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96: The Best Year of My Life

Contrary, it seems, to most expectations, at 96 years old, I am content. I’m happy to still be alive, breathing, and feeling good. And this particular year was a very good year. The winter wasn’t too cold and the summer wasn’t too hot. Unlike so many states, western Washington experienced only a few days of unhealthy air from giant forest fires. What a gift!

Much of my early life, I was bored, totally bored. Bored in dull classes, bored by a simple-minded job, bored waiting for something to happen, bored when there was nothing to read. Now, at 96, I am never bored. I sense the softness and sweetness of the passing years, the sympatico affection of so many others, the brightness of the human spirit, the eternal wonder of each passing thought. I no longer need to be doing, making, or learning.

Mine has been a marvelous life full of love and affection. I had a long enough marriage and raised two wonderful children, now in their seventies and my dearest friends. I enjoyed one madly passionate love affair, so mad that I never longed for another. I have had a multitude of friends of all kinds, ages, and intentions, and I still do.

My career as an anthropologist, begun at mid-life, was thrilling; as a fieldworker I studied and occasionally lived with a Roma tribe, the Machvaia, until I felt that I understood them. When, after several decades, they “went American,” as they called it, and what I learned was transformed into history, I became a writer so that my beloved Lola and the people I had learned to care for wouldn’t be forgotten. Gemma Media published two of my books, Lola’s Luck and Church of Cheese.

Unlike most anthropologists, my fieldwork wasn’t sponsored by grants of money. Most of the agencies that I approached for help seemed to think that a Gypsy was something like a Halloween costume. Persisting in my study for several decades, I worked maybe forty jobs, mostly on a part-time basis. In terms of income, there were good times and bad. When times were especially tough, I would move in with Katy, my Machvanka buddy, and sleep on her sofa.

And yet how satisfying to consider that I have done nearly everything I ever wanted to do or could imagine doing. I have enjoyed many glories of the arts, including some of my century’s best music and dancing. I spent several years and dozens of days and nights in Manhattan at bravura performances. These included Balanchine’s American School of Ballet when it was still incredibly fresh and effective, occasional Carnegie Hall concerts—the pianist Myra Hess was one—a number of musicals like “Pajama Game” and “My Fair Lady,” dramas, and many Off- Broadway plays like “Tiger at the Gates.” I also social danced frequently and for more than a decade at Roma weddings, Gypsy weddings where the heat of camaraderie was poignant and the music was often Jewish Klezmer.

My artful advantages began early. As child and teenager, I was given lessons in piano, elocution, singing, dance, and figure skating. As an adult, I spent a multitude of Sundays at the Metropolitan Museum, often in a room of delightful Bonnards. I would alternately visit New York’s Museum of Modern Art and top off the viewing with a delicious snack.

Years later, in Paris, I enjoyed the paintings and sculptures in many more museums. The month my sisters and I lived in the Marais, we favored the nearby Picasso. France was the only country I have ever wanted to visit, and I did so several times. My friend the remarkably talented and entertaining Michele Brabo, able photographer and former Music Hall performer, was my host in Paris, and in the Camarque, and again in her childhood home high on a hill in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Ajjir area.

On several occasions, my little family and I camped away from the city lights and under a canopy of stars at Yosemite Park, Canyon de Chelly, and in the Navaho/Hopi area, as well as several National Parks in Maine and Massachusetts. One wild, wet, and stormy summer week, we stayed in a cheap motel in Truro on Cape Cod.

Although not particularly athletic, as a teenager I found delight in riding my English racing bike all over Spokane’s South Hill. I also swam each summer weekday morning in the local public pool. Now, to keep in shape and feel good, I walk twenty minutes every day, even days I am a bit under the weather. I am so glad that I can still walk, even though it is with some difficulty and with a walker. I consider the pleasure of walking, and my occasional awkward attempts at running, one of my life’s most significant joys.

These last years I am pleased to have wound up in Seattle. I live in a condo that my wise and clever sister Joan left me. My neighbors are mostly in their twenties and thirties and kindly willing to help someone older. I don’t mind asking for help. There is nothing in life that matters as much as the people you care for; asking for help is part of becoming old and requiring new friends and new accommodations. Most of my family lives in the Seattle area; I admire and adore my family. All my beloved sisters are now dead, two recently. But I still have nephews, nieces, cousins, and a kind brother who often drives me where I need to go. My beautiful daughter, talented son, and amazing granddaughter, the fabulous Elicia, former ballerina who is a whiz at anything she tries, are the most help. Asking them for help gives me the pleasurable opportunity to see them.

When I am gone, I don’t want to leave a ton of trash and valuables behind for my family to puzzle over. This past year has been a time of giving away. I gave all my porcelain and my gold and diamond jewelry to my family; I gave the soup plates to my son and most of the earrings and bracelets to Ari, my delightful niece. She wears them well and whenever she visits, I get to see them again. These days, when anyone admires what I am wearing or that is part of my household belongings I like to say “Here! Take it.” Giving is a simple joy that I embrace.

As often as I can I like to remain in my robe and the cozy nightgown that I slept in. To softly cushion and warm my bare toes, I like to pull on my big furry Uggs boots. On these days I exercise by walking in the halls and cheerily greeting neighbors. Other days, I am busy with friends who visit, email, and call. I read, write, and nap. On Saturday, I love going to Diva Espresso for coffee and a giggle with my good buddy David.

There is nothing anymore that I must do, nowhere that I need to go, no money that I need to make, nothing to win, no tests to take, cakes to bake, beds to make, and nothing to prove. These days, living is easy. This is my best year ever.

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