I was recently feeling down about turning 31. I couldn’t believe how quickly I’d gotten here, with my 20’s firmly in the rearview mirror and my 30’s in full swing. My 20’s were everything I’d hoped for. I spent the first year living in Italy, and the rest running amuck in New York, building a career in book publishing, meeting friends, and starting my own literary magazine with those amazing friends. I even met a dorky guy and married him, fulfilling my long-time dream to shack up with an awkward boy in glasses. My teenage self would have certainly approved, although I did spend more nights home watching Netflix than I’d like to admit (and that’s ok, because teenage me doesn’t know what Netflix is).
I entered my 20’s fully intending to conquer New York, become a professional bookworm, and make friends. And I did. It was awesome.
My 30’s weren’t looking as clear. I’d spent so much of my youth dreaming of my 20’s, I hadn’t given my 30’s any thought. That’s fine—exciting, even, since life is often more fun without a plan. But I couldn’t help feeling lost, old, and listless. So much had changed between 29 and 31. Most of my friends and I left New York, so no more impromptu beers around the kitchen table. No more squishing into our 500-square-foot-apartment for football and pizza. No more overdoing it on wine and gossip on a Wednesday night when you’re supposed to be getting work done at your friend’s apartment.
The best thing about leaving New York was the timing. Since my closest friends left the same year, I didn’t have to picture everyone carrying on in the old neighborhood without us. It was the end of an era. A chapter completed. We’d all moved on. But where did that leave me? Depressed on my 31st birthday, I guess.
I carried my pity with me all week, sulking and dwelling over how my best years were gone. I even brought it with me to my grandparents’ house that weekend, where my grandma greeted me at the door. As soon as she saw me, she started wishing me a happy birthday again. She wrapped her arms around me and got noticeably choked up. “Trentuno (thirty-one)!” She kept saying. “So young! So young! Hai tutta la vita davanti (You have your whole life ahead of you)!”
I gave a quiet smile and thanked her. I could see where she was coming from. She’s 87. Of course 31 seems young to her…she’d put in a whole 56 years between now and her 31st birthday. But didn’t she know my super-cool life—the life I’d always aspired to—was over? I was not as convinced of my youthful potential as she was.
“You know, I was trentuno when I first came to America,” she continued in her busted Itanglish.
“What?” This was news. “I thought you were, like, 20 when you moved here?”
“Oh, no—I lived a whole life in Sicilia before we moved here. I left everything behind, and I thought I was so old to be moving to America. I was 31. I was so young. And look at you—you’re so young!” I could see her drifting back to that time, her eyes glazing over as she pictured herself on the Andrea Doria with my six-year-old dad.
I’d always had this vision of a bright young mom on that boat, clutching her little boy as they take in the vast sails and overwhelming crowds that they’d never seen in Sicily. A girl in her early 20’s, not knowing much about life, but ready for the adventure ahead.
We hugged each other a little tighter. Her “So young! So young!” started sounding like a chant as she fell further into her memories.
I fished my own memory for the stories my dad and grandparents had told. As each one surfaced, its meaning shifted in this new light. I remembered hearing how Nonna and my dad spent a week on the Andrea Doria alone. How their voyage was actually the last one the ship took before it sank off the coast of Nantucket in July 1956. When they arrived, they lived in Manhattan across from the Knickerbocker Brewery for a year before Nonno joined them from Sicily. How Nonna said she practiced English with the young girl upstairs so she could help my dad with his homework. How she took the bus to Bloomingdale’s on her days off from the dress factory and shopped for clothes because it was the only store she knew how to get to.
I suppose age shouldn’t make such a difference, but the fact that she was an ancient 31—not a bright, chipper 19 or 20—shook me. I imagined myself packing up Luca and moving to a foreign country tomorrow. Putting everything behind us—our friends, family, home, language, and comforts. Literally pressing the reset button on our life, and never looking back.
My birthday woes suddenly felt very small. I realized that if I’m lucky enough to live as long as my grandmother, I still have nearly two whole 30-year lifetimes ahead of me to continue conquering this world. And even if I don’t live that long, I have a whole new life that’s just begun. I never thought I’d live in NJ again or trade in my snazzy city life, but I’m here, with my own little boy in tow, and he’s waiting for me to show him the world. We have trails to hike and oceans to grasp; laughs to share and fights to pull us apart. Now we have to drive to see our old friends rather than walk down the street. I can see it as a chance to conquer new cities, and write new stories. We’re here; everything is waiting for us.
My grandma was still holding me, recounting memories and wishing me the happiness she’d felt at my age. Then she started saying how she was so old, how her best days were behind her, and it just sounded crazy to me. I tried to tell her she’s wrong, that she’s still living an amazing life, inspiring us all each day. But she was wrapped up in memories and regrets over time that passed too quickly.
It didn’t matter that she couldn’t hear me. I knew the best way I could honor her was to make the most of what she saw in me. To understand and embrace the fact that I’m just a girl in her early 30’s, who still doesn’t know much about life, but is ready for the adventure ahead.