Growing into happiness

A meandering birthday trip proves aging needn't mean an end to living.

A birthday dinner at the Frenchtown Inn , to celebrate that though we grow older, we're still living. BETH KEPHART

Beth Kephart

is the author of a new young adult novel, "One Thing Stolen," an Amazon editor's pick for April

There was, for the time being, sun, and if there were still slippers of old snow in the nooks of cliff rocks, if the buds on the trees were not forthcoming, if, aside from planted pansies and ground-cover croci, brown was the color du jour, we were on our way to Frenchtown, N.J., in the attitude of spring.

April 1. A Wednesday. My birthday, even. We were contravening the routine.

We'd crossed into New Jersey from Pennsylvania by way of Stockton and were traveling north on Route 29. Past the markers of an industrial past - the gristmill, the linseed oil mill, the quarry, the sprawling stone-faced estates of successful entrepreneurs, the more modest edifices of industrial employees. Past chiseled black rock. Past the Delaware and Raritan Canal, a 19th-century transportation system that had been dug (in large part) by migratory Irishmen who endured, and sometimes could not endure, the cruel conditions of their labor. Past dollops of gleam on the Delaware River.

Through the naked trees, we could see the pedestrian bridge that links Bull's Island to Pennsylvania's Lumberville. A little farther north, the stalwart piers of the otherwise flood-effaced Point Pleasant-Byram Bridge were revealed. Old barns seemed weather-varnished. The road was mostly ours.

At a certain age, getting older is getting old, and to that critical juncture I have arrived. I'm in possession of aching hips and decades old sweaters and a face that (perversely) grows less familiar. I have a couch that sags where I sag, photo albums that have lost their glue and (therefore) all deference to chronology, memories that cleverly dodge the specifics. If the glory of a good day trip is something that might have been lost on me in my ambitious past, I could not be happier than I am right now, in this car, beside this man who has known me more than half my years and who has gifted me this journey.

The houses, the barns, the parked canals tick closer together as we near Frenchtown. The new and the old, the gloss and the sun, the estate and the outpost. We pass the sign for Two Buttons, the "warehouse emporium" that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert co-owns with the husband Javier Bardem made famous in the movie version of their life. We pass into town, turn right onto Bridge Street, curve around on Race, park. We check into the National Hotel, where we will spend the night as (it seems) the only two patrons on this offseason Wednesday.

We have time. An afternoon and then some. We tour the residential streets - Cape May-colored Victorian houses, deliberate alleyways, big porches, planted things, a community of gnomes, grand houses high on a hill. We head back down Trenton Avenue, order two glasses of kale-apple-lemon juice at Lovin' Oven (then a quite delicious lunch), make our way into Two Buttons, where everything is 50 percent off, in anticipation, the sign says, of the sale of the business. My husband buys a wooden Afghan stamp for himself and a Sulawasi boundary marker for me.

"When you get home," he says, "you can put it beside your computer. Use it to protect yourself."

Age. It has its benefits.

Back on Bridge Street, there are storefronts that stand empty and storefronts that beguile. The Spinnery. Minette's Candies. The Book Garden. Garbo & Sasha. Modern Love, which may just be the best Stateside gift shop I have ever (and I am no gift-shop virgin) seen. Old typewriters and 21st-century inventions, vintage hats and bird wear, a concrete tape dispenser, divine pairs of scissors, European magazines. It's a museum-quality experience with mostly affordable prices, and because life is lived once, I buy things. Gifts for others. Gifts for me.

The sun is still shining when we step back outside, cross the street, stand by the bridge, climb the few steps to Garbo & Sasha, cross back across the street and ponder the menu posted outside the Frenchtown Inn, where (later) we will have our dinner. It's time, it seems, for a coffee and a tea. My husband reads his new European magazine.

Happiness is a condition - an incoming, outgoing thing. But right now, here, this, I can tell you what happiness is. It is sun in April. The steam of vanilla honey tea. My husband near, a brass bird perched in my hair, a new felt coat in a bag at my feet. It is a purposeful river just down this fishhook street, a rising moon, a copper sun. It is the knowledge that one more winter has been endured. It is the wisdom of spring.

We grow older because we have no choice. We grow older, and we're still living.


Beth Kephart blogs at