My cousin Rita died last week. At 92, she was 10 years older than I. Her death was peaceful, and she was, as they say, surrounded by family. Jackie, her beloved husband of over 70 mostly sweet years, died easily, only months earlier.
This changed my status in the family Litwak, or Litvak, as it was known in the old country. I became the eldest of our generation of cousins. Once there were eight of us. Now there are a mere three. How did all of this happen? So fast! I clearly see my cousins and myself in my mind’s memory eyes, together, very, very often, continuing, ongoing, steady, reliable parts of each others’ lives. We were kids, secure, with young and loving parents. That was mere moments ago, wasn’t it?
But now I’m old. I can’t delude myself, although my mirror calmly lies. It tells me that my reflection hasn’t changed much over the years. It reveals the same person I’ve always seen there. That’s me. I’m the Weequahic High School graduate, the bride in the wedding album, the mortarboard affixed at my college graduation, and the delighted young mother, holding a baby in one arm and dangling a cigarette in the other. Then I am surrounded by kids, four of them, as their proud father catches the perfect shot, my cigarette still dangling. Miraculously I race through life to become the young grandmother, and then, with the speed of lightning, I fast forward to the weddings of those babes, amazingly, the children’s children, with five of their chuppahs already behind me. Britot for three great-grandsons.
I am smiling in all the photos. Dogs are everywhere through the years; they come and eventually they go. Same with people. My parents are there and then they’re not. My husband’s parents as well. Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors. An ongoing montage of people, here yesterday, but not today. The cigarette is no longer dangling! My life is racing by. In a nutshell, I am suddenly old!
Knowing Rita was healthy and fine was a lifeline. She, being my elder, was an example that this speeding movement toward aging wasn’t quite so menacing, not so onerous. There was still a cousin older than I. Rita.
Rita struggled mightily at some points in her life, when she had a desperately wanted baby who was stillborn, when Gayle, her much younger sister, died a gut-wrenching death after burying not one but two husbands, one in his 30s. Overall, however, she triumphed. She adopted Ilene, and they loved each other deeply, and Ilene’s children were dear and devoted grandchildren. She was essentially a happy person, making her own independent path in life. She had eloped with Jackie before she was 20, and I remember so well the joyous announcement that Mom received in Parksville, over 70 years ago. Rita was married. And now, seemingly in a flash, she is gone.
I feel sad to have lost her. She was a loving family member and a good friend to me, offering on-demand home hospitality when I was dating the man I eventually married. I lived in Newark and he lived in Brooklyn. The twain could not have met without Rita and Jackie hosting me over and over. Their Brooklyn home was my temporary home. It was never an imposition. They let me know that they were happy to have me, repeatedly. Thank you guys! I will never forget your kindness!
But, of course that was yesterday. Wasn’t it?
And so, back in the present; even though my mirror lies, my daily encounters do not. I notice things I never experienced before. People hold doors open for me. For me!!!! They ask if I need help. They volunteer to let me go ahead of them in line. The packers in the market pack light and ask if I can manage. People are more tolerant than they used to be. They smile at me more, benevolently, perhaps even patronizingly. If there’s a senior citizen price, I need not show proof. It’s not my imagination. It’s real! That’s me, the dotty old lady, struggling with the shopping cart.
And it’s not only other people who see my infirmities. I see them for myself. What is this old age? It’s when your eyes have cataracts and your ears strain and don’t succeed in getting every word. It’s when you notice you don’t stride but shuffle, and walking up a hill or a flight of stairs is a challenge. And it’s when getting out of a deep comfy couch requires assistance and when sitting on the floor with your great-grandchildren is not possible at all, not if you want to get up, that is! And it’s when things you always did are no longer easy, things like vacuuming or moving a piece of furniture. Old age is when everything is something you think about before you do it. It’s your punishment for living too long. It remains greatly preferred to the alternative.
Old age is very much the feet of the matter! They hurt. This lady, me, used to wear spike heels to work. Why, I don’t really know, but the choice, the option, no longer exists. I’m happy to get any shoes to fit properly. Usually I cannot. I even had shoes custom made. Useless! A thousand bucks tossed. Those ugly shoes still hurt and are buried in a closet, awaiting feet that will never don them.
Is it the hair that signals people that they are in the presence of a human antique ? My hair, once a rich chestnut brown, a proud shiny mane, with the gleam of youth and vitality, is now a mop of dull gray, not even an elegant pure white. I don’t dare to dye it. I see others and I know that’s not a look I would choose. Flaming red or jet black or never-been-blonde-before. No. Not me.
Is it the wrinkled face? They’re not terrible in the mirror, those endless lines and folds, but I know, in actuality, they’re there, all over, well-earned and well creased. And on the arms and legs as well.
Is it the hands? The prominent veins and gnarled fingers are a give-away clue that this is an ancient being. These hands struggle with opening jars and complain that the lids are too tight. This is me!
Is it the pounds? I went from comfortably plump to, well, more than comfortable. I need clothes that stretch to my shape and I never expect to look glamorous ever again. I aim for neatness. That’s the only description that still works.
Is it the mind? It’s here and then it’s not. I remember. And then I don’t. I struggle with a name and then recall an unrelated phone number from 70 years ago, a useless recollection for sure. My memory is like digging through a mound of mud, rinsed clear at times, and impenetrable at others.
And the worst part of all this is that there’s no hope of it ever getting better.
But I do still remember Rita, and I mourn her. I have never forgotten her. May she rest in peace!
Now I ponder my brand new status, as the eldest of the cousins. Will the others expect wisdom from me? Doubtful. Will they look to me for leadership? In what? No. They’ll chug along and hope that it’s a long time before they inherit my position. I hope so too!