtles. But considering his creations remained intact for about as long as we’d waited to get them, I’m not sure it was an hour well-spent.
Before the balloon animals started to lose a leg here and an ear there, we relaxed on a sidewalk bench and enjoyed a little refreshment. As my husband and I clutched our frozen lattes and the girls drained their strawberry smoothies, a man who recognized my husband from our synagogue approached.
“These your grandchildren?” he asked. My cheerful mood popped like the ear on my kindergartener’s balloon bunny crown. “How old do you think we are?” I demanded, my tone and glare icier than the lattes. “And how old are you?” I added, guessing from the guy’s creased face — and his boast about having 15 grandchildren — that he had a good 20 years on me. He declined to say, but given the unnatural chocolate hue of his hair, I’d say his stylist would know for sure.
My husband and I are relatively wrinkle-free. But once again, a stranger had assumed that we are grandparents because of our hair — or lack thereof. My husband is bald, and I am gray.
I could be my daughters’ grandmother, but that would have required both my firstborn and me to give birth at age 20. While possible, that would be pretty unusual where I live, in Bethesda, Maryland, home of the National Institutes of Health and probably more PhDs per square foot than any town in America.
Although I don’t have a graduate degree, I did spend years trying to advance my journalism career, which, in this era of one-newspaper towns, required picking up and moving around the country periodically. Finally, I settled in Washington, D.C., where, at age 39, I met Dr. Right (he does have a PhD), who is nearly five years older than I am.
We married exactly three weeks after my 40th birthday, and I delivered Hannah four and a half months later, a day before her due date (you do the math). Aliza arrived 23 months after Hannah following another easy conception and pregnancy. Apparently, my ovaries and uterus are younger than my hair.
My mother started going gray in her 30s and never colored her hair. She was 29 when I was born, and, although she has dark hair in my baby pictures, it’s always gray — evolving from pewter to silver to platinum — in my memories. Strangers frequently commented on how lovely her hair was and asked whether she colored it to achieve that frosted look. “Yes,” she would deadpan. “I color it to cover the brown.”
My mother looked beautiful, and I admired her for skipping Clairol and letting Mother Nature color her hair. When, at 17, silver threads began to invade my brown, I swore I would be just like her. I would celebrate my gray, not submerge it.
And then I turned 30, a milestone that sent me running to Lady Clairol. Our affair lasted 15 years, but I finally grew tired of the time, the mess, and the eye-watering odor of peroxide. I cut my hair shorter than ever before and tossed my stash of Nice ‘N Easy. Now when people say how cute my granddaughters are (they’re my daughters, thank you), it only makes me more determined to flaunt my melatonin-challenged mane.
I see the supermarket cashier’s eyebrows lift when, as I pay for my daughter’s birthday cake, I mention that she’s turning 8. Casual acquaintances swallow their surprise when, in response to their queries about my kids’ ages, I say 7 and 9 instead of 17 and 19. Or 27 and 29, for that matter.
Recently, my husband and I were in line at a crowded bagel bakery, taking orders from our daughters, who had staked claim to a table. “Aren’t grandchildren the apple of your eye?” the man behind us asked. At first, I didn’t realize he was talking to us. But, considering that most of the crowd appeared to be under 35, I caught on quickly. Turns out this guy had a son five years older than my husband, which, I figure, put him over 80.
Now it’s one thing when the 20-year-old cashier at Old Navy figured that those cute baby clothes I’d selected were for my new grandchild. I was as old as her mother and her boyfriend’s mother — thus, I could not possibly be the mother of someone who could fit into those cute baby clothes. But when a guy born shortly after World War I thinks I’m a peer, well. My husband, who doesn’t rile nearly as easily as I do, pretty much ignores such comments (of course, he lost most of his hair before it started turning gray). Whenever someone mistakes us for grandparents, he blames it on senility or nearsightedness. Theirs, not ours.
And children are as nearsighted as adults. My daughters, who seem to care not a whit about my hair color or my age, tell me that a few of their classmates assumed I was their grandmother when I subbed for my husband, the usual afternoon parent, and picked them up after school.
When my younger daughter reaches fifth grade, or maybe even sooner, I expect I’ll be the oldest mother at her elementary school. My dad turned 42 right after I was born, and he always seemed so much older than the other dads. I turned 42 a few months before my younger daughter was born. I try not to think about what Zelda, the rabbi’s wife, told me the day of my father’s funeral, when I was 37. “Well,” she said in her foghorn voice, “that’s what you get for having an older parent.” As if I had any choice in the matter.