I was going to title this “growing older,” but I decided to be honest. I’ll be fifty-nine this year and, though I’m not yet decrepit, by most people’s measures I’ll officially be old next year.
That has come as a surprise to me. In spite of the pills that I take every morning for some of the natural signs of aging and in spite of the fact that my birth year isn’t among the first to pop up when I’m signing up for something on the internet, I rarely feel old. I have difficulty recognizing the person I see in the mirror when I step out of the shower. Equally, when I shave I find myself looking at someone with more bumps and crevices than I think I should have. Though, of course, I know that I’m seeing myself in the mirror, in neither case does it look like meâ€”or, what is most often true, I don’t see the age in my body and face. Instead, I look past what I see to myself thirty years ago.
Nevertheless, many things have begun to make me more aware of my actual age; it and my felt age are starting to come closer together. More and more often my most recent face and body are the me that I recognize. Former students are now established colleagues. Students in my classes are deferential to me in a way they never were thirty years ago, often uncomfortably deferential. No one yet is taking a class from me because her grandfather did and recommended it, but a number of former students are now grandparents. I not only have no clue what is currently popular in music, I don’t feel bad that I don’t. However, students confuse my taste for traditional and folk music with a taste for “country” music! (How little they know.) The history I find it natural to refer to, events of the sixties and early seventies, for example, are either unknown or ancient history to my students, so I sometimes find myself bereft of historical examples to illustrate points in class. I have friends who have retired or are thinking about it, and people sometimes ask whether I’m thinking about retirement. (Not yet. What would I do?) Over time my marriage has become so natural that I cannot remember what it was like not to be married to Janiceâ€”nor can I imagine life without her (though almost certainly one of us will live that life, probably her). I’m more comfortable than ever with the person I am and with not being what some others think I am or ought to be, a comfort which is another a sign that I am beginning to recognize, as part of my natural attitude towards things, how old I am.
Perhaps what has made me most often cognizant of my actual age is my family. The older I get, the closer I feel to them and the more I enjoy them. I’ve mentioned Janice. In our relationship I have begun to understand what it means for two persons to be one. And, of course, there are also our children. It goes without saying that I’ve always loved them, but the pleasure I find in them and my grandchildren now is greater than and different in quality than the pleasure I found in them while they were growing up. We are not “best friends,” thank goodness. But neither am I a father in anything like the way that I used to be; I cannot imagine forbidding one of them to do something. We enjoy being together for Sunday dinners and holidays. I can talkâ€”and jokeâ€”with each of them in ways that I can talk with no one outside the family.
Seeing our children succeed makes me commit the sin of pride. So does seeing those who are parents be such better parents than I was (and occasionally it shames me). Each of the children is interesting and accomplished in his or her own right. Each is a version of the person I should have been, and in being that, each makes me more than I would otherwise have been. My being, and if I dare say so, the rightness of my life, is increased by their being and the rightness of theirs. If love is what I have felt for my wife and children since the beginning, I wonder what to call what I now experience.
So, I think I am beginning to understand the scriptural teachings about families and children. Whatever the social and economic truths about ancient biblical and Book of Mormon societies, having children is not just about having someone to run the farm or herd the sheep in our old age. It is about entering into a sociality that is different than any other kind and that models what heavenly sociality is like. Whatever the variations that theme has taken over the last almost two hundred years, it was at the heart of what was restored through Joseph Smith and it remains there.
When family goes wrong, as it does for far too many people, perhaps nothing is worse than its sociality. But when it goes right, nothing brings us closer to our possible divinity. Age makes me see that sociality, makes me grateful for it, and makes me grateful for the sealing power which makes it permanent. Coming to know these things makes me grateful for age.