One week from today, my Aunt Carolyn will begin her 109th year of adventures. Beside the cake, candles and balloons, the inevitable question always accompanies the birthday celebration; “What’s the secret to living to be 108?”
When confronted with this query, Aunt Carolyn usually gives a sly smile and doesn’t say a word. On occasion, she’ll part with a tip, like “not smoking” or “staying out of trouble.” Lately, she seems to look a tad confused about who is being asked. Surely, it’s not being directed to her – she can’t be 108. How rude of you to think so!
The other phrase that is always uttered by someone at the celebration is something along the lines of, “Imagine all the things she’s seen (or lived through or dealt with) in her lifetime.” Which always leads me right to the reference sources to track down some historical event that happened in 1907, the year of her birth.
Tucked in among much more important things like bank panics, typhoid outbreaks, suffragette marches and earthquakes, I found a couple of things in the mix that I thought actually had a lasting and personal impact on Aunt Carolyn’s everyday life. 1907 was the year the first taxi service was started in New York City. The Plaza Hotel opened on 5th Ave. and 59th St. The very first broadcast of a musical composition aired on radio. These are three things I think my aunt would have been truly excited about.
As a proud Manhattanite for more than 50 years, she rode in her share of Yellow Cabs. She was unapologetic about never having learned to drive, telling you politely that she had no need to learn, since there were plentiful buses that ran right past her Tudor City door. And if she missed the bus, she could always whistle down one of the cabs that idled near the United Nations on any given day. Why drive yourself, when others were ready and willing to do it for you?
Aunt Carolyn was a “bachelor girl”, so she was able to live quite comfortably in a small studio apartment that was equivalent in size to a walk-in closet in many of today’s master suites. She liked her compact life, especially since the lack of any real kitchen facilities (she had an under-the-counter refrigerator, a one burner hot plate, a tiny sink and two cabinets in her galley) allowed her an excellent reason for eating out most nights and weekends. And hotels like The Plaza were among her favorite choices. The high tea served there was right up her alley, since it allowed and encouraged participants to appear in lavishly decorated hats.
My aunt also really appreciates music, and I’m sure she had her radio tuned in to the station that played the latest in popular song. At her advanced age, she can still belt out “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” with the best of them, recalling every word of the lyrics when many other memories have long been lost. And she does so whenever the mood strikes her, winning her top honors at her nursing home’s Talent Show this year. She also attends any musical activity that’s offered there willingly, claps to the beat and is generous with applause for a good performance.
It is pretty amazing to think that when my aunt was born, the flag that flew over our nation had only 45 stars. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet achieved statehood. She’s witnessed countless technological, medical, scientific and cultural advances. She’s worried through at least seven wars and has buried parents and nine siblings. She’s seen and experienced more than most and is still living to tell the tales.
Over the past nine years as her legal guardian, I’ve spent more time with my aunt than I ever did in the previous fifty-one years when I was just her niece. And I’ve learned things through observation that I know will come in handy as I make my own journey into older age.
A key technique is the ability to deflect attention from you (and ultimately, any problems or illnesses you may be experiencing) back to anyone addressing you. If someone asks how you are, always reply with, “Just fine thank you, and that tie you’re wearing does wonderful things for your eyes.” You then proceed to comment on the weather, today’s lunch selections and the miracle of the linoleum floors that you’re standing on until the asking party wanders away to their next victim.
Another building block of longevity seems to lie in the cultivation of a positive attitude about most things. Breaking into song at regular intervals helps, and being more than a little deaf is good, too. Looking for beauty in everyday items as well as in nature makes the days pass in a haze of appreciation for all you have.
Finally, it’s good to have faith in something outside yourself. For my aunt, that would be her strong Catholicism. For me, it will need to come in some other form. I’m still looking for that piece of the puzzle, but I’ve been able to learn the other parts from one of the best.
So, here’s to you Aunt Carolyn! Happy 108th and may the force continue to be with you!
Post Script January 28, 2015 – Aunt Carolyn passed away quietly this morning, without suffering or pain.
Blog by Holly Deni