Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On Becoming a Senior

Most people don't guess my age, which is over 60. I've been blessed with good genes. I'm officially a senior citizen now, and this rite of passage has given me a fresh outlook. I've forgiven myself for the foolishness of my youth, learned a lot from experiences both good and bad, and feel myself moving, hopefully, towards that place of unflappable calm and wisdom that I find so attractive in those who have made it to their 80s and 90s with their minds and spirits intact.

My reference points for being a "woman of a certain age" are the women in my family who pointed the way. I hear my mother's voice in my head, and it's a welcome voice. I find myself calling women younger than myself "dear," as she did. It sounds terribly retro to my ears, but it flies off my tongue with ease and it doesn't seem to offend, so I don't edit. My mother had a gift for connecting with people. She took a sincere interest in everyone she met, and the seeds of care that she sowed reaped a harvest of respect and affection. I aspire to that.

Being a senior gives me, I believe, a certain license to dispense kindly advice and encouragement to the young. (To me, anyone under 50 is young.) Not only do I happily own my opinions, but I have no qualms about making them known if I think it will do some good, and it often does.

My father's older sisters, Anna and Fanny, whom he affectionately called 'Arsenic and Old Lace," were an ongoing object lesson for me. Aunt Anna was a self-centered beauty with a reputation for comic wit and a sharp tongue. She never cut her hair -- it was down to her knees -- and she wore it in a braided crown that gave her a regal appearance. (Personally, I think it was all those hairpins that made her so testy.) Aunt Fanny, petite and plain, was a gentle soul with a generous spirit who married a scoundrel and raised four sons pretty much on her own.

My aunts were both tough cookies. To support her boys during the 1920s, Aunt Fanny drove a truck route from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The truck was stacked with bootleg whiskey. Aunt Anna hosted a well-known poker game once a week at her cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. Anna bossed and snapped at everyone around her, but was also so funny and entertaining that we all forgave her. Fanny was the warm, welcoming bosom we ran to when we needed a reassuring embrace or an understanding ear.

Aunt Anna died in her 80s, cancer-ridden and in terrible pain. I visited her in the hospital a few weeks before she died and listened as she railed in bitter self-pity. She had nothing good to say about her life or her family. It grieves me that a woman who had been so passionate about life found no peace at its end. Aunt Fanny, still soft-spoken and energetic, moved to a nursing home in her late 80s. She liked it there because, as she said, "I like to help the old people." When she died at the age of 95, she spoke her last words to her three remaining sons who were gathered beside her. "Tell everyone I love them," she whispered.

Love, my friends, remains the answer. As I transition into my seniorhood, I want to get better and better at feeling love, sharing love, receiving love, dispensing love. I want to be one of those old ladies whom young people affectionately kiss on the cheek and sit beside for serious conversation because it makes them feel good about themselves. Being a senior is serious business. We point the way, as the women in my family did for me, and the direction we point can have a profound effect on rising generations. I accept the mantle humbly and willingly.

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