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SANDY BANKS

This Heart of 45 Can Flutter With the Best of Them

September 24, 2000|SANDY BANKS

The beep of a pager sounds from somewhere deep within the detritus of books and bags on my car's front seat. My daughter digs through her backpack, retrieves her pager. It is silent. She rummages through my purse for mine, pushes a button and the beeping ends.

She glances at its tiny screen, then rolls her eyes and tosses it to me. I smile even before I read its cryptic message: 143.

It's not my kids calling me this time; not the boss or the baby-sitter signaling. It's my boyfriend's declaration of love, in language borrowed from the teenagers that we seem to have become.

*

I am not yet writing our names in curlicue script, trying out a new last name, with "Mrs." preceding it. I don't have his picture taped to my locker, haven't asked for his letter sweater, won't be going with him to homecoming this fall.

But being in love seems to have cast me into a kind of time warp that sometimes has me behaving like the romance-addled 16-year-old I once was.

I find myself checking our horoscopes in the paper (he's Aries, I'm Sagittarius), running to grab the phone when it rings (thank goodness for caller ID), switching my car radio from KIIS-FM and Power 106 to those stations that play love songs all day . . . and, what's worse, singing along.

And, most disturbing to my children, usurping the kind of teenage rituals that ought to be off-limits to a mother of three. . . . Like the 1-4-3s we trade daily on our pagers. Teenage translation: I (one letter) LOVE (four) YOU (three).

My daughters have gone from mortified to mildly amused by the prospect of a mom in love. They mimic the way my voice goes all gooey when I hear his "hello" on the telephone. They humor me when I change my hairstyle or try out a new kind of perfume. . . . "So, you think he'll like you better now," they tease.

Still, it can be downright embarrassing to acknowledge that your parents are actually people, too. How humbling for a 15-year-old to tell her friends that she can't join them at the football game on Friday because she must baby-sit her little sisters. Because her mother is going out on a date.

Sometimes it's bewildering to me as well. I wonder if, at 45, I have the stamina for all the ups and downs that passion delivers. I wonder if two single parents with six kids between us can summon up the energy that being in love requires.

For years, I have watched friends navigate the rocky shoals of midlife romance. I've seen hopes dashed in heartbreak, buried by the baggage of resentful kids, angry ex-wives, financial insecurities. But I've also seen couples march starry-eyed to the altar, convinced that true love can conquer all, that romance need not be the province only of the young.

In fact, the lightning bolt of romantic love "can hit you at any age," says anthropologist Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University professor and author of "Anatomy of Love" (W.W. Norton, 1994). "And the essential elements of it never change."

That might surprise my daughters, who have known me all their lives as a mom who put them first and only. Now here I am, blowing off soccer practice for a night out dancing with my beau.

I don't know if they'd buy that adage about a happier mother being a better mother. I am often walking-on-air happy these days, but I am also less available, less totally theirs than I have been at any time in the nearly seven years since their father died.

Now our roles--mother and daughter--have been oddly reversed, the tables turned as they play custodian of emotions and desires they are still too young to understand.

"You're not wearing that to the party, are you?" says my 11-year-old, coldly surveying the short, slinky black dress I am slipping on over my strapless bra. Was it just last week I was lecturing her about the impropriety of a sixth-grader wearing lip gloss and glittery eye shadow to school?

And my teenage daughter pesters me as I lounge on the sofa, talking--again--on the telephone. "Didn't you just talk to him last night?" she fumes. "Why do you have to talk to him every day?"

I can't explain it to her, can't put words to the feelings. I wave her away. "I'll tell you later," I say.

Later, all I can tell her is that one day she'll know; one day, I won't have to explain. "Because when you fall in love, suddenly, you'll understand."

*

It makes me giggle--and makes him cringe--when I introduce him to my friends this way: "I'd like you to meet my boyfriend, Johnny." He's 30 years beyond boyhood, he says; too old to be identified by this juvenile moniker.

He is as uncomfortable as my children, it sometimes seems, with the way romance has thrust us both down this backward slide through time.

But what label, what language do you use to describe a middle-aged man who's journeyed with you beyond dating, but not yet to the realm of husband and wife? My partner? Too ambiguous. My companion? Too stodgy. Lover tells too much, friend too little, significant other is OK only on government forms.

And so, instead of sliding back, we toy with the idea of moving forward, if only to make the introductions less awkward. As in, "I'd like you to meet my fiance."

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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