Back in the Fifties, the Weavers used to sing a song:
How do I know my youth is all spent
My get-up and go has got up and went
But in spite of it all, I’m able to grin
When I think of the places my get-up has been.
I’ve been unable to find the songwriter. Most references I googled said “Anonymous,” and the book Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul claims it’s copyrighted material without saying who holds the copyright. I sang that song myself many times long before anybody took chicken soup out of the bowl and put it between book covers. And I had the impression it was written by Lee Hayes, the legendary bass vocalist with the Weavers.
As I get older…and older and older…the song, which I always thought was fun, gets more and more relevant. My father, who lived to 91, used to be the living embodiment of the final stanza:
I wake up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
And if I’m not there, I know I’m not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and roll back in bed.
I’ve reached an age at which my contemporaries are starting to die of what’s sometimes called natural causes at what we used to consider old age. I’ve had interesting friends all my life. Even if I hadn’t seen or been in contact with some of these people for decades, they remained vivid in my mind. I always assumed that one day they’d pick up the phone or I’d shoot them an email, and we’d pick up exactly where we left off. It’s been a shock to realize that with some of them, that isn’t going to happen.
As a lifelong writer whose first novel came out this year, I admit one of my many feelings on learning of the passing of these friends from junior high and high school is disappointment that they’ll never know I’ve finally achieved this cherished ambition or get to enjoy the book. But of course, that’s not all. I feel cheated of the catching up and schmoozing we could have done. I want to know how they were affected by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the Sixties and by the women’s movement later on. I want to know if they got to write their books and paint their pictures and play their music and travel all over the world. I want to know if they had fun. I want to know if they were happy.
Several of the friends I’ve lost were academics. To some extent, they lived the lives that most of our parents back in Queens expected us to. I’m in the other group, those that jumped the rails—and believe me, for this old English major, running off with genre fiction was an act of rebellion—and reinvented ourselves every few years. On the other hand, academics of our generation could be and often were political firebrands. Having survived all that, they should be retiring—a state that no longer means golf and bridge and Florida as it did in my parents’ day, but a turning of their energies to a new set of dreams and ambitions. Another, whose career was even more checkered than mine—poet, therapist, and stand-up comic (“I’m not a shrink, I’m an expand!”)—got cancer shortly after finally inheriting enough to relieve his endless scrabbling for a living.
For those who had kids, I hate the fact that they won’t get to see their grandchildren grow up, in some cases, will never know them. Grandkids are the payoff for all that showing up for adult life and what kids put parents through. Let’s see, my granddaughters are four and 18 months. If I live as long as my mother did (and let the planet please not fall apart by then), I have a good chance of dancing at their weddings, cradling their children, and maybe even holding their first published books in my hands.