This is my Aunt Hilda at her 95th birthday party—in fact, her second party. The first took place a couple of days after her actual birthday at her son’s home in Seattle. On the big day itself, she played tennis and went dancing with her boyfriend. Two months later, she flew across the country to celebrate with East Coast friends and family at her other son’s in New Jersey, where a cousin took this picture.
My dentist always says, “Don’t count on your genes.” (Subtext: You still have to floss.) But how can I help it? I’ve got such terrific genes. My father’s teeth, which I’ve inherited, lasted him just fine till 91. I’ve also got his skin, as I explain to anyone who asks why I don’t use makeup. “My father didn’t use makeup,” I say, “and he had skin like a baby’s till the day he died.” The indomitability, though—the sheer indestructible joie de vivre—come from my mother’s side. My grandmother lived to 92, still went swimming in her 80s, and played the piano till a few weeks before her death. My mother still went swimming in the ocean till 90 and in the bay till 95. And at 96, she was pretty pissed off about not being able to go in. She never quite stopped dickering with her publisher about the possibility of a new edition of her encyclopedia of real estate appraisal, which brought in royalties for decades. She studied a couple of computer languages in the 80s—her 80s—and regretted that the Internet came along just a little too late for her to master it.
Aunt Hilda was the youngest of four daughters, the only one born in America. She represented the one last try for a boy, and in later years, she admitted to having felt her parents’ disappointment. My mother, who came through Ellis Island at the age of four and went to law school at 1921, had trouble getting a job as a lawyer—as did all the women, a small band, in her law school sorority—and finally made a place for herself in a publishing company. She found Hilda a job with the same publisher, and was then horrified when Hilda got in trouble for union organizing. She thought her little sister was reckless, while Hilda thought my mother lacked social conscience.
Fast forward many years. Both Hilda and my mom had happy marriages. Both had children. But while my parents grew old together, Uncle Bud, who was an unqualified sweetheart, died of cancer when Hilda was still in her 60s. That’s when Hilda learned to play tennis, as a way of getting herself out into the world and connecting with people. She used to say she had to work at it. But her determination paid off. She still has friends—old friends now—from those days. She also went back to school, as did my mother, some time before “lifelong learning” and career changes became common for women in their 60s. Hilda got a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation and worked in that field for a number of years. My mother got a doctorate in political science and taught Constitutional law.
A lifelong New Yorker, Hilda moved to Seattle in her late 80s to be near her older son. But she didn’t move in with him. In a retirement home that she describes as “like the kind of hotel we couldn’t afford,” she made friends, explored the city, found activities and tennis partners, and eventually, at the age of 92, fell in love with a younger man, a widower of 83. They have a thoroughly modern relationship, going about their business every day, meeting for dinner, and spending evenings together. They’ve considered moving in together but rejected the idea. This works just fine.
Seventeenth-century French author, saloniste, and courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos is remembered for still having lovers at the age of 70. (How’s that for 300-year-old gossip?) In my family, that fails to impress. I once pointed out Betty Friedan to my mother in a restaurant, shortly after Friedan wrote The Fountain of Age, her book about the golden years after menopause. “How old is she?” my mother asked. “About 70,” I said. “Oh, 70!” said my mother dismissively. Aunt Hilda might say the same about Ninon de l’Enclos. And Ninon didn’t even play tennis.