Investment of time with oldest friends pays huge dividends

I don’t usually take phone calls when I’m in meetings or with friends, but there are exceptions. One, of course, is any call from one of my children’s schools. Also, from anyone over the age of 90.  

Elderly friends have been a mainstay in my life, possibly due to my long and close relationship with one of my grandmas. After my mother left my father and me when I was a toddler, my father’s mother, who was an elementary school teacher, kept me during the summer and picked me up from day care during the school year. 

Holly Christensen

Grandma was a talker, something my mother and stepfather churlishly joked about whenever they interacted with her. But I loved Grandma’s stories about people I’d never met (usually distant relatives) who lived in places I’d never been (usually Utah, or other parts of the West). 

More:Holly Christensen: Generational effects of COVID coming into view

As much as the elderly love to reminisce, I revel in their recounted pasts, for even stories told many times can offer new bits with each retelling. The oldest among us have witnessed and experienced a world most of us can only imagine. And when they die, they will take their memories with them. 

That’s the poignancy of having dear friends who are in their 90s or more. They have no terminal pathology other than mortality itself, a fact they intimately encounter each day. 

Several years ago, I received a letter from a Beacon Journal reader named Barbara Campbell. We corresponded regularly until January 2020 when she moved to be near her son and his wife in New Hampshire, fortuitously settling into her new apartment just before COVID-19 debuted in America. 

Barbara, who recently turned 97, still sends me encouraging notes, often filled with clippings of funny or warm-hearted stories she’s read, but now we call more than write. Like most of my older friends, she often starts by saying, “I won’t keep you long, I know you’re busy.” 

I’ve written before about my dear friend Bascom who will turn 100 in August. I tell him frequently that I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Like Barbara, age has not diminished Bascom cognitively. In fact, I don’t think anyone discusses all manner of things as well as Bascom does. 

If only it could stay this way. However, ignore it though we might, everything is transitory.  

I thought of Roger Angell as my friend the way many readers do of writers whose essays they regularly read. (David Sedaris and his siblings almost feel like my cousins having read his essays for 30 years.) 

I was introduced to Angell, perhaps best known for his books on baseball, in February 2014 when The New Yorker published his essay “This Old Man.” After reading it, I immediately sent it to a friend who teaches nonfiction writing courses, telling him the essay is about as perfect as it gets. 

“This Old Man” meanders through seemingly scattershot subjects but then Angell — as all philosophers and writers strive to but seldom succeed in doing — pulls together his observations on living, dying, loving, losing and remembering in such an approachable manner that you don’t see him sneaking up to make you suddenly chuckle or sob over a scene your mind momentarily inhabited. And for a few moments, while reading the essay, everything about being human makes sense. 

I went on to read many of Angell’s essays, in part because he kept publishing them. I’ve even found time for some of his pieces on baseball, which among all sports is the one I find the least dull (yeah, go figure). 

Virtuoso writers are not limited by a reader’s preexisting interest in a topic. No, they make the topic compelling by subtly tricking you into thinking you’re reading about X, when really you’re falling for the achingly familiar existential pang of aliveness.  

Besides, when Angell wrote about Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, it was often from memory as, having been born in New York City in 1920, he’d watched them play in situ. 

Without minimizing the work involved in writing well, Angell came by his talent naturally. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor at The New Yorker, a position Angell himself held for many years, starting in 1956. His father was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and his stepfather was author E.B. White. 

In one of my writing courses at the University of Akron, students must pick one important event from their lives and write about it. Many choose to write about the death of a grandparent. I understand why. For most of them, it’s the first deeply felt loss they’ve experienced. 

But inexperienced writers tend to get stuck in superlative circles polished with grief — he was the best grandfather, she baked the best cookies, he gave the greatest gifts, and so on. Rather than approaching the story at the front door, I tell my students, try sneaking in a side window. Write about something less obvious, like your grandad teaching you how to change a car’s oil/tires/battery. 

Angell does exactly this in his essay “Over the Wall.” His wife of 48 years, Carol Rogge Angell, died in 2012, and in the piece, he describes all the things that she doesn’t know, from election outcomes to weather and sporting events to the lives of their children. And in so doing, Angell avoids sentimentality while showing the tugging vacuum created by Carol’s absence in his daily life. 

Angell, who would have been 102 this fall, died May 20. Do yourself a favor and read some of his essays today. Right now, in fact. Many are readily available online, given his recent departure. 

And if, like me, you are lucky to have friends in their 80s, 90s or even 100s, block the door against life’s myriad demands and schedule regular calls and visits with them. And while you’re at it, print out a copy of “This Old Man” and give it to your senior friend. I guarantee it’ll be a hit, if not a home run. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 29, 2022.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Ageism can steal elders who still have many insights to share

I took maternity leave a week before Lyra’s due date. Since her elder brothers had arrived 10 to 14 days late, I figured I had at least a couple of weeks to nest (read: organize every closet and cupboard in the house) before descending into the chaos that accompanies a newborn.

The Saturday after my last day at work, Max took his Uncle Bascom to dinner for his birthday. Twelve-year-old Jules and I watched the documentary “Microcosmos” on the couch. A visually luscious film about insects, it lacks narration. Jules took up the slack and told me all about the creatures on the screen as I ignored my tensing womb.

“I’m in labor,” I told Max when he returned home late that evening. Lyra was born the following afternoon. Bascom cites the proximity of their birthdays, Aug. 13 and 14, as the reason he gives Lyra larger birthday checks than any of our other children.

If you didn’t know when you were born, how old would you believe yourself to be?

Bascom and Holly at the Cleveland Orchestra, winter 2019

Bascom was born in 1922 and Lyra was born in 2012. I think of them as the same age save 90. When she turned 1, he turned 91. Most who meet Bascom, however, take him for someone born in perhaps 1942.

One December, we brought the Firestone Madrigal Choir to Bascom’s home. He listened to them sing while sitting cross-legged on his living room floor, his back straight as a plank. After years of practicing Zen meditation, he sits like a small mountain. Hugo’s choir mates refused to believe he was 93.

I’ve found most people who live well into their 80s or 90s and still have their wits enjoy sharing stories about their lives. I love this, but Bascom is different — he is also a writer. I meet him for lunch every other Friday and he often spends the intervening days thinking about our talks. At our following luncheon, he always asks insightful questions.

Born in Georgia, Bascom still has a soft Southern accent, though he hasn’t lived there in more than three-quarters of a century. His voice reminds me of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who was featured in the Ken Burns documentary on that horrific and fundamental chapter of America’s story.

Bascom in WWII and in 2015

When he fought in the European theater in World War II, Bascom’s best friend was blown up beside him. Bascom carries bits of shrapnel in his body from that moment, for which he received the Purple Heart. In recent years, he has started talking about the war.

“What was his name, your friend in the war?” I asked him over lunch last fall.

“What? I haven’t spoken his name in years. He was Russell Moller, but I just called him Moller, because that’s what you do in the Army.”

Sometimes we laugh so hard, I’m afraid he’s going to aspirate his lunch. Other times we hold hands across the table and weep together. “What am I going to do when you are gone?” I’ve asked him, as he’s very frank about the reality of his age.

Thanks to his physician, I almost learned the answer to my question last month. For months, Bascom complained about reduced energy. His doctor told him not to worry about it, dismissing his concerns as age-related even though, as we later learned, his kidneys’ creatinine levels tested above normal last December.

The week before Easter, Bascom awoke on the floor, not sure how he’d gotten there. It took a few minutes for him to figure out he was in his kitchen. His doctor remained unworried and ran some blood tests. The friend who brought him in suggested that Bascom was dehydrated and needed IV fluids, to which the doctor responded, “Are you in a medical field?”

Bascom fell again the next day and was taken to the emergency room. He had an untreated urinary tract infection that had gone to his bladder and then to his kidneys. Goodness knows how long he’s been struggling with this, given his complaints and test results in December.

Easter Sunday, we did not meditate with the Buddhists, sing with the Christians nor read our three newspapers. Max and I spent the afternoon in the hospital with Bascom. He hates being a bother, but we reminded him that patients with regular visitors have better outcomes.

Ageism. Another nonagenarian, Roger Angell, has written a number of excellent essays in The New Yorker about how the elderly become invisible, their words unheard, their lives misunderstood by the young. Bascom, who subscribes to, and reads, The New Yorker and several other publications, tells me Angell’s essays resonate with him. Of course they do.

Behavior modeled provides the strongest imprint on all offspring. There are many wonderful people who work in nursing homes, but I also know that most people decline rapidly when placed in one. I’ve repeatedly asked my eldest son to promise not to put me in a nursing home.

Bascom is not the first elderly relative my children have seen their parents care for. As young adults, they help, too, by visiting him, running errands or taking care of their youngest siblings so we can help him. But beyond keeping our elders in their homes for as long as possible, my children also know to listen to, and enjoy the company of, their elders.

Our job now is to find Bascom a doctor who listens and takes his concerns seriously. He thankfully survived the war, previous medical events and this latest scare. We want him here as long as possible, for he still has many stories and insights to share with us.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 5, 2019