“You’ll have to use your imagination,” our real estate agent said as she unlocked the front door of a mint green, vinyl-sided house on a quiet street in northern New Jersey.
The first floor was an explosion of shag carpet and paisley wallpaper lit with freezer-aisle fluorescence. Bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets were held together with duct tape. Two bedrooms had asbestos tile flooring. There were puddles in the basement and wires poking from walls. The draft from the windows was strong enough to sway a ponytail.
I took a quick look around and said, “It’s perfect.”
My husband — who loves a good argument and wasn’t sold on moving from the city to the suburbs — miraculously agreed.
Eighteen years later, we’ve raised three kids in this house. We’ve shelled out untold amounts of money to painters, roofers, plumbers, electricians, tree guys, chimney guys, pest experts and a contractor who recommended knocking the place down and starting over. We’ve never regretted our decision. (Actually, rabid bats in the chimney were almost my husband’s undoing, but that’s another story.)
The clincher wasn’t the oak tree shading the backyard or the window seat with a secret compartment in its bench. It was the front porch.
While the rest of our house sagged, splintered and leaked, groaning under a century’s accumulation of wear and tear, the porch was stalwart and elegant. It showed its age; it had withstood generations of foot traffic, holiday decorations, carpenter bees and sun. But if you looked past a squishy rectangle of plywood tacked to the floorboards, there was an abiding sense of calm at the top of our front steps.
The porch became the nerve center of daily life — a spot for chatting or napping; a backdrop for every first day of school photo; a vantage point for changing leaves, trick or treaters and an endless rotation of art in the windows of the elementary school across the street.
I have yet to find a better spot to relax with my husband on a drizzly Sunday (even when he gripes about the rotten railing we’ve already replaced twice). A teenager with a problem will find us here. A returning college student will settle into a faux wicker armchair before going inside to face a trio of irate pets. Occasionally, all three of our kids will sprawl together, reading, and this is as close as I’ll ever come to winning the lottery.
Still, the porch is a collection of pine and nails, a place we see so often, we barely notice it when we come home. I certainly didn’t expect it to play a starring role in the run-up to my 50th birthday — nor did I plan to turn this occasion into a referendum on anything other than cake flavors. I swore I wasn’t going to be one of those people.
But six months into my 49th year, I started pondering the meaning of life. Had I contributed anything to the world? Provided my children with an ethical framework? Been proactive about climate change? Been kind to my mother? To strangers? Was it time for another mole check? Was it wrong to buy leather shoes?
Take a newfound awareness of mortality, stir in a heaping appreciation of good fortune, a dollop of mortification and a sprinkle of levity. Serve hot.
My husband was right there with me, except cold. He started wearing cardigans just as I was trying to unload mine on daughters who said they were super cute, but no thanks. I found myself sweating on the porch during a blizzard and hanging my head out the car window like a dog. Imagine molten lava pouring through your veins from a volcano inside your scalp. Imagine your fingernails on fire.
Of course my book club had warned me about hot flashes, but I thought I was exempt, just as I thought I wouldn’t be the mother of toddlers who threw chicken nuggets on restaurant floors. Was it time to let my hair go gray? Take up pickleball? Give up wine? Return to Diet Coke? Convert? With one exception, these are meaningless questions, but their proliferation made me feel like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, frantically trying to keep up with the conveyor belt.
My husband and I got matching tattoos (our first initials, which happen to be the same). We bought out the lease on our car — not exactly a midlife crisis mobile, but still a symbolic departure from minivans of yore. His birthday rolled around four months before mine, same as always, although somehow 50 seemed closer to 19. The ladder of years had pancaked, rung by rung. One minute my husband was a friend whose party I skipped to study for a physics final; the next, he was silver haired, blowing out candles with our kids, two of whom are older than we were when we met.
This celebration turned out to be a repeat of Y2K — all anticipatory dread, no actual cause for alarm. Then I perseverated alone.
One afternoon, I was moping on the porch while a new generation of bright-eyed parents and caregivers waited for their students to burst through the school’s red doors. Another first day, another wave of kids with stiff sneakers and freshly-trimmed bangs. Through the living room window, I could see our elderly mutt with a cast on his leg, dozing beneath a hole in the ceiling. Another leak, another check made out to a plumber who said he’d never seen such convoluted pipes.
Youth on one side, age on the other — the metaphor was so obvious, I almost yawned.
Suddenly, my newly minted 11th grader bounded up the steps wearing a smile wider than the one from her first day of kindergarten. She sat next to me on the love seat even though there was plenty of other seating; she had so much to tell me! But first, how was my day? What was for dinner? Was I excited for the Taylor Swift movie? Had I heard of David Foster Wallace? Could I take her to buy another binder?
When she went inside, the smell of her shampoo lingered. Now the adults across the street were laden with backpacks and lunchboxes, bent over car seats, coaxing exhausted kids toward the playground or away from the ice cream truck.
I stretched my arms over my head, unencumbered and content.
The answers I’d been searching for were under my feet; they had been all along. Fifty isn’t the end of youth or the beginning of old age; it’s just the front porch — the threshold, outside and inside, the adolescence of adulthood (minus insecurity and Stridex pads, plus friendships you couldn’t have imagined when you were 12).
By the time you arrive, your foundation is solid and your pillars are strong. You’ve polished your sense of humor and your imagination — that ageless coat of armor, impervious to sagging, fading, bloating and weird hairs. The light here is gentle. You might be invisible to some people, but not to the ones who matter. You understand that your future is likely to be shorter than your past, and you appreciate a certain perspective on both.
I see the optimistic 32-year-old who fell for a fixer-upper; I also see the seasoned matriarch who will someday pass the keys (and the porch) to new owners. Her hair matches her husband’s: It’s snow white. She doesn’t play pickleball. As for the rest of the picture — who knows? For now, I’m just enjoying the view.