In the last 30 years (read: my lifetime) I’ve had the fortune of watching several members of my family grow to very old age.  Eight of them lived to their eighties, one all the way to one hundred.  She especially grew sweeter as she grew older.  Her body became dependent on the help of others, and her heart seemed to follow, finally embracing what it had always needed.  She doted on her great-grandchildren, spent hours studying the pictures of a great-great grandchild she’d yet to meet.  She was tiny, sweet woman with beautiful wrinkles, bright eyes, and terrible hearing.  Her eyes were clear and blue through the end and she taught herself to read lips with them, so that while she struggled to participate in group discussions, she persisted with one-on-one conversations and tenaciously kept abreast of her family’s affairs.

My childhood memories of this woman are distinct from the later years.  I have clouded images of an old house with a fascinating church organ we were not allowed to touch.  It was slightly dank and the pink-tiled bathroom may be solely responsible for my continued aversion to that color.  Nana didn’t talk with us much then, that I remember.  She worried a lot and had neck pain that bothered her intensely.  She mostly sat in her rocking chair and adjusted her  brace, her feet occasionally touching the floor.  My sister and I would sit across the room or explore carefully outside while we waited for the visit to end, never stepping too close to the small fence which continually sank further over the eroding cliff that bordered her property.

When she moved into the retirement home, it was with readiness for her life to wind down.  She could no longer take care of her belongings or keep herself in health.  She whittled that house down item after item to fit into a small kitchen-less studio and anticipated a small and quiet ending.

But she was wrong.  Nana lost her independence, the home where she raised her child, the neighborhood she had inhabited for fifty years.  She gave up what had become her life, and she then came alive.  She signed up for water-color painting and we each have her paintings displayed in our homes.  They are simple, but beautiful.  She took a tai chi class and felt the pain in her neck lessen.  She had friends to lunch with each day and took it upon herself to learn the geography of her new town, though she never drove a car again.  She took pride in “treating” us to breakfast with her saved up dining points and wasn’t satisfied until the table was filled with every variety of juices and Eggo waffles available.

Most people in my family maintain that giving up her home and responsibilities added many years to Nana’s life.  And when eventually her health outlived her money, her dependency, and her joy, reached yet a new level.  She became less and less the woman we had known, or even she had known.  If you ask Jaron to do his impression of Nana, he will put on his best high-pitched voice, turn his head to the side while he snaps his wrist and says, “Oooohhh, ooh!!”.  In her later years it didn’t take much to make Nana smile and even an attempt at a joke in her presence got you the rich reward of that expression which Jaron felt the need to master.  She thought less and less of herself and became younger and more beautiful in the process.

As I approach the second third of my lifespan, I think often of Nana.  Here’s to the force of aging.  Here’s to the loss of our self-sufficiency, control,  and possessions, which we would never accept if given the choice.

Tonight I’m making salad for my aunts and uncles.  Watching the vinegar reduce.  Watching it become sweeter over heat.  Thinking of my Nana, and looking forward to an evening basking in the beauty of the people surrounding me, while I can.

(It’s a fun autumn salad, if you’re interested: Caramelized Beet and Goat Cheese Arugula Salad)