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.
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).
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.