REGRETS

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I may have mentioned her before.  She is Diana Athill, an Englishwoman who spent her working life editing books by well-known authors, wrote four extremely well-received memoirs in her eighties, and is now 96 1/2.  The last of these memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, written in her 89th year, is frank and wise about what it’s like to enter one’s nineties.

Unlike Roger Angell (two posts back), who is still roaring at the injustice of being sidelined by age and the callous disregard of IMG_1639younger generations, Athill — who had a private life probably more uninhibited than Angell’s — calmly describes and accepts what is, and what is soon to come, with considerable remaining joie de vivre.

There are lots of good bits in Somewhere Towards the End, not just for those not too far behind her (like me) but also for those in the middle of life who may be dawdling along and need a gentle kick in the pants to get going with whatever it is.   For instance, Chapter 14 is entitled “Regrets” and begins like this:

It seems to me that anyone looking back over eighty-nine years ought to see a landscape pockmarked with regrets. One knows so well, after all, one’s own lacks and lazinesses, omissions, oversights, the innumerable ways in which one falls short of one’s own ideals, to say nothing of standards set by other and better people. All this must have thrown up — indeed it certainly did throw up — a large number of regrettable events, yet they have vanished from my sight. Regrets? I say to myself. What regrets? This invisibility may be partly the result of a preponderance of common sense over imagination: regrets are useless, so forget them. But it does suggest that if a person is consistently lucky beyond her expectations she ends by becoming smug. A disagreeable thought, which I suppose I ought to investigate.

After a passage about her feelings concerning never having had children, she goes on to the two that give her pause: a certain coldness, or selfishness in her own core, “which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler” and not being industrious or brave enough to enlarge the confines of her life.

In almost all ways except age, I am not much like Diana Athill, but I do sit up at how this chapter ends and reflect, “I still have five years before I myself am 89; there’s still some time.”  As for the rest of you, who probably have much more time than that, perhaps it will make you sit up and do a bit of thinking, too:

So I do have at least one major regret after all: not my childlessness, but that central selfishness in me, so clearly betrayed by the fact childlessness is not what I regret. And now I remember how my inadequacy regarding small children….caused me to let down my cousin Barbara, whose house I live in, in spite of thinking her then as I think of her now as my best friend, when some forty-odd years ago she started a family. No sooner had she got three children than she and her husband separated, so that she had to raise them single-handed, working at a very demanding full-time job in order to keep them. How she struggled through those years I don’t know, and I think she herself marvels at it in retrospect. But at the time what did I do to help her? Nothing. I shut my eyes to her problems, even saw very little of her, feeling sadly that she had disappeared into this tiresome world of small children — or world of tiresome small children — and she has said since then that she never dreamt of asking me for help, so aware was she of my coldness towards her brood. About that it is not just regret that I feel.  It is shame.

One regret brings up another, though it is, thank goodness, less shameful. It’s at never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of my life. I have a niece, a beautiful woman who I shall not name because she wouldn’t like it, who is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom will soon be following his brothers to university, and who has continued throughout her marriage to work as a restorer of paintings. Not long ago she sat at dinner beside a surgeon, and happened to say to him that if she had her time over again she would choose to train in some branch of medicine. He asked her how old she was. Forty-nine, she told him. Well, he said, she still had time to train as a midwife if she wanted to, they accepted trainees up to the age of fifty; whereupon she went home and signed up. The last time I saw her she could proudly report that she had now been in charge of six births all on her own. There had been moments, she said, when she felt “What on earth am I doing here?, but she still couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling that being present at — helping at — the beginning of new life. The most moving thing of all, she said, was when the father cried (there had been fathers present at all six births). When that happened she had to go out of the room to hide the fact that she was crying too.  She is a person of the most delicate reserve, so watching her face light up when she spoke about being present at a birth filled me with envy. Having had the courage and initiative suddenly to step out of a familiar and exceptionally agreeable life into something quite different, she has clearly gained something of inestimable value. And I have never done anything similar.

It is not as though I was never impatient at having only one life at my disposal. A great deal of my reading has been done for the pleasure of feeling my way into other lives, and quite a number of my love affairs were undertaken for the same reason (I remember once comparing a sexual relationship with going out in a glass-bottomed boat). But to turn such idle fancies into action demands courage and energy, and those I lacked. Even if I had been able to summon up such qualities, I am sure I would never have moved over into anything as useful as midwifery, but think of the places to which I might have travelled, the languages I might have learnt! Greek, for example: I have quite often thought of how much I would like to speak modern Greek so that I could spend time earning a living there and getting to know the country in a serious way, but I never so much as took an evening class in it. And when I went to Oxford, I indolently chose to read English literature, which I know I was going to read anyway, for pleasure, instead of widening my range by embarking on a scientific subject, such as biology. And never at any time did I seriously try to use my hands (except at embroidery, which I am good at). Think how useful and probably enjoyable it would be to build a bookcase. I really am sorry about that.

So there are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness (I think laziness played a greater part than cowardice in my lack of initiative, though some cowardice there was). They are real, but I can’t claim they torment me, or even that I shall often think about them. And at those two I shall stop…. I am not sure that digging out past guilts is a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.

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A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

© 2015 The New York Times Company

HOW I GOT TO BE BORN IN AMERICA

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[This piece first appeared under another title in the Spring 2010 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  The editors called it “A Story.”  It is a story, about another story.  But whatever the title, it’s what’s at the end that counts.]

***

I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my father why he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.

My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.

“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.

“Because he was my uncle.”

“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”

“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.

Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.

My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.

Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:

In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.

One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!

“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”

Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”

Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police.

(How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)

But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.

“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”

And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it. He had to leave.

Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”

“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”

And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”

With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie.

He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?

The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.

“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.

“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.

“Then why did he do it?”

“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.

“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”

“You can’t guess?”

Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.

“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.

Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.

After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”

“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”

My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.

Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.

“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.

“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating.  “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”

Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.

“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”

They were my parents.

I promised not to tell.

The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.

I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a little daughter and son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.

What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.

Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.

But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punchline no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.

COULDA, SHOULDA

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It was a single session yesterday.  Often the Pilates studio can pair me up with someone, which lowers the price by ten dollars. But sometimes, they can’t.  Despite the ten dollars, I like having Peggy to myself.  We get to do some girlfriend talk while she puts me through the various routines I can manage. Also, near the end of the hour she often gives a delicious back massage while I’m stretching forward on a fearful-looking apparatus called The Tower.

Peggy is sixty, and looks wonderful in her exercise clothes from Lululemon, Athleta and (sometimes) the sales racks at Marshall’s.  (But you really have to look hard to find something at Marshall’s, she cautions.) She is rounded and shapely (“Great legs and ass,” says Bill), but also firm and strong, with highlighted blondish brown hair she’s growing out into a longish pixie cut, and nicely made up blue eyes. Her face is cherubic although her chin is softening, but just a little.  She has two beautiful blonde daughters in college (the older finishing in May) and — after spending nearly all her life in or around the Princeton-Lawrenceville-Pennington-Flemington area of New Jersey — a wonderful sense of adventure.

Peggy had a relatively long career in fashion marketing and merchandising until her marriage to a divorced man who shared custody of his three small children with his ex-wife.  After the marriage, fairly late in her thirties, she became a full-time wife and mother both to her own two daughters and — for half the week — his three children as well.  She moved out about a year and a half ago,  when the youngest daughter had gone off to school, after four or more years of increasing unhappiness in her marriage.

During that time, she discovered Pilates, became a certified Pilates instructor, and has been working fifteen to twenty hours a week ever since.  Now that the divorce is finalized, she is waiting for her older girl to graduate before moving on. At the end of June, she’s taking herself off to the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, near the beach.  She knows no one there, but she loves Charleston, loves the southern climate, loves the beach.  “When I was shoveling snow off the driveway for the umpteenth time this winter,” she said, “I told myself never again!”

She’s worked it all out with her accountant.  She knows how long she can afford to look around for work, what she can spend per month, when she needs to start earning again, when she’ll be able to replace her car. [2016. She hopes it lasts that long.]  She thought she’d begin with Pilates again, because a certified Pilates instructor can always find work in an upscale community, but she really wants to become an interior decorator now.  She loves resort/beach style.  She’s friendly, outgoing, energetic. Unlike Jasmine, the eponymous heroine of Woody Allen’s last movie, who also said interior design was her career goal, Peggy will do just fine.

Faithful readers of this blog may surmise what has been on my mind the past few days, and will therefore not find it odd that I took advantage of my single session to ask Peggy a particular question I otherwise might not have asked while I did leg warmups on The Reformer.  It had nothing to do with her prospective move.  At least, neither of us thought it did.  At first.

“Do you remember your first serious boyfriend?”

She looked surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Serious,” I said.  “Not just idle flirting.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “Very serious.  We met as freshmen in college, and it lasted four years.  Why do you ask?”

I told her about finding the online obituary of my first serious boyfriend, and filled her in a bit about our slight subsequent history together and how upset I was to learn he was gone.  “Is yours still alive?” I asked.  (Foolish question.  He’d be only 60, or 61.)

“Oh, yes.  Very much so.”  Her face took on a wistful look.

“What happened?  After the four years, I mean?”

“Well, he was going back to Colorado, where he came from. I was intent on a career in fashion in New York City!”

“And you broke up over that?”

She smiled sadly.  “We argued about it for two months.  But I thought, ‘Colorado?  There’s nothing there for me.'” She brought over a purple block and put it between my raised knees for the detested “tabletops.”

“He was handsome, and we were crazy about each other. He had some family money, and then became very very rich.  He’s a millionaire and more today. But I was 22 — and stubborn.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Oh yes.  About five years ago he was in New York for business, and we had a three-hour dinner together.  He looked great.  It was great.  We talked about our time together, and what might have been.”

“And?”

“He’s married now.  Has four lovely children. The youngest is still just sixteen.  I said, ‘If your wife ever kicks you out, call me!’  He laughed. But she won’t.  And he wouldn’t leave. I think they’re very happy. Actually,” she added, “he did come to New York once before, about three years after we broke up.  It was to tell me he was getting married.  That was an earlier marriage, one that didn’t work.  He didn’t want me to hear it from anyone from him.”

“He flew to New York from Colorado just to tell you he was getting married?”

She nodded.

“He must have cared about you very much,” I said, trying to achieve twenty angel wings with my knees still raised in tabletop. (The language of Pilates sometimes reaches throw-up levels of cuteness.)  “Maybe he married the first time on the rebound from you.”

She shrugged.  “Too late to think about that now. Career in fashion!  Hahaha.  I went on the road, marketing Ship ‘n Shore blouses.  Within a few years of college, he had a chain of sporting apparel stores all through Colorado.  I could have styled and managed them! And he was tall and gorgeous and we really did love each other.   And now he owns ski resorts, and a beautiful home where I could have done his entertaining!  And look where I am!  Off to Charleston at 60 to live in a rental while I figure out the lay of the land.”

“It’s going to be a great adventure,” I said, sitting up to get a drink of water before doing the arm work.  “You know it will!”

“Yes, it will!” she declared.

“Bill has a saying,” I added.  ” ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ ”

“I’ll have to remember that one,” said Peggy.

Then we both agreed that “coulda, shoulda” never helped anyone, and we all do the best we can with what we have in the way of wisdom and knowledge of life at any particular time, and that there’s no point in beating yourself up about what you did or didn’t do when you were young.

“Tell Bill to get himself out and start walking,” she said, as I finished up for the day.

I shall miss her when she leaves.

“ENJOYING OLDER AGE” REVISITED

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Sixteen years ago, when I was somewhat younger than I am today, but not yet old enough to leave the work place for greener pastures, I practiced law in Boston.  Part of that, the easiest part, was joining the Boston Bar Association (hereinafter “BBA”).  I was an entirely passive member.  I paid my dues, gave the monthly newsletter a quick read, and got back to work.

One day a real estate lawyer named Harold Brown called me up.  Harold was chairing the BBA’s “Senior Lawyers Division”  and wanted some entertainment for its December lunch meeting.  Harold was then eighty-five (as I found out later), and his idea of “entertainment” was a panel of five aging lawyers talking about “Enjoying Older Age.”  He needed a woman on his panel.  Gender discrimination was already on everyone’s screen.

Back then it wasn’t easy to find a woman lawyer who qualified as “senior.”  Enrollment in law school these days is at least 50% young women.  But to be a “senior” woman in 1997, you would have to have gone to law school in the late fifties or very early sixties.  Fat chance. There was one such woman, a very distinguished one — Rya Zobel — but she was already on the federal bench and probably had no time for “Enjoying Older Age.”

On the other hand, I had gone to law school in my early fifties.  (Another story, in some other blog.)  Which made me old enough for Harold’s panel in 1997.  And I was a woman!  Was he lucky, or what?  Was I really “enjoying” my older age?  My boss was ecstatic that I’d been invited.  How could I say no?

The Big Day arrived and the room where “Enjoying Older Age” was to take place filled up. By then Harold had assembled a panel of five — four senior male lawyers and me. No more than five minutes each, he instructed us. That was twenty-five minutes of talk!   Under the circumstances, I chose to speak last.  Maybe everyone would wake up when they saw a skirt walk across the stage to the podium. They did.  Stayed awake, too. Right to the end.

Enjoying Older Age

(Five minute talk presented [by me] at a luncheon of the Senior Lawyers’ Division of the Boston Bar Association, November 12, 1997.)

I ought to tell you at the outset that I’m sixty-six. I will also admit that when I see a description of someone in print that reads, quote, “a sixty-six year old woman,” unquote, I react stereotypically. “Old,” I think.  ”Finished.”

But then I forgive myself.  After all, we were socialized to think that way. In fact, as a “sixty-six year old woman” I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life, except maybe during the time when I was having babies.  [I loved that.]

When I think of myself, though, I don’t think numbers.  I don’t think “older” — or “old.” I am me, I’m alive, I live my life, and I pretty much do whatever I want to do, within the financial constraints of needing to support myself for a few more years, and the very few biological limitations that come with having been around for more than six decades.

And I find that the more kinds of things I do, the more kinds of things I want to do. I’ve shed almost all preconceptions about what is possible for me, and I’m working on getting rid of the rest. I can’t tell you how liberating it is not to think about what other people will think. You get to talk to just about everyone.  You get to do just about everything. So maybe it would be interesting to you if I tell you a little bit about how I reached this place.

In 1980, I was forty-nine years old, and living in a dilapidated house in Duxbury with a husband, kids still in middle school, and a dog. I would have described myself as a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman who was entering menopause and biological uselessness. Oh, I had a couple of degrees in liberal arts subjects of high cultural and very low commercial value, and had worked, in L.A. and New York City, first as a college instructor of English, then as a copywriter for products bought by women –”Second Nature: the bra to feel you’re not wearing a bra in” — and, when the children were small, as a free-lance book editor. But none of these occupations were satisfying for very long.  And they certainly didn’t produce major money.

Anyway, in 1980, my husband had lost his job (for the third time) and seemed unlikely to locate another in the foreseeable future.  I was reading in what used to be the “Women’s Page” (now called “Style”) of The New York Times about women younger than I  who were beginning to embark on real professions, and all I could think was: “If only I had been born ten years later!”

In some circumstances, I’ve been described as having a mind like a steel trap.  But about other things, even some perfectly obvious things, I’m very slow. Here, it took a couple of years for the light to dawn.  But then it finally hit me, like a flashbulb exploding:  I was NEVER going to be born ten years later! All I had was now.  Now until the end, whenever that came.  So if there was anything I really wanted or needed to do, I had better get to it. Compared with that perception, what did it matter what was deemed “age-appropriate?”  Or “gender-appropriate?”

That was the beginning.Thirty years out of college, I took the LSATs.  I applied to law schools.  I applied for loans.  I got into the schools.  I got the loans.  And much to my own surprise, I did extremely well. To my even greater surprise (and I truly mean that), I was offered a 2L summer clerkship at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, which turned into a job offer.

And so, in 1985, at the age of fifty-four, I became a first-year associate at a firm where, in the trial department anyway, only two partners were a little bit older than me.  Everyone else — the other partners, all the associates and support staff — was younger.

Was it hard?  Sure it was hard. Was it worth doing?  You betcha. Because my life began to change, in more ways than I can possibly list in the five minutes allowed each of us. Not because I had become a lawyer.  But because now there were new possibilities.

As my life changed, I changed too.  I’m no longer the middle-aged woman of 1980.  I’m no longer the somewhat apprehensive woman of 1985. I’m probably not even the woman I was earlier this year, when I voluntarily left Goodwin, Procter to join a small litigation boutique, where I was offered the opportunity to begin to wind down in the law, gradually, by working only four days a week, thereby freeing up some time for something I’ve wanted to do all my life but never had the guts to try before.

[No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. ] <g>

I’m just getting younger all the time!

But if, like most of you, I had been practicing law for thirty, or forty, or even fifty years, perhaps I’d be wondering if there were any other possibilities for me. In that case, I guess I’d think back to all the other things I wanted to do when I was very young. What did you dream of when you were a very young man, before the law closed in on you and your life? That young man is still alive in you somewhere. Talk to him.  Listen to what he wants to do. And see where that takes you.

I have a thirty-eight year old lawyer friend who recently went through a dark night of the soul.  Now he’s thinking of leaving the law to teach young children. The other day he sent me an e-mail containing a haiku — one of those little three-line Japanese poems — that he had written.  Fortuitously, it illustrates very well what I’ve been talking about here.

So let me conclude by reciting this tiny, but pregnant, poem:

Memories decay

Like leaves on the forest floor.

Each twig has a bud.

End of poem.  End of speech. Each twig has a bud.

[Haiku credit:  David Barlow, Esq., Boston, MA]

 

BURYING MY MOTHER

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My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer.  I’m not sure she knew what she had.  She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her.  She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often.  “What would I do there?” she said.

I was her only child.

My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993.  I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.

The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.”  I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated.  The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her.  I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.

When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.

Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses,  my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children.  I didn’t call often enough.  I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.

She was the great failed love affair of my life.  What was I going to do with her now she was gone?  Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?

*********************

A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge.  As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t.  Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped:  a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.

My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose.  It was January 1995, and bitter cold.  We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales.  Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head.  “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”

We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”

We were freezing.  Enough with the looking.  I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond.  And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers.  No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!

The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money.  It was an honor, he said.  My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box.  Instead, four photographs:  as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.

I ordered flowers.  I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony.  They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either.  But they were all the extended family she had.  And I wanted them to see how it was done.  So they would be ready for the next time.

Gayle insisted on coming too.  There would be four of us.

One problem, though.  What should I say?  What good things could I say?

It took until the night before.  And then I had it.  At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.

The day was clear and sunny.  One son carried the box with my father’s pictures.  The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box.  Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.

Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.

This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995.  Maybe it made her happy at last.

We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother.  “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary.  “Respect for parents” would have been more like it.  But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.

Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled.  And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.

At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known  — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.

I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was.  I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back.  They didn’t talk about things like that.  I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child.  Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had.  But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children.  And that is why “honor” is the right word.

If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond.  Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.

Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.