A couple years ago, my grandmother renewed her AARP membership, paying in advance for three years. “I figure I can at least make it to 100,” she said at the time. Last month, my grandmother, Edith, turned 99. We all call her Edie, but don’t be fooled by the sweet nickname. Edie – or Grandma E, as my sister and I call her – is the most determined person I know– one of three key characteristics that I believe enabled her to get to 99 without seeming old.
Since the early 1960’s, she has lived in a DC townhouse spanning three floors. Every day for many decades, she climbed up and down two sets of stairs– from her bedroom on the top floor, down to the kitchen on the bottom and spending most of her day in the den on the middle floor. As she got older, a set of stairs became painstakingly slow, but she kept at it. We’d warn her when dinner was 15 minutes away so she could start making her way down to the dining room. Clutching the railing and moving slowing, she knew that this was the only way to make sure that she could continue doing steps. It was only within the last few years, well past the age of 95, that she stopped climbing the stairs, and only under much duress (and concern that the automated stair chair lift was unsightly).
During some of our visits in recent years–when she was still climbing the stairs herself, but after she had relinquished cooking duties to my sister and me–Edie would come down to the kitchen and keep us company while we cooked dinner. She’d pepper us with questions: what is that? How are you cooking it? What are those spices? Where did you get this recipe? Since she’d pretty much stopped cooking, I used to wonder at these questions. And it isn’t just about food, anything and everything is interesting to her.
My sister once asked our grandmother if she thinks of herself as smart. “I don’t know if I’m smart,” she replied, “But I am curious.” I think Edie’s curiosity keeps her engaged in the world. She always wants to be in the know. Last year, she was thrilled when we bought her an iPad for her birthday. “What’s the difference between an iPad and an iPhone?” she immediately questioned. She doesn’t care about most of the apps and can barely read the text, but she wanted to understand what all of the buzz was about. Edie recently counseled me to say yes to everything, “If you say yes, you keep doing new things.”
Her curiosity has led her to travel in almost every country. When she came to visit me in California many years ago, my mom remarked about how nice California is and suggested that she and Edie come back. “But I’ve seen California now!” my grandmother protested, “Let’s go somewhere new.”
My mom’s theory on Edie’s curiosity is that she is bored by herself since she already knows what is going on in her own life. She wants to learn new things, so she peppers people around her with questions. I think this curiosity about others has meant that she gets engaged in people’s lives– not with a desire to fix or change people, but merely to understand them, probably the most flattering form of attention.
Willingness to Forget
When I visited Edie this past Thanksgiving, she said, “It’s taken me a lifetime, but I’m very grateful for what I have.” I think she was considering our family, her comfort in life, and perhaps her longevity. But the gratitude that she was expressing is a state of mind for her, not just an appreciation of her situation in life. She is always one to make the best of things, to keep moving, and perhaps to ignore some of the bad things.
It drives my mom crazy: she’ll have some memory of a family vacation, a time in high school or a small incident where she felt wronged. Without fail, Edie’s response is, “Really? I don’t remember that.” She is not only unwilling to dwell on the negative, she literally doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t dwell in the past either. When I recently asked her about what her neighborhood was like when she first moved there more than 50 years ago, she spent only a few minutes reminiscing, quickly cutting herself off with a, “well, that’s past. Let’s talk about what’s happening now.”
Though frustrating, it’s core to her youthful, curious spirit. To Edie, the world is pleasant, still full of things to be learned even- or perhaps especially- at the ripe age of 99. This, along with her sheer determination, might just be the secret to a long life.
Photo: Edie a few decades ago.