Last Thanksgiving I spent some time with a strikingly beautiful octogenarian, a Dorothy Dandridge type beauty who spoke Spanish the way only a black Latina of her generation can – perfect enunciation with a striking and characteristic prolongation of the trill on the “r”s and “rr”s. She looked as if she’d just stepped out of the 1940’s silver screen. I fell in love with her immediately and talked about her for days.
Lucia (not her real name) was clearly someone who had taken care of herself. She had beautiful long hair, perfectly coiffed, a figure devoid of extra weight and a lovely style of dress. She was a vision, not just of superficial beauty but manifesting a sense of caring and pride in herself. I could see also that she was cared for.
There were some personal things that made her special to me. She reminded me of my Aunt Fidencia and her beautician friends – all black and from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Meeting her provided me with the opportunity to speak Spanish which is increasingly rare for me these days. Also, she was part of my extended family by marriage, part of the mespuchah as the Jewish people say.
But as I continued to consider her impact on me, I realized a few other important things.
Seeing Lucia and spending time with her showed me some important things about living long and well. Lucia lives with her daughter, her son-in-law and grandchildren. She was surrounded on Thanksgiving Day by a huge crowd of family and friends, of all ages. In-laws, cousins, friends, grandchildren all came together across generations, threw open the gates of nuclear family constriction, and shared the spirit of the day. I felt fortunate to witness the way that love and connection always makes life better just as they most certainly prolong our days.
On hearing some old Puerto Rican tunes, Lucia started to sing and her daughter and several family members joined in. While she smiled and sang, the twinkle in Lucia’s eyes conveyed her joy, and revealed to the astute observer that she could still locate her delight in living. A sense of humor and the capacity to laugh are, after all, markers of longevity!
I was delighted to make her acquaintance! Or so I thought.
Lucia kept saying, “We’ve met before in Puerto Rico. At Doña Petra’s house.” I didn’t remember a Doña Petra, and Lucia’s daughter and I tried a couple of times to convince her that she was mistaken. Considering her age and the customary problems of memory, we didn’t persist too long. How funny it was, then, to subsequently discover that Lucia and I had indeed met in Puerto Rico thirty-four years before when my daughter was a newborn. While visiting Puerto Rico to see my daughter’ paternal grandfather, we’d gone to visit his mother, the baby’s paternal great grandmother, Doña Petra.
Another lesson! Our elders have always something to teach us and even they can give us back our memories.
But I don’t want to suggest everything was perfect. Lucia had one noticeable problem. She was hard of hearing. How much this loss can drag elders away from the world – making it hard to engage fully with others and pulling them into a world that is increasingly silent!
Hearing loss is one of the many challenges of aging, and as with other challenges of this period, elders are called to let go and to find ways to turn losses into gifts. I don’t yet know how Lucia copes with her hearing loss, but I do pray she finds in this loss, an opportunity to turn her attention to what matters most – a warm embrace, the comfort of a satisfying interior life, and faith in her family and whatever higher power she holds dear. I could tell by meeting her (again) that whatever strategies she is using, she is coping well!