A Reflection on Growing Old

My Grandmother had a blowout party for her 85th birthday and again for her 90th.  For her 95th, she decided to skip the party in favor of staggered visits by her ten grandchildren.    Being the furthest away by a long shot, I was the last of the grandkids to visit.   It is with some shame that I confess her 96th birthday passed before I finally made the trip to Lawrence, Kansas last month.  Guilt gets us places if not always in a timely manner.

Faye (right front), Diane (right back), Betty (left)

Faye (right front), Diane (right back), Betty (left)

My Grandmother Faye still lives in the house of my childhood memories.   Having outlived three husbands, she now lives alone.   She’s slowly losing her eyesight due to macular degeneration, but otherwise is as healthy as a horse and sharper than our best Monday morning well-rested selves.   She still cooks for herself, buys fresh flowers every week and checks her email every morning on her second iPad.  (Her first iPad had an untimely death from the hood of a car.)  

Soon after I arrived, she asked if I might help her read an email.  It was the minutes from her last Investment Club meeting.  Toward the end of the minutes, under “New Business” I read:

“Faye discussed Mankind Corp (MNKD) which was split off from Merck.  Faye moved to buy 100 shares of MNKD for approximately $5.55 per share.  Kitty seconded the motion.  Motion passed unanimously.  Kitty agreed to add this stock to her watch list.”

I knew my Grandmother was something of a stock junkie, but I had no idea she was still scouting stocks at the age of 96.  With some college and a disposition towards numbers, my Grandmother learned how to analyze stocks in the mid 70s.  She started a subscription to Value Line then (which she continues to receive and study to this day under a magnifying lamp), fired her broker in the 80s, and went on to amass a sizable portfolio from a modest amount of money left to her by her first two husbands.   All on her own.  Buying Intel early helped. 

My Grandmother joined the S&P 20 Investment Group fifteen years.  At the time it was mostly a social gathering of women thirty years her junior.  She boldly suggested that instead of picking stocks based on “gut feel” that maybe they should consult Value Line.  She taught them what she knew.  Each woman is now responsible for tracking and providing monthly read outs on a handful of stocks. Today there’s still wine (and probably Bourbon for Faye) at their gatherings, but now official meeting minutes and more money in the bank.   Trickle down teaching works.

Faye (middle red) with her Investment Club

Faye (middle red) with her Investment Club

While her finance gene might not have filtered down to me, her love for words did.  My grandmother writes what she calls “Thoughts in Rhyme”, a poetic hobby that took flight in her 80s and just retired with a birthday rhyme to a friend on his 100th birthday and another friend on his 95nd birthday.  I read several of them.  They are witty and proof that growing old doesn’t mean you have to stop flirting.

I learned all this in the first couple of hours I was there.  My travel companion named guilt quickly melted away as it became clear my Grandmother wasn’t keeping calendar score, only I was.   My siblings and cousins had warmed up all her stories and since I was the closing act, I got a few extra ones.   Two full days of stories.  Her stock prowess and Thoughts in Rhyme was only the tip of her chutzpah iceberg.

The youngest of six children with an abusive and alcoholic father and without two nickels to rub together, Faye Jones Olmsted Bradshaw Jones made a life that defied the hand she was dealt.  Understanding her helped me understand how my Dad - her son that she so wanted to be a girl they kept her in the hospital a couple of extra days to make sure she bonded - found the grit needed to make his way from Kansas to West Point.   It was good to know that when I’m hugging the shore, I can remember I come from a line of people who ventured out of their depth.

As we talked I asked her what she thought was her best decade.  She mulled that one over and responded the next morning with this:  “There wasn’t a best.  Aside from my childhood, it was mostly good all the time.”  Not everyone gets sweeter as they age, but the resilient ones seem too.  You can see it in the retell of their stories where they linger on the good parts and urge you to join them there.  Not that they gloss over the bad parts (of which my Grandmother certainly had her fair share of), but they step over them with an easy nonchalance knowing they were all part of the critical path to a life worth living.

Living independently has helped my Grandmother stay young, but it’s also her chosen interdependence on younger friends like her 66 year old traveling companion and chauffeur Diane, her good-as-gold 50ish female neighbors Deb and Jo, and her equally vivacious 92 year old friend Betty (with younger looking hands than my own) that keep her there.  Together they have viewing parties at my Grandma’s house to watch University of Kansas basketball games and drink 7 and 7s.  It’s a motley crew of ladies who came from different parts of town now banded together in uproarious fun, companionship and love.   Guardian angels in flesh and blood and Jayhawks attire.

Jawhawks Mantle

Jawhawks Mantle

Early in the game, the Jahawks were losing and my Grandmother needed to pace.  She went out to collect the mail and fell on her way back in the front door.  Before any of us could run to her aid, she assured us: “I’m alright!”  Jo, deferring to me as the granddaughter-in-charge, let me bandage the superficial wound on her arm while my Grandmother carried on cheering.  By morning, she had redressed her bandages before I was even up.

In the NY Times article “The Liberation of Growing Old” Anne Karpf says, “The emerging age acceptance movement neither decries nor denies the aging process.  It recognizes that one can remain vital and present, engaged and curious, indeed continue to grow, until one’s dying breath.”

 She’s right.  I have proof.