My face is a roadmap, leading to nowhere.
Each time I gaze into the mirror the crevices seem deeper and more defined. The map I see before me, however, has a dead end. That fate awaits us all. It is devastatingly normal.
What I see are not artistic etchings. They are the etchings of age. I wonder, who is this stranger? Once coiffed with shiny brown hair, as attested to on my New Jersey driver’s license, now I am the bearer of a license that lies. There is no longer even a trace of that color. It has been replaced by a dry mousy gray, not even a beautiful chalk white. I will never resort to coloring it, knowing I would look ridiculous with a red or blonde mane atop the aged face.
This is my reward for becoming old. But I am confused. How did it happen so fast? And how did it happen to me?
When I was a girl of about 12, say, 70 years ago, I started worrying about my father’s health. He was then only 40 years old, the age at which his twin sister had a heart attack. He lived another 56 years, in robust good health. I needn’t have worried. And, by the way, my aunt, his twin, with myriad other conditions, lived to 89. Not too shabby!
These days my husband and I are classified as old. He is nearly 84 and I already am 82. Is it true that, as some say, 80 is the new 60? Hardly. And anyway you may be among those who consider 60 as pretty old.
I understand that for some 80 is just an age, a number, without ramifications. But for most of us lucky enough to reach this decade, there are ramifications that are obvious. These are the totally annoying minor conditions: It’s the lack of clarity. Often our eyes do not see so well and our ears do not hear so well, and our minds are not as sharp. We lose our focus in conversations. We are more likely to forget casual things, and even more, important things. We are less alert. And we ache! Ache in too many places. From heads to toes and everywhere in between.
But, of course, that’s the good news. The bad news is that there are lots of worse things that happen to the human body. Lots. Worse.
Unfortunately, as well, the mirror doesn’t lie, even when you have weaker eyes. It’s clear that no one will ever call me “miss” again.
I cannot visit museums any more. Too much stress on the feet. And walking miles on a trip to somewhere exotic is just not doable. Old age is wasted on the old! We’d all prefer youth and vitality. Me too! But no one asks for my preferences.
Yet I ponder some of those I knew who were vibrant and healthy into very old age, much older than a kid of merely 82. People like my daughter Lori’s violin teacher, Mr. Asnis.
The violin teacher drove to our home every week in his perfectly maintained car. For years, he never missed a lesson. He was a sensitive, talented, and delightful teacher who demanded precision and always showed up looking extraordinarily professional in a suit, white shirt, impeccably knotted tie, gleaming shoes, and an overall immaculate persona. He was, in another word, spiffy! We felt sure that our daughter was his only student and that he dressed up solely for her lesson, but we never asked. He was already over 90 when he became her teacher. He was more reliable than the US Postal Service; never late and never deterred by the weather.
One day he didn’t show up. We worried and speculated correctly. Eventually we got a phone call from his daughter confirming that he had, without warning or fuss, died.
And then there was Mrs. Lipschitz. She was ancient when I was a little kid and I often joke that she still may be alive somewhere. I always figured out what would kill her in the end. It would have been a bad fall, tripping on one of her floral house dresses, which were hemmed dangerously below her ankles. She spent her summers with us in Parksville and never missed a season or a day due to any kind of infirmity. She was well over 90 when I last saw her, in the late 1970s. Is she buried or is she now about 140 years old? I just don’t know. And I never knew her first name so Google would not be helpful.
Straight down the road a bit from us in Parksville, on the hamlet’s tiny main street, was Mrs. Sissel, a tiny wisp of a woman, from a remarkable and large village family. She operated a kosher restaurant, at least until I last saw her, waiting on tables, in 1976, all by herself. She shopped, cooked, served, and cleaned up afterward. I wondered how a woman who, maybe, approached 80 pounds, at about four and a half feet short, had the strength, well into her 90s, to do what she did.
I don’t know what caused her death but I do know her cooking was reputed to be survival style. The very best that was said about it was that It wouldn’t kill you.
And then there is Cyril, an English barber, who made aliyah to Israel after he retired. He was a widower of many years, living alone and operating a modest catering business for Herzliya shul events. He still hikes to Shabbat services, long after the community celebrated his 100th birthday.
Chana is another well-aged Herzliya congregant. She escaped Germany when she could as the winds of war threatened the Jewish world, and made a life for herself in New York, marrying and raising a family. Eventually, after she was widowed, she made aliyah alone, settling in Herzliya. She became active in the synagogue and now lives comfortably some distance away from town and shul. Since she never learned to drive she walks miles daily, including on Shabbat. Her mind is sharp and her endurance inspiring. Chana always struck me as being careful with her finances, which is a sure sign of someone who expects and wants to stay alive.
Whenever we were planning a return trip to the states we received a phone call from Chana. Could we, would we, mail some letters for her? It is so much cheaper than sending the correspondence from Israel. Now that we’ve relocated to the Holiest City, no doubt Chana has found a pigeon or another carrier. She is now approaching her 100th birthday, but the mail must go through!
And there was Dad. After Mom died, leaving him bereft at 92, he moved into Achuzat Beit, a wonderful senior residence in which he lived life anew, making friends and pursuing his hobbies, reading history books, watching basketball games on the small TV in his room, and walking miles on the sidewalks of Raanana and Herzliya, in any kind of weather, with never a bottle of water or hat or sunscreen or umbrella. Sometimes he wore glasses but not often. His hearing aids remained new and unused. He had a mouthful of his own teeth and no conditions at all. He was a father to be proud of, and I was!
He was also a very lucky guy. Until his death shortly before the Pesach when he would have turned 98, he was fit, handsome, and remarkable, adored by his progeny, including many grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren.
My father ate traditional Jewish food with abandon, fatty meat and chopped liver. He smoked cigars for at least 70 years. And never went to doctors unless he had what he called a grippe. He never had a routine checkup. He had a good life.
And, oh yes, his brown hair turned a shiny silver, not a parched gray!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!