Recently I read an endearing love story about two older people who found meaningful companionship late in life, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” by Eve Pell for the New York Times.
The lovers in this story were not beautiful middle-aged movie stars. She was in her 70s and him in his 80s with rich histories when they married, after two years of dating. They shared a love of ‘running,’ among other things, and the wisdom in this memoir spilled out in a kind of realistic fairytale fashion; even death was tender and triumphant. It gave me a hopefulness that more love is always possible even as I age, but also a faint recollection of my youthful days of ‘running’ crept into my thoughts. I remember that free-spirited time before the limits of self-consciousness stopped me, when I could run like the wind without any thought of physical damage or being ‘too old’ to run. Like love, it was empowering, and it was mine, and on so many levels, it seems to be gone.
Mid-life has made me come face to face with so many truths and untruths. Decisions and actions seem more urgent; there is no more time left to waste. One of the realities that I have grappled with for years is my addiction to eating. Food has nourished my mental ups and downs, soothed and satisfied, but has also numbed me into believing I don’t have the right or ability to fill myself with other, more meaningful things. Throw ‘age’ into the mix and easily gained weight, and what used to calm and excite, now is just my death sentence. With mid-life also comes self-examination. I can remember exactly where love shifted and when my hunger to run, to move, to feel strong turned to that base hunger that we all understand; to eating.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was long-legged and awkward, but the fastest ‘girl’ runner in my grade at Wellington Elementary in Roseville, Michigan. As it was Bob Nichols, the fastest boy in my class, was my heart’s desire. I can’t recall what I liked about Bob, except that he was tall and relatively good looking. Lots of girls liked him. I suppose he was the most popular boy in the sixth grade and normally wouldn’t have looked up from the slushy pea-gravel of the school yard to take a second look at a nervous girl with blue winged-tip glasses like me, but he did. I kind of felt like maybe we were connecting through our love of racing. Every day that year at recess, we flirted in a competitive way and threaten to race each other. I couldn’t hold my body up long enough to swing one arm passed the other on the monkey-bars, the merry-go-round made me puck, and let’s not even talk about climbing the dreaded ‘rope,’ but I was a swift runner. As long as I kept running, I had this ‘thing’ with him, this undivided attention; it was motivating. At last, one muddy spring day, it happened. We were all happy to be out of our boots and jackets, the air was sweet with lilacs and budding trees, and a race was planned. All the sixth graders gathered in a long line just past the metal playground equipment, and I was at the starting line with Bob, my dreamboat. I really wanted to make-out with him, but I raced him instead.
Bob was the favorite, so I knew the crowd was cheering for him as it increased in volume and excitement. I had a couple of die-hard girlfriends giving me encouraging yelps, both as unpopular and awkward as myself. I was so consumed with impressing Bob, that I really don’t remember much of the race. I just ran, flush-faced and lacking in technique, the noise of our cheering classmates was deafening and with a sort of tunnel vision, all I could see was the finish line. I won, just by an arm’s length, but that was enough. The roar of the crowd died down to a hush as I crossed the finish line. It was clear no one wanted me to win. Bob was comforted by a group of future cheerleaders on the side lines as he walked away defeated. After that fatal show of physical prowess (on my part) he never really talked to me again. The sixth grade lingered on with sleepy algebraic mornings and long lecturing afternoons until we were all off to our summers and separate middle schools. I never saw Bob again. We moved away at the end of my seventh grade year, and though that day would not be my only lesson in the fragility of the male ego, it was certainly the first. I was just happy to go home and have my after school treat of crackers and sweet milky tea.
I loved to run probably as much as any kid. I didn’t think much of it or that I would ever lose the initiative to start moving my body down a road at a faster and faster pace. I also liked to dance and ride my bike; I had no great passion for the sport of running. But, I did enjoy the thrill of the race, the competition, and the win.
As it turned out, I was to play out this same scene again on a different scale a little more than a year later. My grandpa belonged to one of those male fraternity lodges; you know where secret handshakes, pledges, and the wearing of some type of hat with horns was the rule of the club. It was the Elks Club, I believe, and every year they had a summer picnic somewhere off 12 Mile Road where the city seemed to turn into country, though I would discover that too was an illusion of childhood. I always looked forward to that annual picnic as a child. Mostly, for the food and games, but not so much the hanging around in the sweltering July heat waiting for my parents to pack us all up in the station wagon for the sleepy drive home.
That summer it would be different. We were moving, and I was about to enter the eighth grade. I was shedding the things of childhood, coming of age, budding and rosy-lipped, and walking with more of a sway than I did the summer before. I could feel desire well-up in me by just the thought of meeting ‘a boy’ at the picnic. The anticipation made me come alive with confidence. Though I was only about 13 years-old, in my mind I was very much a woman and anxious to experience the kind of great love I had witnessed in the movies. Certainly the possibility of love would be there somewhere between the bowls of potato salad and baked beans.
After the usual unpacking of all of us out of the car (always a little disheveling and embarrassing), I glided through the picnic tables filled with older people; saggy-armed women in halter tops, with that familiar drawn-on eye-brow arch, bright orange lipstick smiles and compliments, “Oh, Archie, look at these beautiful Currie girls,” they would assure my bent-over Grandpa that, somehow, he done good. The older men in their tilted summer hats and seersucker shirts had a need to kiss us young girls and would grab our arms for the lean-in; a tight hold around the waist locked us into those beer-breath kisses. I generally liked the attention and seemed to understand my purpose in their sinking old eyes. Something about me made them happy, and I was okay with that.
But I had boys on my mind, not old men. Disenchanted with what seemed like too many eight-years-old running around, I finally found them, him, hanging out by the icy barrels of pop. Sandy-blond hair, tall, lean, and tan; he was the one. I somehow got around to talking to him in that stupid teen way, flirting with cut-downs and a lot of flipping of the hair while looking at my shoes. As the day moved on, hotter and sunnier than my languishing-self liked, the sweat trickled down our temples and backs like the perspiration on those icy bottles of Orange Crush and Frosty Root Beer that we held onto for dear life; the tension was building while we were wilting. Just when the other kids were starting to run for food or games, and he and I were standing alone able to ‘talk,’ we were distracted by the announcement of the races! Among the usual games of the times, the three-legged race, potato-sack race, and water balloon throwing, a ‘real’ race (at least in my mind) was planned. A 50 yard dash between the girls of my own age, and the boys of the same age, and then, of course, the winners would race each other.
I couldn’t wait for the races to begin. I had still been basking in the glory of my sixth grade win (even without the trophy boy Bob), and had found myself running everywhere down city streets and through the corner fields, racing my sisters (all faster than me and seemly more athletic) and, of course, to school with books and instrument in hand. I played basketball at school, by necessity in a basketball family, but hated the up and down run of the court, never really getting anywhere except out of breath. I just couldn’t wait to race across an open field again.
It was an easy win with the girls my age. The other girls were all too self-conscious and plumping out; I dashed passed them in my petal-pushers and ‘five and dime’ tennis shoes leaving them covered in dust. When the boys lined up, I was not surprised to see my favorite picnic boy at the starting line. I secretly rooted for him, as if he were already my ‘boyfriend,’ and my little whispers of love could be heard in his ears as he flew by the other boys. He won to all the clapping hands of the young parents with cigarettes dangling from their lips and the rowdy old men leaning against the make shift bars, with shout outs like, “That’a boy! Yep, that’s John son, you know, fine athlete!” We were all so happy for him, and I beamed with adoration for my new hero. But then, it hit me. I had been here before. I was faced with racing a boy I liked and knew how badly that could turn out for my chances at romance.
I shook it off, as good athletes do. My father was a high school coach and spent most of his adult life training his girls on eye-hand coordination and focus. ‘You have to want it,” I could hear him saying, “be hungry for it!” I was running to win, boy or not, and my hope was that he would like me for my spirit. He stood closer to me now than he had all day, and I can smell his sweet boy sweat and the Bazooka bubble gum that he snapped back behind his confident grin. His hair was wet against the back of his neck, muscles pulsating, eyes dancing with eagerness; he was engaging. But my eyes then turned to the finish line and a look down at those shoes. No one had ‘running shoes’ back then, and my little pink plaid footwear would not be my obstacle, nor would my romantic heart.
In seconds we were off! The force of desire shot me off the starting line with a boldness I’d never known before, and I don’t recall looking back, where apparently I left him. This time the cheering continued, in full force, even though the girl beat the boy. My father and mother were elated with my win, and that acceptance alone could keep me going for years. My sisters were jumping up and down with their pony-tails flying in the air, my little brother was clutching my leg; I had won and made the family proud at my grandpa’s picnic. I was full of myself, my own racing heart and strong muscles; I would never forget that feeling.
The boy as sweet as could be, congratulated me and then said he had to leave, with a sad smile. For a brief moment, there was almost a touch, maybe a hug or a sweep of a kiss on the cheek, but his parents called to him to get in the car! I was crushed. As I watched him walk away my heart sank to my stomach, like a girl who would never see her once-in-a-life-time love again. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, that we could do it again and maybe this time he would win. The moment of glory and love was all too brief, too good to end. It didn’t matter. I was thirteen and no one really cared. The Elks Club gave me a doll for winning, which totally confused and embarrassed me. Graciously, though, I held on to it like a grand prize. I still have the doll, a little Barbie look-alike with blond hair in a blue gingham dress. She sits on a shelf among my childhood relics, along with my roller skate key, a well-loved stuffed animal, some yellowing paper dolls, and painted rocks with the words ‘love’ and ‘peace’ in psychedelic colors from a time when youth was on my side.
I walked away with my doll toward a large pavilion that was being prepared for some other event. “Don’t go far,” I heard my mom yell, surprised that she let me walk away alone. I wandered into the log structure which, at the time, seemed like a grand hall where over a huge stone fireplace hung the noble head of an Elk. Food was being prepared somewhere and it occurred to me that I was hungry, very hungry. In the center of the dance floor stood three large whiskey barrels that had just been filled with fresh potato chips.
As in a dream, I walk slowly up to one barrel and was overwhelmed by the aroma of salt and freshly fried potatoes. I almost fainted with desire. It was a smell, a taste that I would always yearn for from that day on. I ate one, than two, and before long I was consuming as many chips as I could before anyone could stop me. They filled me up, and yet I hungered for more. My desire to win the race and the boy faded away, leaving only my desire to eat as much as I could. There in that spot, on that sweltering July day with my cheap doll held tight in my armpit and the marble eyes of the dead Elk watching me; love shifted from physical strength, the roaring crowds of approval, and the hope for love…to food.
I don’t recall ever running a race after that day. I grew breast and hips and suddenly my need to pull my hair back in a ponytail and run to win seemed to melt away as summer yields to fall. I plumped out like the rest of the girls my age, not grossly, but nicely round and rosy, soft and inviting and food would feed my fantasies and idle hours. I would run home through the woods, across the little wooden bridge and football fields for the chocolate cake that sat on the counter and my mother’s gravy-laden dinners. Even when I was dating, it was the restaurants dinner that thrilled me most about the date. Food was safe and it satisfied my hungers, all of them, while love and boys always seemed to dash away in time. Dreams seemed unreachable, but food was just a vending machine away. Food became all things loving for the rest of my life. Though not denied love and romance, education and success, food played a vital part in every celebration and long struggle, satisfied the emptiness of lonely nights and was a reason to get up in the morning when there seemed no other. We all eat, and must, so preparing meals and homemade warmth became a ritual for me, an expression of love, and a way to nurture others. I’d drive home from work and see other mothers running with their headphones in, sweating, panting, and I could not relate to what I perceived as misplaced priorities. I was planning dinner in my head, finding comfort just in the thought of the aroma filling the kitchen. To this day, a dish of something delicious is my extension of love.
When the narrator of the love story I read spoke of running with her 80 year old husband, at first my forehead furled. “Oh my, that must be hard on their joints,” I questioned. But, this was a story about second, no third chances. It was about living and loving life to the fullest, right to the very end. Grace and kindness were not only present in this love story, but so was the thrill of the race and a yielding to those innate desires we all have no matter how old or heavy we get. It suggest that we can all still listen to that inner aching to return to some kind of simple pleasure, like running down a road, through a field, to home when the street lights come on, and to our heart no matter where it pulls us.
I ran today, for the first time in maybe 30 years. Walking I have done, but when I lifted my knees and feet today to go faster something pushed me just a little harder, a faint remembrance, like a will to keep heading for the finish line, to win the race, to jump the hurdles of time and misplaced love, and just to let go of the fear and the food; love shifted back to that thirteen year old girl.
Whether I win the trophy or not, I feel inspired by this story to leap confidently back into physically moving, to get uncomfortable, sweaty, and exhilarated again, giving me a chance to make the race sweeter as I near the final lap as that inspirational older couple did. I have a ways to go, with hopefully a little more time on my side, but the race is back on. Urgency has awakened the child in me to move again, to want to win, to feel empowered and free. Mid-life has whisper these words to me, “It’s time,” and THAT reality has been getting louder every day. I will never run the way I did when I was a teenager, but I do feel the hunger again, hear my late-father’s words, “You have to want it,” knowing now some 40 years later, it’s not food that I want, it myself….rosy-lipped with swaying hips…as I navigate into late-life…believing a healthier me will be sweeter and more satisfying than any food I could ever possibly consume.