John Leland’s excellent New York Times’ series on the year he spent engaging with six of the city’s “oldest of the old” – – 85 & up – – is one reason my digital subscription to The Grey Lady is priceless. His book, Happiness is a Choice, was one of my most cherished reads of 2018. Meeting him two weeks ago at the Upper East Side’s Lenox Neighborhood Centerwas a joy. Some day, John & I will kick off a friendship over brunch!
We have a lot to share – where he spent a year among NYC’s elders, I’ve been singularly blessed to spend a lifetime in close contact & treasured friendship with a coterie of my own, a godsend I’m starting to fully appreciate for all the real-life experience & insights it continues to bestow.
Growing up in a warmly knit community bestowed on me the gift of regular, as-natural-as-walking-up-the-road contact with the oldest of the old.
Two doors up – – leap frogged over Stan & Gina Rose’s house – – was Miss Ashby, who often welcomed us “lads & lassies” to her porch for tea & cookies & a chat. She was a dormitory student in the local high school in 1903.
Up the steep lane past Miss Ashby’s house was Cranches, an elderly couple who welcomed the neighborhood children to delight in their wondrous playhouse.
Two doors up Alden Road from Miss Ashby was Otho Heilman, the elementary school principal when my considerably older siblings walked up the hill to classes. Born in 1888, Mr. Heilman was the kindly grandfather to the kids around him, always beckoning us in for a visit, milk & some of his homemade cookies.
Across from him was Dr. Whitehead, a professor at the local college, who was a boarding student at the same college in 1907.
Almost forgot Arthur Wells – – “Uncle” Arthur – – who lived just down the hill, who cultivated award-winning cactus ~ Class of 1906.
His sister, Marjorie, was the only grandmother I ever knew & her husband Don Rose, a columnist & theater critic for a major Philadelphia newspaper, the only grandfather. Both welcomed me as a faux grandchild- a “fictious” Rose. Pop-pop was a kid when he died, a mere 73, but Grandma (born 1891) lived deep into her 80s. Their house, which has a terrific story all its own, was a five minute walk from our house, even less if I cut through Linquist’s yard & Kenneth Synnestvedt’s woods.
These were the olders elders ancients directly on my radar as a child. They don’t include Peggy Hyatt, or the Smith’s, or Behlerts, also up there in years when I was a youngster, but people I knew only enough for a wave & a cheery hello. But I knew them on sight & they knew me, which meant a lot to a kid who loved connection.
It hit me today, snuggled next to John in that cozy state between sleeping & deciding to fully wake up, that I’ve been blessed to live a lifetime not just with but as part of the “oldest of the old” set. Because of the unfortunate experience of a lousy financial advisor losing all the money Dad left, I had what turned out to be the good fortune to have Mom with me all of my life, a blessing-in-disguise that was compounded by the fact that many of Mom’s best buddies – Cornelia Stroh, Benita Odhner, Viola Ridgeway, Consuela Rosenquist – were many years her senior. The stories they told over lunches at Nanny’s, whiskey sours before Friday Supper, coffee & cake! And I got to soak them all in!
John Leland spent his year with the oldest of the old. I spent my whole life there. He learned happiness is a choice we make. I learned it is a natural outcome of aging ever upward – – what we’re created to experience. Our destiny.
What am I going to do with this morning’s great aha?