My seventeen-year-old son is tracking his inbox for his college acceptance letters. I should be preparing the scrapbook that is my gift for his high school graduation. No excuse: I’ve done it for his three sisters, and if I include the scrapbooks I also give my children when they turn thirteen, I am a pro at searching for photos, music programs, sport events, school awards, and for all the landmarks that make the life of a child until college.
For the first time I’m late. And I know perfectly well that it is not a matter of finding the time.
See, until then, with still one child at home, the clock was ticking slowly and steadily.
Like anyone who has children, I’ve indeed lived the passing of time through my daughters and son’s milestones.
Until I had children I never considered that every year brought me closer to the end of my journey on earth.
Evocating my childhood brings vivid moments to my mind. These slices of life are a mix of elation when I learned how to read, when I wrote my first poem, and when I took my first English class, but also of impatience and boredom. As any child I lived in the present but was also devoured by the impatience to be all grown-up.
Youth with its explosion of emotions and experiences, when my body was strong and tireless, stretched infinitely in front of me, like a wide highway leading to exciting destinations.
Adulthood started with its loads of jobs responsibility and expectations. I liked the speed and competition until…
Was the race to the metro part of being an adult? And what about the race to the top job? Sometimes, squeezed between men and women dressed almost identically for work, I panicked. Were all adults zombies? Was I one?
Was it how I would live, year after year?
And then the unpredicted happened…
Moving away from one’s homeland is considered to be one the most traumatic events in a life. Traumatic is excessive to describe my own immigration experience, but I would also lie if I pretended that leaving my native France didn’t come with bouts of regrets and pangs of nostalgia.
However, moving to the States offered me an unexpected chance.
When I arrived in Palo Alto, a few days before Christmas, the town and its residents had slipped into picture like winter wonderland mode.
Children, women, and men alike were dressed in red sweatshirts, sometimes embroidered with reindeer and snowflakes. Many wore Santa Claus hats, sometimes with bells attached to the pompon. Candy cane brooches were pinned on women’s jackets. Christmas carols played everywhere.
Holiday season after holiday season, the same phenomenon repeated itself.
I had landed in a snow globe where people and scenery didn’t have a specific age. In fact they didn’t seem to age at all.
I was given the chance to see for myself how Americans, criticized abroad for being obsessed with youth and its pursuit at any cost, were dealing with mortality.
I was intrigued to see elderly men sporting their university T-shirts and letter jackets and elderly women in denim shorts and sun visor hats.
Perhaps less elegant from a French perspective, but so much more fun that soon enough I dropped my French coat.
Americans, like any other human beings, were aging. But they embraced it with zest.
Women colored their hair in all shades. Men did their best to grow hair on their heads while shaving everywhere else. Beauty salons and nail bars, spas and gyms replaced my French cafés and brasseries. There was a palpable desire to remain young and look young. There were of course some excesses, mostly with celebrities who seemed younger as they got older.
Through my French eye, I could have seen the American search for eternal youth as a vain attempt, but beyond the youthful clothes, the facials, the nails, and hair business there was an honest desire to live as fully as possible.
Once in a while, I would meet a woman my mother’s age embarking on a new business or going back to school to get an additional degree because after all it’s never too late. Making plans as if life would never end felt uniquely American.
Regardless of age, the people I met laughed at their own mistakes as if they were a constant work in progress. What the French would call naivety was ability for goofiness and unselfconsciousness, more typical of young people than adults.
Later, as my children grew, countless social activities linked to school (games, dances, formals, proms, and graduations) offered me multiple occasions to attest that Americans indeed lived the passing of time through a unique lens.
While the French indulge in small pleasures of life often tainted with a hint of nostalgia, Americans of all ages run, with the vigor of young, tireless people, toward more fun. Is it to forget the ticking of the clock? Or is it simply the gift of a much younger nation, born as a rebel, able to push the limits of time without shame and regret in comparison to a much older France, often torn between its heritage and the necessity to accept the changes of nowadays?
Mireille Guiliano, the French native who wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat, has recently published her latest book French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. I skimmed through the book, which is about aging in style. The author believes that there are significant differences between the way American women and French women embrace the passing of time. One is the French non-non to cosmetic surgery and the other the oui-oui to eternal elegance.
I wouldn’t argue with an author who finds such damned good titles. However, even though it is undisputable that most French women (living in France!) carry elegance far in their lives, I insist that Americans stay young with unique enthusiasm and little whining.
As my understanding of my adoptive country is almost fluent, I appreciate the way Americans celebrate holidays, revere school rituals, and get crazy about new projects.
Again, from a typical French perspective, this is kitsch and tacky.
But me? I see a real love for life, a real desire to make each day count.
I am not promoting immigration to the States as the solution to stop aging.
Yet when it comes to age and its worrisome load of side effects, I feel that my moving here gave me an edge.
The discovery and exploration of a new place, a new language, and a new culture offer an undisputable advantage.
They open all senses and keep the mind in constant alert.
And of course living in the company of people who act as if there were no age limits is liberating.
In an unplanned ripple effect I gave the same edge to the people I knew in France. When I left, I left them behind, too. In my memory, they look the way they did when I flew away. With my departure, like the Tuck family who drank the magic water in Tuck Everlasting, these people have stopped aging and are forever young and flawless.
Now that my youngest child is ready for imminent take off, time slips between my fingers.
Today is yesterday.
Once in a while, the thought that I might not have enough time to accomplish everything I believed I would when I was much younger narrows its icy fingers around my throat.
Don’t be so French, I remind myself. You are about to turn a new page. How could aging be more exciting?