Lying on the back seat of my mother’s car as she drove to Rike’s department store in downtown Dayton, I mused over my impending birthday. I was about to turn a double-digit age for the first time. I also considered the marathon few complete between 10 and a triple-digit age.
This past May, I wrote about two friends in their late 90s: Barbara Campbell and Bascom Biggers. Barbara began sending me handwritten letters in 2017, a few months after I began writing this column. For three years, our relationship was strictly epistolary. Then, when she moved to New Hampshire in 2020 to be near family, we began talking regularly on the phone.
Barbara turned 97 this past March. In June, I sent her a card with a clipping from this paper, a satirical op-ed in which the writer wondered what version of the Bible that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reads, because her copy is clearly different than his.
Over the years, Barbara has sent me many clippings from newspapers and magazines, most of them humorous. Sadly, she never received my last letter. After a brief illness, Barbara died on June 25. I’d never seen a photo of her until I received her obituary. She looks as infectiously delightful as she always was in her letters and our phone conversations.
Barbara chose happiness over sadness, gratitude over bitterness. She lost her first husband and one of their sons within a matter of months. The year before she moved, she was struck by a car while walking from her own car in the parking lot of her apartment building, which left her with lingering pain.
Rather than complain, Barbara spoke graciously about the people in her life and all she enjoyed. Her avocation was to make people laugh; even in her final days she was telling jokes during dinners at her assisted living community. When we discussed challenges, such as COVID and other unpleasant news, she always ended by saying, “It’s in God’s hands.”
If there is a heaven, Barbara is there giggling with those whom she’s reunited. I miss her voice, her abundant encouragement and joyful commentary. Every conversation with Barbara was like receiving a bright bouquet of homegrown flowers.
I have met centenarians, but never have I had a dear friend turn 100. That is, until last weekend. I’ve written several columns about Bascom, with whom I became friends when he was but a spry 86.
Except when I’m in Michigan during the summer or, in recent years, when COVID rates spike in the region, I see Bascom every other week. I arrive at his home mid-afternoon and often stay until 10.
We talk nonstop about everything from politics to pets. And, like many a senior, Bascom reminisces about what Proust called les temps perdus. His mother, Rose, born in 1901, was intelligent and capable. She led a stifled life as a stay-at-home wife and mother.
Bascom adored Rose and by the time he was an adolescent, he was perhaps her best confidant. Knowing him, it’s easy to imagine Bascom tried to make his mother happy when her circumstances, proscribed by the times and her station, left her bored and unsatisfied.
His father, Buck, was tenderhearted, which Bascom didn’t realize until he was a young man. Buck had steely gray eyes that could stop a child in his tracks. But when Bascom was fighting in the European theater in World War II, his father’s letters referred to Bascom as “my darling boy” and, clearly concerned he may never see his son again, expressed just how much he loved him.
Perhaps it’s simply the function of age, but I wonder if his relationships with his parents are what made Bascom such a ruminator. He reads widely, maintains a core circle of friends and is more engaged with life than many who are decades younger. However, his ruminating often extends into overthinking, which in turn impedes his happiness.
Last Saturday, on his 100th birthday, Bascom and I sat on his living room couch where the largest wall of the room is almost entirely glass, minimizing the separation of the indoors from the surrounding forest where his home is situated.
After an hour, we left to have dinner with his friend Laura and her husband, Michael. (Laura does all the things, which are many, that allow Bascom to stay in his home.) Or so Bascom thought. In reality, several friends were waiting at the restaurant and we pulled off a surprise party that I was not confident the guest of honor would enjoy.
He loved it. At times the noise made it hard for Bascom to hear, but he told the group it didn’t matter, their love was as clear as could be. Then, when we returned home, he promptly began worrying if it was OK if people loved him more than he loved them.
In my birthday card to Bascom I wrote, “I wish I could help you fret less and laugh more.” I also included Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day,” which ends, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?”
It is a question worth asking every year, even for those lucky enough to reach triple-digit ages.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 21, 2022.