Robert’s review: 65. Been there done that. Jump on in, the water’s fine!
I don’t really know how a woman my age should behave. Sometimes I’m in the Modest, Respectable Matron camp and other times I’m in the Who Gives a Crap mode. I want to kick up my heels, but I also don’t want another knee injury. The truth about 65 is that while Medicare will cover medical expenses, returning to dancing in the streets takes longer than it used to.
I managed my early sixties by declaring I felt like I was still 35. It was all in my head. My life has changed dramatically since I was 35. I hadn’t even married yet at that tender age. Thirty years can carry a lot of baggage and learning. Sharing a household with a man and then a child, graduating from college, working, raising a family, volunteering and then graduating from another college all had a way of shaping my maturing life in ways that never happened prior to age 35.
So, here I am now, duly shaped physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually 30 years after my supposed “feel like” date. There’s a drastic update on how I feel now that I am turning 65. Though life has always been an adventure, I’m finding my awe a little closer to home these days. I’m looking inwardly more often and I’m experiencing myself as a conglomerate of mixed metaphors—like wimp and warrior, sometimes within the same day. I realize I am often looking back to the women of my family who came before me, seeing them through these more discerning eyes than through those of youth and innocence.
At a time in my childhood when old folks did not seem worth investigating, my juvenile observances were that ancient ladies sat around growing moldy and probably enjoying our childish horror at the state of them. We called my great grandmother Granny. It was an appropriate appellation as watching her sit in a rocking chair was the sum total of my experience of her. Today I calculate her to have been around 80 years old when I was first able to stand before her and form this unfortunate opinion. Retrospectively, I regret my ignorance. As I grew, my appreciation for my elder relatives grew with me. As a writer, I regret that some of their treasured memories were so nonchalantly overlooked. It took some genealogical digging on my sister-in- law’s part to learn that Granny’s name was Ida. In my early childhood, she was the oldest old lady I knew.
When I got married, I was fortunate to receive the wisdom of an elder matriarch. Not my mother, but my grandmother Gladys. She was 89 at that time. She traveled to Texas from New Jersey with her boyfriend to attend the miraculous nuptials of her 36-year-old granddaughter, the last of my generation to tie the knot. She was, by that time, a controversial family member. I could hardly believe she was there, standing in my tiny shack by the tracks, dispensing her old-lady advice and wishing me grand adventures. She was not your conventional grandma. I considered her the coolest old lady that I had ever known, which gave me pause to consider our long relationship. She changed my perception of how old women behaved.
She was a spry 53 years old when I was born. She was an artist and a strong matriarch over her tiny familial kingdom. I adored her strength and gumption. Gladys was my dad’s mother, who I got to see on a weekly basis growing up. Her proximity served as a strong role model for me in terms of how to grow old with grace and style as well as with a defiance of old-lady propriety.
Though she gave every appearance of being a traditional woman of her time, she felt strongly about finding true happiness. At the age of 73, my grandmother left her husband of 50+ years to live with an older man, a friend who had been courting her for years. They ran away to Las Vegas for a quickie divorce and subsequent wedding. A tsunami-worthy shockwave rippled through our family. She was roundly condemned by all her relatives. Not quite everyone. I loved my grandmother so dearly, that I wrote to her in exile. The happy couple moved back to New Jersey where they enjoyed three years of marriage before her new husband passed away. My older brother watched over her until she died at the age of 98.
The advice I received from Gladys prior to my own nuptials was that I deserved to be happy and was responsible for designing the blueprint for joy. I look back at how she managed those high-number years of living, creating happiness for herself and making it to a grand old age. I can’t be certain if my grandmother read the advice dispensed by AARP on managing a happy aging experience, but I know she could have written those articles. After Glady’s funeral, her neighbor came up to me to inform me that my dear grandmother had been out dancing the week before she died, kicking up her heels, happy until the end. I wasn’t the least bit surprised. She was an avid dancer.
Approaching 65, I began to tick off the boxes set out by geriatric experts for keeping body and soul from rapid decline. Whenever I see an article about ways to keep yourself from becoming demented, I read it with alacrity. As I scan each bullet point of advice on how to keep from losing my best marbles, I tick off, one by one, the things I am doing right and compare my track record with my grandmother’s. Physical activity ☒, social life ☒, good diet ☒, brain exercises ☒.
Gladys remained an active person well into her advanced years. I perform every type of exercise known to humankind on a regular basis despite the crappy knees. Now walking instead of running, yoga and tai chi instead of pole vaulting (just kidding, that was my brother) and weight lifting instead of wrestling (also my brother), though I sometimes wrestle with my recalcitrant dog and other unpredictable dilemmas.
I believe I casually mentioned my 89-year-old grandma’s boyfriend. Gladys lived in one of those newly formed retirement villages along the Jersey shore at the time she ran off with another man. After he died, she continued her active social life among the other old farts of the village, continuing to connect with her crumbling peers. She took every advantage of that 55 and over situation to make friends and continue her social activities including acquiring a male companion. She must have been quite the charmer as women certainly outnumbered the men in that community. As for myself, despite the COVID calamity, I am getting out there as often as is safely possible. Having a society of friends truly brings me the joy my grandmother insisted I pay attention to.
Diet. I am a dedicated vegetarian and ofttimes vegan. I can only remember from my childhood that my grandparents filled me with Spaghetti-O’s and canned veggies. I remember the surprise my grandmother displayed when she watched me cook fresh spinach in my own kitchen. I can’t say what her diet was like, but she was not much of a role model in culinary skills. Contrarily, I am a devoted cook who does not look forward to succumbing to the use of convenience foods. I’m saving up to hire a professional chef in the event of any decline which leaves me unable to create a decent meal, or who will at least keep me from hacking up a shoe for roasting in my extreme dotage.
Continual working, challenging of the brain is said to ward off the Alzheimer demons. I’ll take that on faith. Gladys was a painter who maintained a creative brush well into her old age. Her mental decline started in her nineties. Mine feels like it’s already underway, but writing, trying new activities like tai chi and qi gong and brain games such as crossword and Sudoku are my tools for keeping the faculties in ship shape for as long as possible. I’m told it’s not forgetting where you left your keys but not knowing what the keys are for that is the benchmark of true memory failure. I’m letting go of despair at forgetting the name of the actor who played the part in that movie…you know, the one about the old guy who did something.
Next week, I’ll be officially there. A young 65 with a new attitude about aging. And, as my husband is always telling me, since pie is the closest thing on earth to the fountain of youth, I better get baking.
May we all be forever feisty,
Guest Editor Robert and I plan to spend a lot of our time hiking together over the hills and dales of happily ever after.