Talking recently with my friend, Karen, about aging I was surprised when she said ” my mother never told me what it was like to grow old.” Then she laughed and I laughed. I knew Karen was very close to her mother and she wasn’t comfortable saying anything that might be construed as negative about her mother. But it got me thinking about the whole aging thing and how do we prepare for it.
I grew up in a family rich with Aunts and Uncles, a fair number of great Aunts, and one great Uncle. My father’s father died before my parents were married. His mother died when I was very young. I am not sure if I really remember her or if it is the stories about her that make her seem real to me. She and my grandfather immigrated from Ireland and lived in Illinois , in the Hells Kitchen section of New York City and in metropolitan New Jersey. My Mother’s mother died of cancer when Mom and her twin sister were just toddlers. Mom’s step mother whom we called Nana lived into her 8o’s and Mom’s father died in his 70’s. He combined dignity and kindness and caring. Nana was a tad intimidating. The Aunts and Uncles and the Greats were all strong characters.
One way we learn about anything is through example. Perhaps because we had such a vibrant assortment of older family members that we saw with some regularity – even though we didn’t live that close – I did not think of my own parents as being that old. After all, there was another generation of family members that were even older than they. And if I thought about it, it seemed to me they lived pretty full lives.
I was particularly blessed that my great Aunt Rose took me under her wing – she felt I was a bit too timid. Aunt Rose liked to take me to her favorite New York City restaurant, Schraffts. In the 1940’s Schraffts was considered a very appropriate restaurant for an unescorted woman. One time we went there after a morning spent in Central Park where she treated me to a helium filled balloon. I was very appreciative – I can still remember how much I wanted that balloon. Balloons were a staple at birthday parties but one filled with helium that would fly away if you didn’t hold on to the cord was a real treat. After we left the park and as we marched down Madison Avenue to Schraffts I was concerned about how I would hold on to my treasure – I didn’t want to lose it. Aunt Rose was firm, “Peggy Ann stop worrying”. When we entered Schraffts the hostess looked askance at the balloon. Aunt Rose in her very self possessed way said ” We would like to park this on the ceiling while we eat.” I don’t think the hostess had ever had a request like that before but she agreed as long as we parked it near the cloak section. I was relieved when we were seated at a table which made it possible for me to keep an eye on my treasure.
Aunt Rose brought a Chinese checker game to all family gatherings. My brothers and cousins and I would line up to play her. She took no pity on anyone. And when you finally won a game you knew you deserved to win and were very proud. Aunt Rose had red curly hair. She told me that it was God’s reward for her being a good person. It was years later that I learned that she dyed her hair and that her curls came from permanent waves. Aunt Rose died when I was about 12 years old. When we went to the wake my brothers were able to go into the viewing room with our parents but I could not bring myself to – I was too upset. Aunt Rose had been such a part of my life. I sat in one of the family gathering rooms and waited. When my brothers returned I asked them how it was. They said everything was OK till Aunt Rose sat up in her casket and asked ” Where is Peggy Ann?” I was able to giggle nervously but I still could not go in.
When all of the generation beyond my parents were gone I finally realized that my beloved parents were aging. In 1970 they decided to sell their home on Long Island where they had lived since I was a year and a half and move to the Washington area to be closer to their children. They planned to buy a home in the newly-built suburban Maryland community where Jerry and I lived with our family. I was so excited about their coming. But the more I thought about it, I realized that most in our community were families with young children. My parents loved their children and grandchildren dearly but they were also used to having a social life with contemporaries.
I decided to see if I could get a social club for Seniors off the ground. With guidance from the county, help from a local church and assistance from two good friends, and the support of my husband SLOGGS (Slightly Older Guys and Gals) was launched. We opened membership to not only our own community but the surrounding areas. And there must have been a need because it was a success from the very beginning. I still treasure the Christmas gift of one couple, a blue stone they had found years before while hiking in Oregon that they had made into a pendant for me. Like my parents they moved locally to be closer to family and were grateful for the new friends they made through SLOGGS.
As it turned out, I need not have worried about my parents social life. They were delighted to be close to family, to their children and their nine young grandchildren. They bought a home about a mile from our house and their new neighbors welcomed them warmly. It was idyllic and then the demons of ill health set in. In the period of about a year and a half, my priestly brother was hospitalized with a bad leg infection, I was hospitalized with an orthopedic issue, several of the children were also hospitalized for a myriad of causes from pneumonia to eye surgery. And then my father had a heart attack. He died in 1971 when he was just 69 years old. My mother was 67. I was 34. The first time my mother ever talked to me about aging was a few days after Pop died. My mother saw a couple – her contemporaries – walking down the street together – she turned to me tearing and said ” your father and I were planning on aging together.”
In the weeks and months following my father’s death Mom was courageous,, heartbroken, loving, sad and determined to deal with her sadness. My brother Pete and his wife Louise invited her to sell her house and to come and live with them and their children in Virginia. They had a large home with a lower level suite of rooms that would make a comfortable apartment for her. It was a wonderful arrangement and Mom lived with them for several years till her twin sister and her husband decided to retire in the Virginia area. They bought a condo in McLean, not far from my brother, and my mother bought the adjoining condo and moved there. They were a very active threesome in family life, in a club for newcomers, in bible study, in bridge, and in trips to the beach. The message they lived was getting older means pursuing activities that match with your interests and your health capabilities.
In the Spring of 1984 my mother, now 81 years old, drove from Northern Virginia to visit us in Upper Marlboro. This was one of her first solo driving trips on the Washington beltway. She had never driven this distance on her own and was very proud of her accomplishment. Mom had a drivers license for many years because it was the easiest and best source of identification but she never drove. Pop did all the driving. We had a wonderful visit and then my mother got sick. She never went back to Northern Virginia. She stayed with us till she died in February of 1985. ( Those ten months will be the subject of a future blog.)
We can read about aging, we can study aging but I believe the best teacher is the example of those whom we love and admire. Abraham Lincoln left us so many wonderful quotes about aging. One of my favorites is ,” Every man’s happiness is his own responsibility.”