Commentary: The things I thought when my first child turned 40

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford

Our daughter was born on a New Year’s Eve of 1978 in what then was Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Hospital.

My editor at the time, who early in the pregnancy, said “It’s good to know you’re not firing blanks,” added some other fatherly words of wisdom at the time of the birth.

In his high strung style, he said: “You got a tax deduction for the whole year. Yeah, didn’t ja know that?”

As a father of five, he knew that having kids was a get-poor-gradually scheme, not a get-rich-quick one. But his remarks gave me a brighter assessment of our family’s bottom line during those years.

There are, of course, many strange phases of parenting.

Years as a changer of diapers gave way to years of being a 24-hour fetcher of school supplies for projects that were supposed to have started weeks before but were being initiated after a dinner table conversation that included the words: “I may have something due tomorrow.”

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Then came the period when I started wearing a series of colorful T-shirts all bearing the letters ATM on them. That led up to the days when I began to see the true spirit of the Christmas season as that time time when through gift-giving, I guaranteed my children would have a higher standard of living than mine.

But this child-turning-40 deal seems the weirdest thing yet.

I know my driver’s license indicates I’m 64. But I’ve watched enough Jason Bourne movies to know how easily IDs can be altered. And, taking for gospel the notion that you’re only as old as you think you are, I firmly believe that I’m somewhere between 45 and 47.

Given our daughter’s current age, this raises practical questions almost as complex as those attending to the immaculate conception.

One of them is, given that the gap between our ages was 24 years when she was born, how has she managed to narrow the gap?

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Spookier to me is the prospect that, in a few short years, first she, then our son, will be older than I think I am.

What happens then? Will I have to become their IT department and show them how to use their cell phones?

And what will I get them for Christmas? Old people are hard to shop for.

How will I talk with them about giving up driving?

And what should I say if my son buys an awful toupee, keeps wearing white pants with pleats on the front and announces that he’s marrying a woman half his age?

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It’s at times like this that ritual can help us find order in life.

So, for our daughter’s 40th birthday, I observed and renewed a ritual begun 24 years ago when my wife turned 40. That day, the sister who is two years younger than she is called on the phone and, without saying hello, played a recording of the beloved song “The old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be.”

But because it’s my daughter, a person who holds a special place in my heart, I decided to personalize this gift this year. Instead of playing a recorded version, I went for a live performance with one slight variation of the lyrics and special emphasis on the changed word.

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And so, without announcing who I was, I called and sang:

The old gray mare just

HAIN’T what she used to be,

HAIN’T what she used to be,

HAIN’T what she used to be.

The old gray mare just

HAIN’T what she used to be, Many long years ago.

I love you, my girl – no matter how old you get.