It’s Saturday afternoon in late summer 1969 and I’m alone with my dad, riding shotgun in his bronze Oldsmobile Delta 88. I have him to myself for this sweet bit of time (rare in our family of five kids). We’re heading out on an errand — for what I can’t remember.
Our upcoming birthdays are just 12 days apart, and I am crazy with excitement for mine. “Sixteen,” I declare, “is the best age ever. I’ll get my driver’s permit. I’ll get my ears pierced. I’ll start my job.” I was feeling rather grown up because I had been hired as an ‘usherette’ to show patrons their seats at International Hockey League games in the local arena.
“Sixteen is pretty special,” Dad agrees. “I thought so too when I was 16.”
That takes me back a moment. What was Dad like at 16? I knew he was handsome — I’d seen his high school pictures. He played basketball and football and ran around Jersey City, N.J. with a posse of pals, jumping on the subway to get into Manhattan for better fun whenever they’d like.
“But then I turned 21,” he says, “and I was sure that was the best age ever.”
This makes sense to me. Twenty-one is a true passage into adulthood. I try to imagine Dad at 21. He paints me a quick picture. “I was in the Army, but stationed in the U.S. I had met your mother and we were planning to get married. I could drink legally,” he adds with a chuckle.
He is making a good case for 21, the age he would have hit in 1950 when post-World War II life in America was percolating toward economic progress but reasserting traditional gender roles. He was too young to serve in WWII; he served as the Korean War ensued.
“But then…” he says, getting into these life reflections now, “I got to 25 and I thought ‘This is it — the best age ever.’ “
Twenty-five? In my life that’s still ages away.
“Your mom and I were married. We had a house. I had my first sales job, and” he says, “we had you.” That would make 25-something, for sure. Me and ONLY me. I completed them.
My mother and father were a golden couple back in their day, this according to my paternal grandmother. She loved to tell the story about the day my dad brought my mother home to meet his clan. No one could believe how gorgeous she was, according to family lore. “She looked like Elizabeth Taylor,” Nana always recalled, and pictures prove her correct. My mother was a dark-haired, green-eyed stunner. My father was blue-eyed, Kennedy-esque handsome.
With his GI Bill payment, my parents bought a little house in a suburb of the suburbs of New York City, just down the street from my grandparents, and started a 1950s family life that by the end of the decade included three children; by 1964 there were five.
That’s part of the reason my father continues, “I really thought 35 was the best age ever. Having all of you made it the best.” So much for me and only me. He is referring to the fact that his last child, his second son, was born that year, 1964.
The Olds is rolling now past stately houses along the shore of Lake Huron and the neighborhood clusters of single homes nestled together near the beach. Port Huron, Mich., is the fifth place in which I’ve lived since I was born in Kearny, N.J. As my dad’s career took flight, so did we – landing in Albany and Syracuse, N.Y., then Pittsburgh, and now this pleasant small town at the mouth of the Great Lake, about 60 miles north of Detroit.
Dad’s upcoming birthday will make him 40 and now he is telling me that 40 is surely the best age ever. The family is happy, his work is going well, and he and my mom have a large circle of friends. “Are you going to have a party?” I ask. “Of course,” he says, incredulous that there would be any doubt.
My father was a celebrator. Birthdays, anniversaries, sales goals, a good round of golf … life supplies many reasons and he seized them all. For my 24th birthday, he sent two dozen red roses to my desk at work; for my 30th he flew to San Francisco, where I had moved on my own, and took a group of my friends to a fancy dinner. Beforehand we went shopping at Gumps on Union Square so I could pick out a Waterford crystal pattern — his idea, not mine. “Best age ever,” I told him as I watched the salesperson wrap two delicate Lismore cocktail glasses.
And it was. But then 34 arrived and I had found enduring love. By 36 I had a baby daughter and a journalism job in Washington, D.C. that allowed me to thrive as a working mother. It seemed every year was the best until I was 38 and my dad died suddenly.
It was a heart attack, in his sleep, in a hotel room in Florida. He had a 7 a.m. start. When he didn’t show, his golfing buddies knew something was wrong. This was not a man who missed a tee time. Fortunately for me, I’d seen him just three months earlier when he and my stepmom had come to D.C. so they could see their granddaughter, nearly 2, and celebrate our birthdays. He was 62.
It was standing room only at my father’s memorial service in Denver, where he had lived for 15 years. He was rich in people who thought he hung the moon. We grieved together the loss much too soon of a loving, lively man. I think he would have enjoyed the toasts and may even have thought: “I’m going out at 62, the best age ever.”
I just celebrated 70 — a milestone I wish he had seen — and I fully expect this to be the best age ever. But years ago, I realized that what my dad was telling me back in the Olds in August of ‘69 is that every age is the best age if you make an effort to count blessings, not grievances; if you are open to joy and generosity; and if you hold your family and friends tight.
What do YOU think is the best age ever? Let us know in the comments below.