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Grand old folks borne along on faith


We each have generational markers in our lives. And, with fond memories and sadness, watch entire generations ahead of us slip away. I was 16 when my last grandfather died, 26 when my last grandmother died. All my grandparents had outlived their siblings and most of their friends.

Then came that quarter-century interlude until it was the turn of my parents’ generation to age and die. And I, in my 50s, began counting off the uncles and aunts, my parents and their friends. And yet, find I’m still counting.

For, unlike my grandparents’ generation, where death in one’s late 60s through early 80s was general, a noticeable part of my parents’ generation is using 90 as a marker. These nonagenarians or greater who, wobbly or wandering, gamely or gravely, have hung on, are now, one by one, beginning to go.

That began several years ago when my wife’s friend, Mabel, died in Kansas at about 103. She was still driving. The youngest of three sisters, all schoolteachers, she’d nursed the older two through their 90s.

Then Madge died at 98. What a turnout! She always was at Mass. Smartly dressed, well-read, frail and feisty until the end. And, in the final decade, protective of her age. She’d fudged 98. Her granddaughters checked the records of the ship Madge had arrived on from England in 1904. Apparently she was really 102.

Anna, my journalist chum and a Rome correspondent for three-plus decades, died in her late 90s. At her 90th birthday party she chided me as her “greatest disappointment.” The party was attended by three former directors of the CIA and many CIA friends from her Rome days. One wonders what Anna had had in mind for me, 30-plus years earlier.

Our friend Lewis just died at 91, and God was kind to call him, though his wife, Mercedes, may not feel so. Not after more than 60 years together.

In the Depression, new college graduate Lewis landed a teaching job in the Midwest, quite a plum when unemployment was the norm.

But it didn’t last. When they realized Lewis was a Catholic, he was ousted to make room for one of their own. And Lewis, later, after donning a uniform in World War II, became and remained a mailman. A happy mailman, a kindly, tall and gentle man, and entertaining, until quite close to the end.

My friend, Dero, not quite 90, wants to attend his 70th college reunion a few years hence. My wife’s mother -- and the sisters in Ireland -- peg each fresh nonagenarian day like a move on the cribbage board, a progress measured equally in determination and luck.

Whatever the woes, all these folks have been borne along in their first eight or so decades on the crest of their deep faith.

When they die, or sometimes just before, los viejos like these take on the aura of something akin to an unrecognized national treasure. It is simply a matter of their having survived, and we want to extract the wisdom while we may.

Fifty years ago this year, when I began as a boy reporter, people living over 90 were so remarkable I was assigned to writing about them. My approach then was curiosity.

I interviewed a woman who had been to the first world’s fair -- the Great Exhibition of 1851 -- and had her portrait made there as a 6-year-old. There was the old man on Hume Street who fought alongside Buffalo Bill in the Indian wars. There was Charlie Lee who sold oysters in the medieval market square outside the Barley Mow pub in Warrington in northwest England.

He sold his oyster stand when he was in his 90s. And I wrote that no one could remember Warrington market without Charlie Lee. And a man from Wales wrote and said, “I can. I sold the stall to Charlie.” So much for my categorical statements.

And then there was Miss Hill.

Miss Hill was to be 102 the following day. I turned up with a bunch of flowers and introduced myself and said I wanted to write about her 102nd birthday on the morrow. And she replied:

“Mr. Jones, on the occasion of my centenary, your newspaper wrote an extensive article about me. And my views haven’t changed in two years!” (Moral: Don’t patronize the elderly.)

But she didn’t close the door. She invited me in for a cup of tea.

And I got the story the others had missed. How she’d wanted to be a concert pianist, was taught by a friend and pupil of Mozart’s. But her tiny hands couldn’t span an octave. And she remained an enthusiastic amateur instead. How she’d always hated Bach. But at 90, with arthritis seriously setting in, she found all she could manage to play, for the fingering permitted it, were certain pieces by Bach.

“Imagine,” she spat out, “having to develop an appreciation for Bach in one’s 90s.” And then she smiled, and gave me her little bit of wisdom. “Personalities do not change with age. The only girls who grow up to be sweet old ladies,” she said, “are sweet young ladies.”

Its implications amount to a cautionary tale for all of us.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002