by Sara Lukinson

It happened the afternoon I went shopping for something new to wear on my trip to Italy.

I was in the shoe store, trying on sandals with ever wider straps, when I started to laugh out loud. The laugh came from a place deep inside, unconnected to the woman in the mirror. I wasn’t clear who she was and exactly when she had started following me around.

“Don’t look in the mirror others hold up,” said the French actress and director Jeanne Moreau when she entered her 50s. Perhaps that is why she walked with such a strut.

Let’s be honest here: As I enter my late 50s, I can’t just slip into any old sundress and turn out yummy as a Creamsicle. I haven’t lost my vanity, but I’ve realized that the farther I back away from watching others watch me (or even me watching me), the better I’m getting at living inside my own skin. Was this what it meant to be free? Could advancing years be humming a song of self-acceptance? “Sing out, Louise!

No longer a girl who sways down the street attracting whistles, or who bothers to try on low rise jeans, I was released from that job description and was about to see Italy through a new set of eyes. Being free meant it was up to me to determine the kind of companion I would be.

I walked out of the store with a pair of comfy sneakers and began planning my trip. I versed myself in Caravaggio and gelato flavors, poured over a map of Umbria, made a list of small restaurants and packed Lactaid pills along with two extra pair of reading glasses.

Two decades ago, I didn’t pack much more than sandals and big sunglasses. I looked up a friend’s friend, Marco, a suave Italian businessman who easily seduced me with his accent, his cashmere scarf and the way he ordered Montepulciano wine. A man whose joy of the hunt far exceeded his desire to savor the catch (me). His housekeeper took pity and invited me to spend the weekend with her family in Bellagio — farmers who spoke no English, and whose pasta and patience I will never forget.

Once I would have been embarrassed by that experience; now I think of it as my Italian history. Memories packed into my suitcase along with washable underwear and calcium supplements. Having stories to tell — isn’t that something else that getting older gives you?

My 86-year-old aunt, who despite the onset of blindness still lights up when you walk in the room, said she felt a release at getting older: “You come to peace with who you are, what you do and how you do it. When you can no longer wear smart heels or put on eyeliner, or attain the position you assumed you once would, you don’t fall into a heap like a teenager over the calamity. You learn to compensate. To work with what you have. I’d look prettier with eye make-up, but I don’t feel diminished by the lack of it. Let yourself be. And get on with it.”

With her minimal vanity and maximum radiance, my aunt broke through the imprecision of my feelings and unlocked the truth. I discovered that the more my younger, greener self tried to call me back to some spandex version of who I’d been, the more she held me back. I looked the way a woman of middle years should look when everything I have known, done, reached for, cried over, loved and lost can be read — partly in my face, and completely in my responses.

In youth, we cry over each misstep as a tragedy, an unsustainable blow. The years pass, and if you’re worth anything, you get up, and you make your way. Another way. You survive the rains, the floods and the losses: the softness of your skin, your dress size, the assumption of your ambitions. The disappearance of love. What I had not expected was the power of what came next.

I can walk in as myself. I no longer cover my insecurity with a puffed-up presentation that might impress the room. I’ve stopped trying to prove myself and feel free to be who I am.

Now I can admit I was bored with “Sex and the City” (and never much cared for Barbie dolls). Sex, for a woman of a certain age, is no longer about the flaunting of her libido, or the dolled-up dictates of her hormones, but about the softness of the arms that enfold her before falling asleep — and the size of a man’s sense of humor. I’m with Anne Bancroft who said the reason for her long marriage to Mel Brooks was that he made her laugh.

Oh, to relish the deep pleasures of friendship — those life-line attachments where you can appear foolish without losing face, and be reminded of your good qualities and teased about everything else. Where you confide your irresolvable questions and are told when to stop letting them get in your way. My relationship with my friends, and especially my sister, is not a way station between lovers, but a communion between souls that is both a joy and a means of survival.

Many lives are filled with double binds, and we do the best we can before we throw our hands up and go on. The same goes for finding something flattering to wear.

I had to learn early to be self-sufficient, to change light bulbs and refinance a mortgage. What once struck me as burden — and a disappointment — has turned into pride. Now, I pay for the life I lead, and my slowly built bank account offers me peace of mind and a ticket to Italy.

As I pack for this trip, I remember another trip to Italy 25 years ago that my sister and I took with our mother to celebrate the end of her chemotherapy. How she devoured the mozzarella on the steps of the piazza, and how deeply she settled into her chair at the café, the passing parade every bit as sumptuous to her as another Raphael.

Her brush with death, this living on borrowed time, had not made her cower or bitter, but instead bestowed a confidence she lacked in her younger self, an unwillingness to waste time in trivialities, a radar for the essentials. She let go of her old bugaboos, self-doubt and regret. Instead of becoming more fragile, she discovered new strengths, looking out at life through her own eyes.

Four years later, knowing these were the last days of her life, she told my sister and me, “You must celebrate life. If I haven’t taught you that, I haven’t taught you anything. It is the thing of greatest value I can leave you.”

One more thing she advised: Memories never lose value; make as many as you can.

Along with my pants with an elastic waist, I am bringing a will to remember that every day brings the chance to find something to celebrate. Perhaps that is all that free will can ever be about.

I’ll still feel a pang of jealousy when all eyes turn toward the svelte young woman dashing across the Spanish Steps. But it will pass. There are hill towns to see and bowls of pasta to savor. I hope to walk for miles, swaying as I whistle at the wonder of it all.

Sara Lukinson is an Emmy-award-winning writer and producer of arts documentaries, and television specials. She reports that when she arrived in Italy, she saw women of all ages wearing gold tennis shoes. She knew at that moment it would be a terrific trip.

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  • Creel McCormack July 9, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    I’m awed by the insights shared on this site and the lovely prose. Wish I could write like like this but grateful for others like Sara and Laura who do it for us all! Strap on those sequened sneakers.

  • Women Health Zone July 6, 2007 at 6:48 am

    What an excellent essay by Sara, I enjoyed each and every words of her. How nicely she told us to celebrate life. This is awesome.

  • laura July 5, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    I love the personal essays on this site. Thank you for sharing yours!

  • Laura Baudo July 5, 2007 at 11:11 am

    This is so beautifully written, so brave and so true that I wanted to cry. So many of Sara’s insights could be made into affirmation cards for us to refer to when we are having trouble remembering just how wonderful this time of life really is!