The other day while driving back from Boston, I was listening to an episode of the TED Radio Hour called "The Fountain of Youth" and another called "Shifting Time". As I listened to them I was reminded of a woman I met when I was in eighth grade who changed the way I think about growing older, and what it means to be happy, even at 98.
I went to Catholic School from pre-school through to eighth grade. And, while the mid-calf length kilts and men's button down shirts still haunt my fashion nightmares, there were some good things I learned in my 10 years there.
In eighth grade we were assigned (at random) to community service projects. As seventh graders I remember we dreaded our assignments. Would we be forced to pick up garbage around the school? Would we be made to help out in the kindergarten classrooms? Would we have to help out at the hospital? Or worst of all, would we have to spend time at the local home for the elderly?
I hoped and prayed that I would not receive this last assignment. I had, at some point, developed a fear of the elderly. And I believe that this can, at least in part, be traced to the times as preschoolers and kindergartners we had to go to the convent attached to the school to parade around in our Halloween costumes, or sing new songs we had learned as bony hands stretched out to give us pats on the head and candy.
Needless to say, when I was handed the piece of paper that said I was volunteering at St. Joseph's Home, and I would be doing arts activities with the elderly there, I was panic stricken.
I can vividly remember our first day there. St. Joseph's was within walking distance of our school, and the retirement home was surrounded by a graveyard (even then I thought it a rather grim setting for those who were nearing the ends of their lives). We walked into the Home, and the smell that is so characteristics of retirement and convalescent homes hit us like a brick wall. The coloring and decorations were grim, the cinderblock walls were painted white, with catholic nicknacks and statuary hanging sparsely here and there. The lighting was of dim, old, fluorescent bulbs that gave the room the cheer of a morgue. And the attempts at color were bits of furnishing and doilies in those long faded yellow-orange and putrid green colors that belonged in the dark paneling of a sixties living room.
We spent our time with the residents in the basement, or as they put it "garden level" cafeteria. And on the first day we were introduced to the the women that would become the regulars of our group. Because I am dreadful with names, I have long forgotten most of the introductions, but one particular woman stood out, Marie.
Marie quickly became my friend, or as close to a friend as one can become when you only visit with a person ever two weeks or so. She was 98-years-old and grew up near my home town in Northern Vermont. We bonded over life in Franklin County, and she would ask me how things had changed in St. Albans since she had attended St. Mary's Academy there decades before.
Her white hair was half-heartedly done in the classic grandma cut, and her clothes were always slightly disheveled, but her eyes and her wit were as bright as I'm sure they would have been when she was back at St. Mary's. She never stuttered, or was at a loss for words, and over coloring and cutting out little bible scenes she would tell endless stories.
It was over one such session that she looked up at me, leaned toward me and said, "You know what keeps you young even when you're my age?" As a 13-year-old, I had no reply. "What makes you young at 98 is laughing, and love. Laughing keeps you young, and love gives you something to live for."
As a rather serious, and less than popular child, somehow I had the smarts enough to take this moment to heart. And since that interaction, I have not feared getting older. And I have made, though it sound cliché writing it down, love and in particular laughter a part of how I live my life.
Its hard to fear the future when the future holds the next opportunity to laugh, and it is far more fun to laugh when you have somebody to do it with.
Though Marie has probably long since passed away, I keep thinking about her. While some people fear their next birthday, reunion, or anniversary, I figure the passage of time is just another opportunity collect stories, and to find the right people to laugh with.