My mother was 36 when she married in March 1946, three months after meeting my 39-year-old bachelor father at a condolence call in Brookline. Yet when I, as a little girl, asked how old she’d been when she married, her answer was “twenty-three.” Since my father’s chronology was an open book — born in Lynn in 1907, graduated from college in 1929 — I spent most of my early life thinking he’d married a much younger woman.
After he died, in 1993, my mother moved from Lowell to Northampton, where I lived. Somewhere along the Mass. Pike, she opened a folder containing her medical records. Without saying it aloud, lest my husband and son in the front seat hear, she pointed to “Date of birth” — 1909. “I thought you should know,” she whispered to me, her new health-care proxy.
She lived to 88. Her best buddy at the retirement community was 90 and proud of it, but that didn’t embolden my mother to confide her own age. If asked, she’d only smile. My husband, a plain-speaking doctor, didn’t get it. He once asked me, “Shouldn’t she be proud of being eighty-something, rather than have people think she’s the world’s worst-preserved 70-year-old?”
Apparently not. I asked my sister about the subterfuge. We agreed: It had to be generational; the asking was rude and the telling unnecessary. We counted among the perjurers both of our mothers-in-law. It seemed to them, we reasoned, that once a woman passed 30, her age was not only a secret but also shameful. After all, we’d never celebrated our mother’s big birthdays, not 50, 60, 70, or 80. Presents yes, but no countable candles on the cakes.
My sister’s mother-in-law never divulged her age until she turned 100, and she liked the attention that milestone brought. Though my mother-in-law let us note her alleged 90th birthday, we learned two years later, at her death, that she was three months shy of 100. Once she reported to me that a woman at her assisted living complex, upon hearing that they’d attended the same college, had asked excitedly, “When? I went there, too!”
My mother-in-law’s takeaway: Rude! Sneaky! Nothing but a trick question to determine her age!
Though she employed the nice round birthdate of 1920 when one was required, such as at the doctor’s office, I was suspect. If I needed proof, I got it when a meeting a niece of hers for the first time. To her question, “How’s Aunt Elsie?” I answered, “Fine! She’s going to be 87 in August!”
“But my father’s 87,” said the niece, referring to the baby brother in that family. When I ran this testimony by my husband and his cousins, proof that middle sister Elsie couldn’t be the same age as her baby brother, they said I had to be wrong. If Elsie was ninety-something, she’d be older than her two older sisters.
She wasn’t. I now know that all three sisters were in on the coverup: Minna, Edith, and Elsie had edited their own histories to make the whole glamorous, red-headed crew younger.
As for my mother, I believe that her lying about her age was a way to deduct the dozen years during which she felt unclaimed, even pitied — the unmarried middle child, the maid of honor at her younger brother’s wedding, the bachelorette aunt in an era when such a designation had no cachet.
She was 40 when she had me in October 1950, six weeks before her 41st birthday. But next to “Mother’s age,” she’d written “34.”
Could I at some point have made a case for truth-telling? I might’ve said, “You always felt young, and that’s what counted.” Then, to drive the point home, I could’ve quoted Carl Yastrzemski, now 82, who told The New York Times that he still felt like his 26-year-old self on the inside. Didn’t we all? Yes, that could’ve been the clincher — pointing out that she, just like Yaz, felt younger than the 40, 50, 60, 70, or 80 that was posted on life’s scoreboard. It might’ve done the trick. She was smart and always reasonable. And she so dearly loved the Sox.
Elinor Lipman’s 14th novel, “Ms. Demeanor,” will be published next year.