Old People

We are kind of odd in my family when it comes to our expectations about aging.  Although my father died very young, at 60, my sibs and I think we’re going to live into healthy old age.  At 80, Mother is going strong (to say the very least). My father’s parents made it into their mid-80s with little fuss.  They had what Andrew Weil and other gurus of aging allude to as a precipitous decline: a few months of serious illness before dying.  For my mother’s mother it was similar.  Although Sena (whom I have blogged about earlier) had some very serious mental difficulties, she lived into her mid-80s, in the care of my grandfather most of that time.

And he’s the one, the source of our insouciance.  At 75 he was still running the sawmill on Mt. Lemmon and one day was carried off the back of the logging truck by a stiff wind.  Broken neck.  (And, perhaps more dangerous than the incident itself, there was the long drive down the mountain with my grandmother at the wheel while he tried to hold his head still.)  At the hospital the doctor said, “Why Mr. Zimmerman, you should be dead.”  At 95 he started his flannel shirt on fire while warming himself over the burners on the stove.  Third-degree burns over part of his back and a birthday celebrated in St. Mary’s burn unit.  A few years later he fell off the roof of the shed in his backyard.  No real damage.  At 101 he broke his hip in a more pedestrian manner but did walk again.  He died at 104 after a massive stroke, with a killer living will in place that meant no fuss, no muss.  When it came to his own sense of aging, I don’t think his horizon ever shifted.  Old was somewhere out there, just over the next hill.

Family lore has it that granddaddy’s father died at 100 falling out of a tree.  (Nope, no more details, but he was not looney, as they say, and was up that tree for some good reason.)  So we’re hoping those are the genes we got.  Well, really we’re assuming those are the genes we got.  Live strong, live long, don’t be afraid to climb onto the roof or into trees because you are old.  Ironically, my brother is president of a quickly growing senior living company and I see him bringing these same expectations to the company’s programming.  As much as it is the fashion in the senior living industry to tout physical wellness and brain fitness programs, he has created a particularly sophisticated and savvy suite of programs and does not think they should be limited to those types who are obviously hale and hearty.  If somewhere in their lives that go-get-’em spirit (marking them out as the roof/tree climbers in our exaggerated familial experience) has abated, residents in his communities, mostly through these programs, are encouraged to re-discover it.  Why not, for goodness sakes?

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Company in the Kitchen

Mt Lemmon Store and Inn, Summerhaven, Arizona

Mt Lemmon Store and Inn, Summerhaven, Arizona

I think there is no other place in my life that I have as much company as when I am in the kitchen cooking. There’s Bev, my friend Linda’s mother, who one day in the kitchen at my house demonstrated the correct way to use a pepper mill. Held at a tilt with back and forth grinding motion. Bev was one of the loveliest people I have ever known (who was not at all discomforted when I told her that), and the last day I spent with Bev, not too long before she died, was spent watching Rick Steve eat his way through Europe, and ended with her daughters and me cooking dinner together and us all sitting down to eat. It was a good day.  Then there is my aunt Norma, who, with Uncle Dick, came to stay with us when my family all gathered as my father lay dying. Over those three weeks there was lots of cooking (and drinking). Norma likes the water to be really, really boiling before you put the pasta in. More recently there is Frances. She and her partner were over for a BBQ some months ago and I was getting my normal kick out of spraying the Pam on the gas grill after I had already lit it. She made me promise not to do that any more. Promise. So when I use a pepper mill, boil water for pasta or BBQ there’re Bev, Norma or Frances.  And I really enjoy the company.

The ur-ness of all this sense of presence in the kitchen is perhaps that my mother tells me that I cook like her mother. A big part of this commonality is that neither of us address(ed) our tasks in the kitchen with that tidiness flag flying too high. I can mess up a kitchen and apparently she could too. But the bigger part of the resemblance, I like to think, is an elegant kitchen bustle and the joyousness in cooking for lots of people. I am not sure how she practiced her craft — family recipes, continual invention and experimentation, cookbooks — but Grandma Z was known to be a good cook. She and my grandfather built and ran The Mt. Lemmon Inn on Mt Lemmon outside Tucson and people would make the long trip up the mountain just to have some of her pie. Our family still occasionally has the enchiladas that she showed her girls how to cook but the recipe has gone no further. (Grandma died several years ago at the end of an attenuated mental decline and my mother, now 80, is concentrating on writing rather than cooking, as she has as long as I can remember.) In my sometimes hyperkinetic world, cooking is one of the most naturally relaxing and feet-planting things I do. I like to think that might be Grandma.