A few weeks ago, the unimaginable happened at the Albuquerque International Airport.
My mother, sister and I were on the final day of a fantastic girl's trip to Santa Fe to celebrate my sister's college graduation, acceptance into grad school, and my recent 40th birthday. While we were there, the temperature in Santa Fe hovered around 14 degrees, so we were bundled up like Eskimos as we approached security. We somehow split into two lines, Mom on one side, my sister Emily and me on the other. Emily and I passed through our checkpoint with flying colors, charmed by an ancient TSA clerk with a freshly-dyed jet black comb-over.
Meanwhile, we were completely unaware that Mom was digging frantically for her driver's license in the other line. While we approached the tables to begin stripping down for the metal detectors, we heard Mom's name paged overhead. My first inclination was to worry that something had happened to one of our family members, and that somehow the police were calling our mother overhead at the airport. We soon realized, with some help from another TSA agent, that Mom had dropped her license somewhere between ticketing and security. We watched as Mom went to a strange wall phone and received instructions on how to find the lost and found. She took off to what she later described as an endless maze of hallways, where she knocked on a door and someone stuck their hand out and handed over her license. All the while, Emily and I waited in a self-made TSA holding area where I flirted with an agent young enough to be my son. In other words, we were a big help to my poor mother, who was navigating a concrete maze and fretting about where she'd left her license.
By the time Mom got back in line, she was understandably frazzled, so she asked for some time to gather her thoughts and her belongings, and went ahead of us through security. Emily approached the security table first, and began shedding layers of Eskimo garb. I followed behind. A young, pimply-faced female TSA agent motioned for my sister to go through the metal detector. As I finished up unloading my gear to the table, the agent looked at me and said,
"So you're the mother?"
Let me repeat that. The female agent looked at me and said,
"So you're the MOTHER?"
In other words, this girl thought I was my sister's mother. Her mother!
I will resist writing the rest of my thoughts on this in bold print with italics, because it's hard for me to accurately describe how upsetting this was to me. For those of you who don't know, I'm four and a half years older than my sister. When I tell this story, everyone says, "Oh my GOD, what did you say?"
I'm not sure how I delivered it, because my jaw was on the ground, but I said something sarcastic and biting like this,
"No, I'm her SISTER," I said as the agent began to look fearful for her life, "But thanks for ruining my day! You know, you really shouldn't say that to anyone....."
Poor Mom and Emily had to deal with the aftermath of this ugly little scene. They patiently sat through my sudden need to plop down on a bench and cry large, dramatic tears. I believe I said the big "f" word several times, loud enough for others to hear. Classy. While I put on my shoes and cried/cussed, I considered going back in line to sock the poor unsuspecting agent in the jaw. Emily, who possesses an incredible gift of taking a terrible situation and softening it, noted that surely the girl wasn't even paying attention and it was all a misunderstanding. Mom sat wisely on the sidelines until I got my act together, probably wondering how in a matter of seconds I was able to out drama her driver's license ordeal.
After processing this tragic event, I have come to a conclusion. People should never assume. People should know better than to make assumptions about people's age, relationship status, pregnancy status, and in some cases, even the sex of the person. When in doubt, do yourself a favor and do not ask.
I spent the plane ride home in self-pity misery, wondering if I should submit my photo to one of those companies who guesses your age by how you look, then smartly reconsidered. I wondered about my wardrobe, as I work hard not to be the kind of 40 year-old who looks like Steinmart is her only option. I thought about how I've gone on and on about not wanting to try Botox, then wondered if I should jump on the bandwagon. I avoided mirrors for the rest of the day.
And then I thought about Sunny.
Sunny was the mother of my Mom's dear friend Claudia. She was one of the most beautiful women I've ever met, and I never once thought of her as old, even though she was in her 80's. Her full name was Mary Sunshine Davidson, perhaps one of the most fantastic names ever, but her nickname "Sunny" fit her perfectly. She radiated a positive glow that's hard to describe. She embraced life with an energy that was contagious to those around her. If you were talking to her, she listened as if you were the only one in the room. The first time I met her, I was captivated by her energy, and at that moment decided that I wanted to age like Sunny.
I mean, look at this woman! Wasn't she a beauty? And even though she was certainly blessed genetically, I can assure you that her beauty was magnified tenfold by what radiated from her soul.
Certainly part of Sunny's outlook on life was that she wasn't a whiner. I realized by thinking about Sunny that the experience that took place in the Albuquerque airport was a moment I could have blown off, or taken less seriously, and not spent valuable time with my mother and sister whining about it.
For me, this is about how we choose to age. Do we take on aging with a groan? Do we choose to look at aging as something to face with a strained expression, with resistance and negativity? Or, could we consider aging as a beautiful process, one that we handle with grace?
I am totally not there yet, just so we're clear. I strive to age like Sunny, because she did it so fabulously, but since I just hit 40, I get the feeling that this aging thing is a process that I'll need to constantly revisit, learn from, and embrace. And I am slapping on moisturizer like a maniac, trying to walk every day for my health, and forcing myself to drink more water. It's all a process.
Lucky for me, the Universe sent me a gift this week. I went to Central Market to buy wine to take to a girl's night, and while in the checkout line, the clerk, who looked to be in her 60's (though I certainly wouldn't have asked!), saw the wine, looked at me, and said,
"Are you 30 yet?"
"No," I exlaimed, elated, "I'm 40!! But you have NO idea how great you just made me feel!"
The mere idea that a stranger made an assumption - believed or not - that I was not yet 30 completely undid the damage done in Albuquerque. It did wonders for my confidence, which had been suffering for a few weeks. I nearly went around the counter and kissed her. But instead, as the young bag boy asked me if I needed help to my car, I happily declined, flashing a Sunny-like smile at him, elated that at this point in my life, I'm young enough to carry my groceries without help.