Let Yourself Go: Lessons I Learned As a Middle Aged Parent
Columnist Lori Jakiela reflects on being a parent in her 40s and 50s, roller skating, the power of the Village People and other insensible joys.
One mid-pandemic day, because I love my daughter and because I have what my mother said is the common sense of a doorknob, I found myself sprawled on a tennis court trying not to pass out.
I’d never broken a bone before, mostly because I’m not athletic. The only sport I’ve ever been competent at is tennis — though my high school tennis coach, a middle-aged man built like a pork chop but a gazelle on the court, would disagree.
This is not about tennis.
Phelan and I decided to take up roller skating during the pandemic, even though all the rinks were shuttered, because we could do it outside.
I prided myself on my skate skills, forged in 20th-century Pittsburgh — those decades of pink-satin bomber jackets, sweaty-palmed couple’s skates, and the dreaded limbo. I was excited to show off for my daughter. Phe was excited to get a hot pair of skates like ones she saw on TikTok.
As you read this, I will be in the final year of my 50s. I should not dance on wheels or know who’s rolling on TikTok. But such is middle-aged parenting.
“I don’t want kids to think you have an old woman for a mother,” my mother, who adopted me when she was 40, would say.
My mother dyed her hair until she was 70. She wore lipstick, a forever-young shade called Flamingo Pink.
“Don’t let yourself go,” she’d say about appearances, and I’d say, “Go where?”
I was an only child. For years my mother was my playmate. We played badminton and dressed in matching cat costumes for Halloween.
“Sensible things,” my mother, a nurse who knew the dangers of wheels, would say.
I was 36 when I had my son, 40 when I had Phe. Sometimes I’m self-conscious about my late start at parenting and worry how my kids feel about it.
“I don’t want you to die!” Phe said years ago. We were having Boston Market mac and cheese, her favorite. We hadn’t been talking about mortality.
I kissed my daughter, wiped her sudden tears, and assured her I could never die and leave behind such delicious mac and cheese.
Growing up, I worried my parents would die at any second, so I told them I loved them a lot. How’s the weather? I love you. Pass the salt, please, I love you. I wanted “I love you” to be the last thing they heard before they died.
“So. Creepy,” my mother said, and figured it had something to do with adoption.
But the skates.
One perfect, blue-skied day, my daughter — sick of online everything — slumped and sighed.
“Can’t we do something?” She stretched the syllables for miles.
Phelan’s skates sat in a corner, all siren-song and longing. My yogi friend sometimes took her skates for a spin on tennis courts. There was a tennis court nearby — cracked asphalt, nets that seemed gnawed by sharks, mostly abandoned.
So we packed our skates and a portable speaker. I made a playlist — The Gap Band, the Bee Gees. If you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, you know.
The tennis courts were, as expected, empty. The Gap Band dropped a bomb. Phe clung to the fencing, then found her skate legs. I did, too. I did one lap, then another. I felt graceful, skating to memories — my first French kiss, raspberry Icee on my tongue, that swoosh of satin, the possibility of possibility.
Then I hit a crack. And went down hard.
The pain in my wrist was slow, then not. I looked at Phe, wheeling around the court. I didn’t want to ruin things.
I told her to keep skating.
I’d be fine.
It’s been two years now. The metal plate in my arm, I know from X-rays, is the size of a dinner fork. A friend reminded me that, when I’m cremated, the plate will be left simmering in the ashes.
It’s such a big piece of metal. Something worth saving, maybe.
“So. Creepy,” my mother would say.
When my mother died, I found wadded-up tissues in her makeup drawer, imprints of her pink kisses on them.
I love my daughter. I want to believe we will go on forever, which may be why I recently decided to unearth our skates and head to Eden Park in McKeesport, my first roller rink, my daughter’s first roller rink.
Inside the Eden Park entrance there are signs: “Skate at Your Own Risk.” “Insurance DOES NOT Cover Injury.”
Upstairs, the rink looks the same. A birthday party is going down. Kids trying to cha-cha slide, hollow-eyed parents trying to hold them up like lifeguards doing their best to not drown with the drowning.
I lace my skates, stand up and hold on to whatever I can. Phelan stays behind me, saying encouraging things like, “You’ve got this, sweetie,” and “You’re doing great, sweetie!”
At some point in this living, parents and children switch places, but it’s too soon for that. Still, the way my daughter calls me sweetie hits my heart.
My knees wobble but soon I’m flying, dodging downed kids, a human pinball zigging this way and that. When we take a break, Phelan says, “I saw you! You looked young, like another version of yourself.”
It’s simple magic.
“You go around in a circle and forget your troubles,” says Sherri Mellon, 50, whose family has owned Eden Park for decades. “You become a child again. You feel free. Where else can you find that now?”
Phe is 18. She does a few laps. I sit and watch and try to freeze this moment for when I’ll need it later.
This is, of course, about time, its strange and terrible and lovely passing.
I start to unlace my skates, but then the first notes of the Village People’s “YMCA” come on. I lace back up. Then I go down hard.
Phe shouts, “Mom, no!” A group of birthday kids gathers around. One girl, hands on her cheeks, gasps.
I’m fine. I am.
I get up.
Even though I’ll feel it later, I go around, side by side with my almost-grown daughter, laughing, our arms over our heads spelling out letters to a song we know by heart.
Let Yourself Go is a quarterly essay series by Lori Jakiela. Her latest book, “They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So,” will be published by Atticus Books this spring.