Follow those you admire to living long and well
By Elizabeth Howard
Elizabeth Howard and her father Everard Meade ( Photo courstesy of Pam Perugia Marraccini, 1977)
The great family scandal was that my mother was a year older than my father. One year and 15 days older. Both my parents were Capricorns and happily married for 50 years.
My mother, a petite, stylish and adventurous lady, was, however, always reluctant to reveal her age-- perhaps because she was slightly senior to my father or because she felt youth was the ticket that kept her in the game. Still she was mother, wife, counselor, would-be architect, family archivist, travel and life planner. At 72, she died suddenly in her sleep.
The shock of her death, said my father – a former New York ad man, writer and gentle teacher -felt like “a black hole in space.” Her death left him alone in the house they’d designed together. At first he said, “It’s your mother’s house. I don’t feel I should move a thing.” But in time — favored with good health and the affection of family, friends and even lovers — he found ways to comfortably rearrange the house and to move forward. He adapted to his losses, and although he had no apparent master plan for successful aging, his instinctive solutions served him well. He was my hero and a role model. He would live to 90, setting a worthy example through the years.
At my father’s death, I was abruptly elevated to family elder, a role I was less than eager to assume. When ready to consider how best to face my last decades, I, as a journalist, sought the company and wisdom of the experts – mentors and role models a decade or so ahead whom I admired for their creativity and continued engagement in their passionate pursuits. These older men and women were also curious, optimistic and natural risk takers. Some were famous.
Inspired by my father, I met resilient and persevering role models in my hometown of Charlottesville Virginia, my childhood home, New York City, and on winter visits to Key West, Florida. I share their stories and tactics for successful aging in my book, Aging Famously: Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well.
I started next door with my neighbor, Hartwell Wyse Priest, an artist who at 77 lost her husband and grown daughter. She found solace painting and making prints of the pre-cambrian rocks and weathered pines and birches on her summer island in Georgian Bay. “After Marianna and A.J. died, I worked more intensely than ever,” she said. “Making prints is a natural escape into a creative activity that I needed. It is good to escape to the work. A part of me was waiting to be developed until I got over the shock and the grief.” Hartwell lived to 103.
Hartwell Wyse Priest in her studio
In New York, I met Jean Bach, a former radio producer for Arlene Francis, who when widowed at 71, turned her talents to making her first film – a documentary about the jazz greats. Her film was nominated for an Academy Award. “I guess the film was an extension of learning a new skill and new stuff about these great people, most of whom I’d known for a good bit of my life: Sahib Shihab, Art Blakey, Bud Freeman, Count Basie, Max Kaminsky and Dizzy Gillespie,” said Jean. “So many have died since the film was made…I think I’ve done a little bit to keep the consciousness going. In the film Sonny Rollins says, ‘What’s the point of living to be 100 if you don’t accomplish something?’ I gave it a lot of thought.” And action. She lived to 94.
Jean Bach, Liz Smith and Bobby Short (Photo courtesy of Liz Smith)
Famed broadcaster Walter Cronkite stepped away from his CBS anchor chair at the mandatory retirement age of 65. He admitted to feeling adrift, uncertain at first where to focus his still considerable energy and concerns. He elected to press on, to keep writing his less than objective opinions, to keep seeking and learning. “I feel I’m open to new ideas. I’m curious about everything,” he said. “I don’t read a piece in the paper that doesn’t make me want to know more.” He’d even asked his doctors to rig up a mirror so he could witness his own appendectomy. Cronkite counseled, “Stay curious. Try to beat back the infirmities. Try to avoid sinking into inactivity and disinterest in the world around you.” He lived to 94.
Walter Cronkite (photo courtesy of Steve Friedman)
Actor Hal Holbrook, 90 and determined not to retire, still takes his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!,” on the road. After resting three months from his last national tour, Hal was raring to return. “Being home was OK for a month or so, but it’s driving me crazy,” he said. “The only thing I have left is to go out and do my show, get out there and say something and do something! Get on the damn road and wear yourself out and see if you can still make it. Forget the 90 years old and all that crap and keep going.”
Hal Holbrook (Photo courtesy of Mark M. Murray)
At age 83, actress/comedienne Carol Channing performed her solo show, "The First 80 Years are the Hardest", at the Feinstein Room at New York’s Regency Hotel. By then Carol was blissfully reunited with her teenage first love, Harry Kullijian. They married in 2003 soon after rediscovering their lingering affections needed only the slightest strike of the match. The dinner audience clapped and called for the old standards. Carol pretended amazement; her dark eyes saucered: “You remember!?”We remembered and clapped for more. Carol delivered a still sexy “Razzle Dazzle” with rhinestones sparkling on her toes. She finished with Dolly Levi’s rousing ballad, “Before The Parade Passes By:”
Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian (Photo courtesy of Bill Dow)
With the rest of them, with the best of them
I can hold my head up high
For I’ve got a goal again, I’ve got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by.
(Words and Music by Jerry Herman)
The song perhaps her personal battle hymn, Carol sang an encore, and invited Harry to her side. He took her hand, Carol’s willing partner as they soft-shoed into the spotlight. They ended in step with a gentle kiss.
I remembered my parents dancing out of our New York apartment one New Year’s eve. My father was in top hat and tails, and my mother in a red taffeta evening dress, two people in high spirits, mutually devoted and eager to participate in all they could at whatever age; they knew how to live....
Elizabeth Howard (Photo courtesy of Vito Cetta, 2014)
Elizabeth Meade Howard, author of Aging Famously: Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well, is a former reporter and lecturer at the University of Virginia. She is the art Editor of Streetlight Magazine and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She lives in Charlottesville, VA.