Chunneling Through Forty
A woman’s 40th birthday comes on like a tsunami, especially when life's biggest excitement means finding a wad of fudge in a half gallon of ice cream. For Susanna Greyson, the day prompts her to set five goals. They don’t include the invention of personal jet packs or finding the cure for cancer, but for a bored mother, they might as well. As she takes a stab at each goal, she encounters hilarious and heartening complications that reap unexpected results, including an attraction to her daughter’s history teacher. An unpredictable cast of characters buoys her along the way, and in the end, her goal list remains incomplete but at least attempted. She has faced the tsunami head-on and emerged on the other side ready to chunnel through the next forty years with gusto.
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...or Read Chapter 1 here:
Chunneling Through Forty
It’s 6:45a.m., September 5th. My mom says I arrived at six in the morning, so my body turned forty while I slept. Amazing that such trauma can occur without so much as a loud snore.
Did my mind turn forty, too? I’ve never noticed any difference there. Same old nonsense floating around, but lately, it’s gotten harder to grasp.
I wish a teleprompter existed for everyday life. The thoughts that form clearly in my mind sometimes disappear in a flash. In the microsecond it takes me to inhale so I can utter a clever zinger, it flies away. Sometimes I watch it flutter out of reach. I try to stop it, but it moves on, perhaps into a spaghetti-like region of my brain where years of snappy comebacks await rediscovery. If only it would happen before I take the inhale. No doubt Simon and Garfunkel had just finished a conversation with a forty-year-old woman when they wrote “The Sound of Silence.”
I liken it to a carnival barker commandeering my mind as he runs his mental game. “The object,” the barker shouts, “is to shoot a neuron at a thought and see if you can get it to jump over a synapse and connect with the verbal processors whizzing by on the conveyor belt, thus producing a sentence which contains a well-structured thought!”
Apparently, I used to play this game all the time and win, without even knowing it.
The bedroom door scrapes open against the new carpeting, which Tom, my carpenter of a husband, didn’t realize was too thick for the doors.
“Happy Birthday, Mommy!” It’s Jimmy, my official kindergartner.
“Hey, Jimbo, come on in.”
It’s hard to get up when there’s an instant bed-warmer climbing in. He cuddles where he still fits perfectly. Although I can snuggle all the kids in one way or the other, I find that they fit in new ways as they grow, into places I never thought of as cuddly, like in between my neck and that bony protrusion on my shoulder.
“Mommy, how old are you?”
Jimmy’s too young to be subjected to my psychological warfare with age, so I resort to a trick that may work in my favor.
“How old do you think Mommy is?”
Okay, I guess it can work against me, too.
“A hundred? That’s pretty old, D-boy. Do you think Mommy is old?” I tickle him.
“No. I think you’re pretty.”
So he associates old with ugly and young with pretty. Good enough. I’ll take it. If he thinks I’m pretty, then he thinks I’m young.
Get a grip, Susanna, I tell myself. This is the same kid who boasts he can count to infinity and you’re turning to him for reassurance that you’re not old.
“Sweetie,” I say, “Mommy is thirty-five.”
I feel better. I dealt with him in a straightforward manner. No games. No fuss. No truth.
“Happy Birthday, Mom!” shouts my son, Kevin, fourteen, from down the hall. Tom must have reminded him.
“Thank you, Kevin!”
“Do you feel old?”
Do I really have to deal with this before 7a.m? Perhaps his question is rhetorical. I’ll respond by avoiding the question and putting him in his place with superior vocabulary.
What was I going to say? It’s gone.
“What, Mommy?” Jimmy says.
Oh no. “What, Jimmy?”
Jimmy lifts his head and props himself up on his elbow.
“You were going to say something. You said,” and at this point he does a big inhale, “but you didn’t say anything.”
Even my six-year-old is on to me.
“Yes. What were you going to say?”
Damned if I know.
“I was going to say what a cutie you are.”
I tickle him and he giggles. He pretends to want to get away, but if I stop, he’ll try to figure out what triggered the tickle and repeat it. Little does he realize that the trigger was my desire to avoid admitting that I just lost another quarter to the carnival barker.
Kevin comes in, looking taller every minute. He’ll be shaving in a year. Very scary, but I’ll leave that one to make my husband feel older.
“So, do you feel any older?” he repeats. “Does forty feel weird?”
“I don’t know, Kevin. I’ll take that as a rhetorical question, if that’s okay with you.”
“Rhetorical. R-H-E-T-O-R-I-C-A-L. Rhetorical,” he replies proudly.
“Very good. Now go get ready.”
How could I forget the regional spelling bee later this year? Through a technicality at school, he’s already qualified for it. Although I hate to be one of those mothers who insists that every chromosome in a child be credited to a parent or grandparent, I do take credit for Kevin’s spelling ability. Of course, I probably owe mine to some cavewoman who could draw a heck of a buffalo on a cave wall.
“Happy Birthday to you,” sings the baritone voice of my husband from about the fifth step of the stairs.
He must be multitasking: balancing a breakfast tray, climbing the stairs, singing, and keeping the candle in the bran muffin from being blown out by the air conditioning. Should I take the bran muffin as a sign that my AARP card is imminent, even though it’s my favorite? No. I will set aside all forty-year-old paranoia and simply enjoy this birthday tradition.
“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Susanna!”
Jimmy joins in on the last line, as do my two daughters who have seen fit to awaken and witness the inevitable event.
“Happy Birthday to yooooouuuuu!!” they all chorus.
Jimmy grows beyond excited in anticipation of Tom rounding the bedroom door with a lit candle.
“Thank you, everyone!” I say as Tom turns the corner to Jimmy’s squeal of delight.
But what’s this new addition to the breakfast tray? A black balloon… okay, take it in stride. It’s only a balloon, a joke, a friendly dig. No reason to think it symbolizes wrinkles, gravity, and early-onset menopause.
“Is there an old lady in the house?” Tom teases. “Old lady! Paging one old lady!”
I want to slap him across his wrinkle-free face. How is it that a man who spends most of his time in the sun manages to retain the boyish look of Opie from the Andy Griffith show?
“We have one breakfast order with a senior citizen discount,” he says with a grin.
Much less funny now. I force a smile, but it comes out as a sneer. He notices it as he sets down the tray of scrambled eggs with cheese and red peppers, hot tea, sliced strawberries with whipped cream and, of course, the offensive bran muffin! How can I hold a black balloon against a man this sweet? Very tightly, I think.
“Come on,” he says, “you’re still beautiful, and you don’t look a day over thirty-nine.”
My Tom. Sarcastic, but handsome. Not to everyone, but certainly to me. His grey-blue eyes, crooked nose, and strong jaw aren’t perfect when taken individually, but as a package deal, he comes together nicely. The physicality of his job doesn’t hurt either. His arms, for a 39-year-old guy - yes, I’m older by three months - still get noticed by some of my daughters’ friends. And he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hide his “guns” when they’re around. I guess none of us is beyond an ego-boost.
Jimmy sticks his fingers in the whipped cream and licks them. Twice.
“You know what, Jimmy, you can have all the strawberries.” I push them towards him.
“Dad, are there any more muffins?” asks the bottomless pit, Kevin. He’s going to be 6’1” at least and has many muffins to go before he gets there.
I remember those days of endless eating. They ended when I turned three. I never got to be one of those girls who lamented over her pipe-cleaner-legs and no one ever doubted the strength of my quads.
“She built like a tree trunk,” my straightforward German neighbor, Mrs. Klaussner, once said to my mother. “No boy will mess with her.”
Not the words a girl of twelve wants to hear. At the time, Mrs. Klaussner was assuring my mother that I wouldn’t be bothered by Richie Vernacchia, the neighborhood bully who today would be labeled with assorted psychological acronyms.
Mrs. Klaussner, who wasn’t exactly shopping in the Petite Department herself, continued. “Yes, your daughter, she make a fine shot-putter one day.”
My mother kindly changed the subject the frequent travels of Mr. Vernacchia, the preeminent concrete contractor in our New Jersey suburb. I’d ask Mr. V today why the asphalt is so hard on the knees and if anything softer is coming down the pike, but he was killed during a shoot-out involving reputed mob figures. I often wonder if his knowledge of concrete was of a different sort.
“Mommy, can I have that?” asks Jimmy as he picks a clump of cheese out of my eggs.
“You enjoy it, Sweetie.”
I have eaten my entire breakfast while reflecting on the Vernacchias. Perhaps this unconscious eating somehow contributes to my shot-put-worthy thighs.
“Time to get up, Jimmy. We’ve got lunches to make,” I say.
“Not for Mattie,” Jimmy says.
My fifteen-year-old daughter, Mattie, who’s too cool to brown-bag it, makes a show these days of how little she eats, hoping the boys will wonder what sustains her. I don’t worry about it. She’s already as tall as me, and will eventually fill out - but Mrs. Klaussner would be so disappointed in her bird-like thighs.
“Mom, have you seen my pink high-tops?” asks Lisa, my fashionable, tomboy, ten-year-old.
“In the laundry room.”
I force myself out of bed. Is that a new ache in my leg? CRACK-CRACK. Has that second crack in my knee always been there? Welcome to my birthday paranoia. When I turned twenty, I was certain I woke up with an A-cup rather than my usual B. I’m still not sure. Thirty? I was convinced my feet had grown a size. They had. Today? I must be experiencing a sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis.
“Oh yeah, happy birthday, Mom! Hope you’re tight with that forty Shiite,” tomboy Lisa says.
Was I just wished some sort of traditional Middle Eastern birthday greeting? I never know what Lisa is talking about. She’s taken to using curse words, but changing them to acceptable words. How do I discipline her for saying Shiite, shittah or fucose when she claims they’re Social Studies, Biblical, and Science words? I could get her on context, but I’ve learned to pick my battles.
I make it to the shower. Now, onto the big stuff.
Today kicks off the tackling of my chunneling list. The one I made after my jog last week. I had nearly lunged myself in front of an SUV at the thought of turning forty. The approaching Expedition practically yelled to me, “Come on, make my day.” And that’s when it hit me. Look at Clint Eastwood. The man accomplished more before forty than most people do in a lifetime, but then he went on to accomplish even more for the next 35 years. Sure, I’ve achieved the American dream - a handsome husband, four kids, two gas-guzzling cars, a plasma TV, and junk food galore. But what obstacles have I overcome? When did I last challenge myself? When did I last chunnel through life like I chunnel through a half-gallon of ice cream, grapefruit spoon in hand, in search of all the awesome add-ins?
So I limped home - bad knees, not an SUV encounter - and grabbed a pencil and paper from the kitchen. My goals didn’t have to accomplish anything phenomenal. I didn’t have to save the planet or cure a major disease or even win an Oscar. I just had to do something I was scared to do. Maybe everything I was scared to do. For forty years, excuses had abounded: too pregnant, too busy, too lazy. But with Jimmy in kindergarten this year, those six free hours would present themselves to me like a wake-up slap. And so I’d made my chunneling list:
1. Become an Aerobics Instructor: Bad experiences in middle school gym class had left me with something to prove.
2. Learn Blues Piano and Play in Public: I quit piano at age 12, after a recital trauma. But blues music puts me in a euphoric state of mind (go figure) and damn it, I want to play like Ray Charles.
3. Be a Bartender: Silly, I know, but it’s the one job I wanted in college that my parents forbade. Everyone’s allowed one ignoble goal.
4. Coach High School Track: For only positive reasons. The voice of Coach Sweeney, who I can still hear when I’m pushing hard up a hill, or resisting the urge to stick out my thumb and hitchhike home. Mr. Sweeney wouldn’t let me quit. He provided the one positive affirmation of exercise I ever received. If not for him, I’d never have braved my first aerobics class years ago. In appreciation, I will implant my grating voice into a whole team of youngsters for eternity.
5. Act in a play: This is the most scary to me. Plain “out there.” But I’m sure when someone told Clint he had to become a major movie star with less than 50 words of dialogue per movie, he got scared, too.
The aerobics instructor training course starts today. Whoa, what was that? My stomach just flipped. Forget the flip; it did a 540. And you know what? It feels good to finally be nervous about something again.