Thursday, July 11, 2013

Still Alive and Well

Elizabeth Zelvin

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 didn’t write that. It’s the chorus of a song the legendary Weavers sang in the Fifties. I used to think it was simply funny. But as I get older...and older...and older…it gets more and more relevant.

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.

My father used to do that. Literally. If he spotted somebody he knew in the New York Times obituaries, he would read it out to my mother and whoever else was around at the time. He’d start by announcing, in a tone of unmistakable satisfaction: “So-and-so dropped dead yesterday.” He wasn’t heartless. If it was someone he liked who died, he would feel appropriate regret. But his first reaction was to feel reassured about knowing that he was still a survivor.

I’m currently sixty-nine, in my last year in the decade that some people nowadays call “the new thirties.” With my contemporaries, I find myself participating in “the organ recital” that inevitably forms part of every conversation. Sure, some of us have good genes and pay a lot of attention to staying fit. But to some extent, there’s no denying the machinery is wearing out. We lose friends more and more frequently, and the famous people we think of as ageless—writers and other creative artists, athletes, politicians—show up in the obits.

On the other hand, what I used to think of as “old” is not the same as it used to be. When I was a college English major in the Sixties, one of my favorite literary novelists (we just called them novelists back then) was Muriel Spark. In her novel Memento Mori, she wrote about a number of interrelated characters who, after they turned seventy, all began to get anonymous and untraceable phone calls. The callers—no two characters heard the same voice—would say simply, “Remember you must die,” the literal meaning of the Latin phrase memento mori. The idea from a literary and philosophical point of view was that the calls weren’t death threats or criminal in any way, but Death itself calling with a simple reminder.

Fifty years later, I’m kind of horrified at the idea that I might have to start considering my mortality at the age of seventy—unless illness or bad luck put me in a situation in which I do. Ninety would be more like it. I’m glad I’ve already done many of the things I’ve dreamed of doing, including publishing my novels, releasing an album of my music, and getting to enjoy my granddaughters. I don’t know what’s next, but in some ways, it feels like I’m just getting started.


Sheila Connolly said...

As you know, I just spent two weeks in Italy with forty women from my college class. We all know exactly how old we are: 62-63. It was eye-opening. We did not talk about our spouses/partners and children (that is, we did not define ourselves by those around us). We did not compare medical histories or which medications we were taking (even though there were two among us who had had brain surgery). We did not talk about professional achievements or, conversely,"what might have been."

We were in the moment, enjoying the company of interesting, intelligent women. No way anyone could look at this group and call us "old." It gives me hope.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I salute you and your classmates--and predict that in another 5 or 6 years, at least a few minutes of "the organ recital" will creep into almost every conversation. :)