My parents live with us half the year, and we refer to them as the old people. As in, good morning old people, or where are the old people today. Despite the sobriquet, most of the time I do not even think of my parents as old. They are pretty young (81 and 78) in comparison to the parents of many of my peers, and they are in good health and good physical shape. For me, calling them “the old people” is a term of endearment.
A series of old people have played prominent roles in my life. Mrs. Donnelly lived next door to us in Hyde Park.She must have been in her 80s when we moved in. She had a glorious, gigantic garden of flowers and vegetables that she tended to every day, and an outdoor fireplace that she let me use to burn my uniform after finishing 6th grade at Most Precious Blood School. I was heading to Girls’ Latin and would not need it anymore. She always had us in for a cup of tea, and I have never tasted tea so good ever again. I am sure it was Red Rose, but it was made with such love and care, and served in china teacups.
Mrs. Donnelly lived with her husband Bill and their beagle Danny Boy. There were stretches of time when both my parents were out of the house before we kids had to leave for school. (I am guessing my mother was in the hospital.) We would wave the dining room curtains at Mrs. Donnelly who would stand in her kitchen waiting for this, the signal to come over and stay with us until it was time for us to walk to school. She would do a funny dance and wave her curtains back at us so we knew she would be coming right over. I have a vague memory of her coming to church with us after Bill died, but I don’t know if that’s right. By the time she was in failing health physically and mentally, I was a teenager and too self-involved to pay as close attention as I should have. I remember her with so much love, and hope that she and Bill and Danny Boy are having a nice cup of tea together.
It has been eleven years since Mr. Smith died and I still miss him all the time. That’s him in the bottom left corner of the page from the MIT 1939 yearbook. We were so incredibly lucky to have him as our next door neighbor on Londonderry Road. He was in his 80s when we moved in. His daughters, who lived in the western part of the state, wanted him to move closer to them but knew that we kept an eye on him so did not force the issue. Knowing there was a doctor close by also helped increase their comfort level. He loved my children, and gave them great National Geographic book series. Having two girls of his own he was partial to my daughter. He shopped at the nearby Marshall’s for her birthdays. I have the cutest photo of the kids on the dock behind the Black Dog in Vineyard Haven at ages 3 and 5, she wearing a red and white striped Ralph Lauren dress that he had picked out for her. She also still has a stuffed bear that wears a tag with his name, Ronaldson. He must have got it as a gift with one of his many subscription services and given it to her. I have never called him Ron, not even in my head. To me he is Mr. Smith.
When he turned 90 we threw a surprise party. All of our neighbors were gathered in my kitchen, and when his daughters brought him to the door at the appointed time, he looked in and said, oh you have company, we won’t bother you. It took him a few more minutes to realize the turn-out was for him!
We have a mortar and pestle that Mr. Smith told us was his grandfather’s, a small town New England doctor. When he gave it to us (to my husband, really) he included a written recounting of his mother’s stories of her father using it to grind medications. He told of how she had to hitch up the horses if her father was called out for a sick patient. I cannot find that piece of paper. I would not have thrown it away–as we learn from Antiques Roadshow, the provenance increases the value. I don’t really need the note, I know the piece’s worth and I know I will never part with it.
My nana was also a constant and wonderful presence in my life. She worked as the cafeteria manager at Hyde Park High School and as we lived in Hyde Park she always stopped over after school. Woo-oo woot, she called as she came in the front door, her way of letting us know she was there. When she retired from the Boston Public Schools, they threw her a nice party. I was asked to speak, and led the crowd in a toast to my favorite “little old broad.” She always rolled her eyes at me when I called her that. “Broad” was a bit too coarse for her. She once told my mother to stop saying crap, that is was unbecoming. My mother responded by yelling back at her, “Sh**, sh**, sh**, crap, crap, crap.” It has become part of our lexicon.
After cataract surgery in her 80s she looked in the mirror and was horrified by the wrinkles she saw clearly for the first time. She wondered why no one had told her she looked so old. I told her I hoped I looked as good as she did at that age. The first time I heard the chorus of the Beautiful South’s Prettiest Eyes, “Take a look at these crow’s feet, just look, sitting on the prettiest eyes. 60 25ths of December. 59 4ths of July” I thought of my nana and cried. Christmas Day was her birthday. We celebrated Christmas every year at her house, with my mother’s side of the family. The same menu, the same sequence of events. It was a huge deal when we put a folding table in the living room so the kids did not have to go to the basement to eat (not me, as the oldest and the only girl I always sat with the adults!) She always got depressed at that time of year, and she died soon after Christmas in 2002.
After her wake, we all went to the bar across the street from the funeral home. We all toasted her, Woo-oo woot!
Here’s to the old people.