A year ago, at the age of 92, my widowed mother spent her days in one of south Florida’s numerous four-story, pink cinderblock, sanitized senior communities (“Over 55 years; Children prohibited.”) Other than occasional aches and pains and some loss of hearing, her physical health was remarkably strong. To those who met my mother, her keen memory, sharp opinions, and interest in the world were even more striking.
The problem was that her life in south Florida increasingly meant the loss of friends; an inability to drive and the lack of cultural vitality was causing her to experience a sense of isolation. Frequently our telephone calls were about her naps and feelings of sadness and loneliness. During the 13 years she lived in that community most of her friends had passed; others had moved away to be closer to family or were frail and homebound. They were not easily replaced by the newcomers who were often much younger and of a very different generation.
As my family and I became increasingly concerned, we recalled that six years earlier my mother rejected the suggestion that she move back to New York City where her family lived. At that time she persuasively pointed out that at age 86 she certainly could not just pack up and move like someone half her age.
Nonetheless, she freely admitted to so enjoying her holiday visits to the city that she didn’t need her daily naps. During those visits she easily navigated our neighborhood and ventured downtown by taxi to shop, often having lunch with her granddaughter, and easily staying up well past her usual 8 p.m. Florida bedtime.
As we began to talk seriously about her moving back to the city, my mother’s reaction was no longer dismissive or fearful. This was, after all, the same woman who had stayed in her apartment for four days without electricity in 2006 after a devastating hurricane. This was the same woman who for years cared for her beloved husband of 62 years after he experienced a debilitating stroke. This was the same mother whose competitive spirit required that she win against family and friends when playing canasta and Rummikub.
It was decided, and my mother moved to the Rupert Houses in Manhattan. She now actively attends the 92nd Street Y programs, shops at her corner grocery on Third Avenue, takes cabs to her doctor, walks to her dentist, and meets me at Lincoln Center for the Philharmonic concerts. She finds living in a multi-storied apartment building with mixed ages and cultures to be stimulating rather than intimidating. The vibrant life of the city has fully engaged her: she relishes reading The New York Times every day, having much to say about the city’s politics and personalities.
When I recently asked how she explains her transition to city living she answered without hesitation: “I amaze myself every day.”
Now some eight years later, I found my notes for this piece and want to continue writing it. My mother celebrated her 100th birthday this past January.
Of course, she acknowledges the losses that accompany her at this age: dear and irreplaceable family and friends have passed and are profoundly missed. Yet her resilience is undiminished: She recovered from emergency hip replacement surgery at age 98; she accepted the necessity of having to move to an assisted-living residence which provided safety, independence, and community; her competitive zest for winning at cards and games continues, and she remains deeply invested in her family, joyously walking down the aisle at her granddaughter’s wedding and welcoming her great-grandchild a year ago (“Call me G.G.,” she announced when she met the new baby in the hospital.)
As an American-born child of immigrants, my mother continues her commitment to our best values. She has voted in every election, and wished she could do jury duty when recently summoned. She discusses the changes in marijuana laws and the expansion of the right to marry.
Yet after hearing Donald Trump’s recent comments, my mother shook her head with some sadness and said to me, “Fred Trump is turning over in his grave,” recalling the modest and generous person she knew who helped her Brooklyn community of immigrants build a synagogue during the late 1950s.
At age 100, my mother’s generous heart and her sharp and engaged mind continue to amaze me every day.
Eleanor B. Newirth is an attorney who lives in East Hampton.