The first photograph I have of myself is at 15 weeks old, being weighed. Those first moments of life are only measured in weeks.
Then, in the first year or so after we are born, our age is normally given in months. “He is 10 months old,” or “18 months.” We don’t usually start counting years until after the age of two. Then, it is a year-by-year thing.
Perhaps there is, when very young, a tendency to split years in half, so that one might claim to be “two-and-a-half years old,” but that soon changes. It would sound very odd for some freshman in high school to say he was “12-and-a-half years old.” Or worse, later on on a job application to claim to be “23-and-a-half years old.”
So, from three on, we tend to measure our lives in whole years. One is five, or twelve or 18. The last year, though, that gets its own frame, is probably 21, a year with a certain magic ring to it, as if, “Now I am officially an adult.”
And so, the 20s slip by and the next major milestone is 30, then 40, and 50 and 60. As adults, we think in decades. “I’m in my 40s,” or “My 60s.”
To go along with that, of course, there is the accelerated sense of time, so the decade becomes a reasonable yardstick for age. The difference between 32 and 33 is basically meaningless. Not like the difference between being four years old, and being five and first heading off to kindergarten.
And so, the measurement of time goes from months to years to decades. And the psychological perception of time passing changes, too, and so summer vacation after you were in second grade was an endless horizon of infinite time — at least until you were trundled off to third grade.
So, the years become the milestones, then the decades. When we are young, the day can seem forever, with all that daylight after school to go out into the yard and play until dinnertime. But this diurnal spinning speeds up, so that when you are become a grandparent, the sun circles across the sky like the dizzy spinning an airplane propeller.
But there is another stage in this time-perception shift. I just turned 75. Three-quarters of a century. And I look back and see my time on this planet divided into chunks of 25 years — quarters of a century. I have now completed the first three chunks, with no promise — even likelihood — that I will see another quarter-century. And I look back and see a very different landscape in the rear-view mirror, one divided into segments of a century — the unit of a hundred years now seems the yardstick to use.
Bits of a century: Me, in Lion King pose, at roughly 20, 50, and 75
I was born just after the world war ended. The Korean War happened mostly before I was old enough to go to school. The Kennedy assassination was the present I lived through, before it became current events, and later a chapter in a history book (and by now, probably a paragraph). It is fading into a past that has gobbled up most of my life.
There is a through-line from the earliest memory to the moment I am typing this. Parts, of course, have faded and other parts no doubt given unearned importance, but that skein of fabric runs continuous, but in longer and longer segments, and so, now, 25 years seems a meaningful chunk.
Five generations: Great grandmother, grandmother, mother, wife and son
But I can also sense the longer sway of time. Now that I have lived 75 years, I can easily imagine the quarters-of-a-century before my birth, back to my father’s birth in 1919 or my great grandmother, Anna-Gurine Kristiansen, who was born in Norway in 1871. I knew my mother’s grandmother, Aase Aagesdatter, born in the Old Country in 1879 and lived until I was 30 years old, when I was still counting by decades.
And I can see my granddaughters, born at the turn of the newest century and now entering the decade-by-decade portion of their lives, and see that time spreading out ahead of them well after I am gone. And so, perhaps even centuries are not long enough to gather it all in.
In Ancient Rome an age — a saeculum — often translated as a “century,” was measured from the birth of your parents to the death of your children after you. It averaged perhaps 110 years, but was left indefinite. That was a meaningful container for time to be understood. My father, born in 1919, me in 1948, my daughter in 1963 and her twin daughters in 2001. That age will end when they grow old and look to the future of the children they might have.
When I was young, the present moment was the fulcrum of time, leaving the past to the past and the future to obscurity. But now, having lived through my portion of a century, I sense no pivot point, just a continuum, in saecula saeculorum, from back before any memory and ahead past any speculation.