Turning Thirty: Then Vs. Now
Today is the day I turn thirty–yes, the big 3-0. According to everything I’ve read, I should be having a nervous breakdown at the prospect of turning older. But that hasn’t happened yet: frankly I can’t wait to get older so I can turn into one of those terrifying sharp-tongued dowagers like Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey,” or Judy Dench as M. Instead of getting depressed I’ve gotten speculative. Turning 30 means one thing to a woman in the 21st century–what did it mean in centuries past? What would it mean if I’d been born in the fifth century, or the fifteenth? Keeping that in mind, I cranked my memory back to those birthdays I might have had in some very different eras of history.
B.C. 2542, Egypt
I’m a priest’s daughter in a small Egyptian village by the Nile. I spend my 30th birthday having my brains pulled out through my nose with a hook, because I’m dead: a small accident involving a block of sandstone and the local quarry supplying the building of the pyramids at nearby Giza. My father didn’t have enough money to get me married, but he does scrape up enough to get me mummified, so I spend the day getting my internal organs yanked out before I can be salted, resined, and wrapped. I didn’t even get to see the first level of the pyramids go up, either.
B.C. 321, Athens
I’m a wool merchant’s wife, and I spend my thirtieth birthday just like I spent the twenty-ninth, and the twenty-eighth, and in fact every birthday since my fourth: weaving. That’s all well-born Greek women do, you see. My husband is going to a symposium this evening, and he gets to talk philosphy with Aristotle, but do I get to go? Nope, I’m stuck in the back room with my mother-in-law, my two unmarried sisters-in-law, and my three daughters, all of us sitting at those damn looms till we die. Age of Enlightenment, my ass.
A.D. 70, Rome
I’m a senator’s wife in ancient Rome under Emperor Vespasian–or rather, I’m currently a senator’s wife. He’s my fourth husband; I married the first at sixteen, divorced him when he lost all his money investing in silver mines in Britannia under Emperor Claudius, remarried a wine trader who got exiled for plotting against Emperor Nero, divorced again, married a praetor who lost his head under Emperor Otho. Hopefully this husband lasts longer than the first three: he’s already given me a very nice emerald necklace for a birthday present, and if I let slip that I know just how many of the slave girls he’s sleeping with, I can probably get a pair of bracelets out of him too!
At age thirty in the Dark Ages, I’m dead again. I’ve been dead for two years, actually: married at thirteen to a fisherman, pumping out six children and five more miscarriages, losing most of my teeth by twenty-one, and finally dying at twenty-eight when my seventh child comes out backward and rips me apart in the process after forty-six hours of excruciating labor. Happy birthday to me!
1066, Senlac Hill, England
Not a great birthday this time either. I’m a Saxon warrior’s wife, and I’ve managed to survive the birth of four children and the bout of fever that carried off three of them. But the Norman invasion just about does me in: my husband dies in the Battle of Hastings, and I get raped afterward by three Norman knights who frankly smell like French pigs. But one of them is nice enough to me afterward, gives me a gold chain and marries me a year later. I’ve got a daughter to raise, not to mention the coming baby fathered by one of the three French pigs, so I settle down to my new life with a shrug. The Normans are clearly here to stay, so a girl might as well get used to it.
1488, Republic of Venice
My thirtieth birthday marks a tremendous occasion: I’m a grandmother! My eldest daughter is fifteen, the same age I was when I birthed her, and she’s just given me my first grandchild. Only a girl, but at least a healthy one, and my daughter came through the birth easy as pie. (She gets those hips from me; I squeezed out eight babies and never lost a one!) I’m bustling off to the Basilica San Marco to light a candle in thanks, and another candle to make sure she gets a boy next time.
It’s not till after the riot that I remember it’s my birthday. It all started fairly low key; a lot of grumbling in the marketplace about how expensive bread was getting. I really couldn’t tell you how I ended up with a pike on my shoulder, marching to Versailles with a lot of other women to go talk to the King. But I have to say, it was thrilling! My husband belongs to the Jacobin club, so he was proud as punch when I came roaring back into Paris with a mob of thousands, bearing King Louis in my wake. And now that I’ve seen the King in person, I can tell you I’m not impressed. Weak chin, and can you really respect a man who lets a lot of baker’s wives drag him out of his own palace? Really, I don’t see why we need a King in France at all.
1894, New York
Thank goodness I’ve turned thirty at last–in the Gilded Age, you simply aren’t taken seriously as a hostess until you’ve got a little experience under your belt. My husband (railway magnate; lights cigars with $100 bills along with Cornelius Vanderbilt and all that crowd) celebrates the occasion by giving me a quadruple-strand pearl necklace worth $23,000 dollars–I’ll wear it at the opera tonight with my latest Worth dress. No searching in the mirror for crow’s feet for me; everyone knows a woman in her thirties is just hitting her prime. As Oscar Wilde put it, London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. And I do aim to crack London society someday–my eldest daughter is only four, but I’m grooming her for a London season and a ducal husband.
I spend my thirtieth birthday handcuffed to the railing of 10 Downing Street, shouting “Votes For Women!” at the Prime Minister. I knock the helmet off the policeman who comes to restrain me, and wave to all my friends as I’m hauled away in the Black Maria. Fortunately I don’t have a husband to pay bail, so I’m free to spend my birthday evening throwing my food out the window of my cell in Holloway Prison, and going on hunger strike. I’m in good company: Emmeline Pankhurst and Alice Paul, I hear, are in the cell next door. We’re BFFs forever: there’s no bond like force-feeding, prison beatings, and civil protest!
And finally, my current birthday: curled up on the couch listening to Dvorak serenades, a little black dog at my feet nagging for his walk, a bottle of champagne chilling in the refrigerator, a chapter of my new book pestering the back of my mind to be written, lots of “Happy Birthday!” Facebook posts and a bouquet of stargazer lilies from my husband. I think I’ll take this birthday over any of the other ones. Okay, maybe a thirtieth birthday spent in a Worth dress and a $23,000 pearl necklace in Gilded Age New York is tempting. But overall, I’d say women in the 21st century have a lot to be thankful for on their thirtieth birthdays. Sure, maybe you’re starting to get crow’s feet. But look on the bright side: you probably aren’t a grandmother. You probably haven’t been haven’t lost your teeth due to malnutrition, your health due to pumping out eight children in eight years, or your life due to repeated gang rape by enemy warriors. You aren’t stuck in a back room weaving till you die, you can choose your own husband, and you have the right to vote.
Don’t fear thirty. Celebrate it–you’ve got lots to celebrate. Thirty in the 21st century is pretty goddamn good.