There’s an old saying that getting old is not for sissies. As our bodies age, as our reflexes and intellectual processes slow, it’s easy to get discouraged, but a Charlottesville author has written a new book offering encouragement from some of the nation’s famous elders. Sandy Hausman spoke with her and filed this report.
Elizabeth Howard’s father was an advertising executive in the early days of Madison Avenue and later a professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business. She recalls him fondly in her new book – Aging Famously and reads from its introduction.
“My father taught me to look to the stars, the big and little dipper and Orion the Hunter, whose belt shines three lights in a row," she wrote. " He taught me to love laughter as well as Virginia Woolf, haiku, butterflies, Broadway, old movies and the streets of New York. He taught me to work every day at something I believe in, to eat what was put in front of me, to say thank you and I’m sorry, and mean it, to be on time and never to go to bed angry. To walk the beach in summer and winter, to save bees and bats and anything that lives. He taught me to keep going when he no longer could.”
So when he passed away, she was bereft.
“However weary and worn, he held on until Christmas, 2000. We opened a few presents at his bedside. That night he sank into a deep sleep that lingered for more than a week. My father lived until January 5th, seeming to have willed himself into the new century and three days past his 90th birthday. I was thankful for his many years, but when they ended even 90 felt too few.”
As she grieved, Howard realized the mantle of senior citizen was now on her shoulders. She wondered how others had weathered the storms of later life and set out to talk with people admired by her generation. As a journalist, she had great respect for newsman and TV pioneer Walter Cronkite and was able to arrange an interview with him at CBS in New York.
“I was really nervous," she recalls . " I walked around the block about 20 times before I went in, and he’s a little man! And then I kind of relaxed after I saw he wasn’t eight feet tall.”
As they talked, she was struck by his curiosity.
“Walter Cronkite wanted to have a camera set up in the operating room when he had his appendix taken out, because he wanted to see how that was done,” she marvels.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was taller and less welcoming.
“He was sitting behind the desk, and he was reading the New York Times and he didn’t stop reading when I came in,” Howard explains.
Eventually he put down the paper and shared his unique perspective on the challenges of staying healthy in later life.
“There was one line that he said that I think about a lot at this point in my own life," Howard says. "If God was going to take him, he didn’t want to be taken in salami slices. He said, ‘Take me all at once of not, but not in salami slices.”
Actor Dennis Weaver spent his later years crusading for environmental causes, and actor Hal Holbrooke, known for his portrayal of Mark Twain on stage, also has a mission.
“He’s a very complicated person," Howard says. "There’s a lot of anger in him really, but he has been pursuing what he saw as The Right, and he had strong feelings about racism, and he used Mark Twain as a way to express his opinions on that.”
Some of the people she interviewed had started new careers in later life. Others went back to something they had loved and lost. Esther Tuttle, for example, quit show business when she married, but returned to acting after her husband died.
“In her mid-70’s she went back and got her equity card updated, and she went to work. She was off Broadway, she was in a number of commercials and print ads and loved it.”
Author Elizabeth Howard will share other stories from her book – Aging Famously – September 15th at the New Dominion Bookstore and September 22nd at Charlottesville’s Senior Center. For more information go to www.agingfamously.com