By Elizabeth Meade Howard
He was my hero. He was a New York ad man, writer, gentle teacher and, life-long role model. My father lived to 90 but when he died, even so many years felt too few.
I was 62, and abruptly promoted to family elder. My mother had died 20 years earlier. Both my parents were only children as am I. My children were grown and gone. My ever-practical husband kindly piloted me through piles of legal papers.
Still I felt the seismic shift from daughter to materfamilias. Gulp. I yearned for guidance for the years ahead. As a journalist, I went to the experts – men and women whom I admired for their creativity, resilience, resourcefulness and successful aging. Some were famous.
I began talking with friends close to home and slowly expanded my interviews to others I admired in my childhood venue, New York City, and in our often winter retreat, Key West. All my mentor-role models had lessons to share.My next door neighbor, artist Hartwell Wyse Priest taught me the value of continued creativity, whatever one’s chosen field. She lost her daughter and husband within four years of each other. Nurtured by nature and imagination, she went to her easel. “After my husband and daughter died,” Hartwell said, “I worked more intensely than ever. Painting and making prints were natural escapes into creative activities that I needed. It was good to escape to the work. A part of me was waiting to be developed until after I got over the shock and grief.”
After leaving his anchor chair at CBS News at age 65, journalist Walter Cronkite admitted to feeling unmoored, at a loss where to focus his considerable energy, drive and desire to report the news. He let his inquisitiveness be his compass. “I’m curious about everything. I don’t read a piece in the paper that doesn’t make me want to know more,” Cronkite told me. “I asked the doctor to set up a mirror when I had my appendectomy so I could watch the operation.”
His lesson was also to stay informed and involved; he wrote syndicated columns, made documentaries, hosted tv specials on history, science and space. “Keep up and don’t give in to either mental or physical deterioration that’s bound to happen. Try to avoid sinking into the inactivity and disinterest around you. Try to beat back infirmities.”
Actress Nanette Fabray was diagnosed with severe hearing loss in her early 20s. She was performing on Broadway and Hollywood and wasn’t about to stop. In an era of propriety when celebrities didn’t divulge their personal problems, she underwent a series of beneficial operations and kept performing and entertaining. She also developed a sense of mission; she spoke out for the deaf with optimism, humor and perspective. Her lesson: “I thoroughly enjoy what I do and I think that makes a big difference,” she said. “I realize that I only have one opportunity to be Nanette Fabrares McDougall on this earth. I’m going to make the best of it. I’m going to enjoy it.”
Poet Richard Wilbur’s lesson: take artistic risks, remain flexible and try new forms. “When one thing won’t work, there’s something else I can pick up or turn to. I just like just fooling around with words,“ said the former poet laureate. “Actually there’s something to be said for having variety and diversity. And having something that you do well and truly enjoy doing. Something which gives pleasure to other people, I think that can contribute to longevity.
“If what you do is regarded as having social value, then you have the backing of other people; I think that also can contribute to longevity. I know people start dying when boredom overtakes them, and they don’t have that sense of being needed. I wouldn’t really know who I was unless I was writing on some front or other.”
Photographer Gordon Parks’ lesson was to find new ways to cross-pollinate one’s talents; try something new. Besides documentary photography, he shot sensuous studies of nudes against his own backdrops of nature. He was also a talented poet, novelist, filmmaker, pianist and composer. “When I have nothing to do, I feel lost. When things die down at the computer or typewriter, I go to the piano and compose,” said Parks. “One has to take risks; experiment with possibilities. It might be risky, but it gives you some excitement; risk keeps your pulse regulated.”
Actor Hal Holbrook teaches the lesson of never retiring. At 90, he continues to perform his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” His performance remains relevant, Twain’s pointed words voicing Holbrook’s own convictions. “I have the kind of personality that responds to challenge. If I feel something needs to be said, I’ll make trouble. I think we should make people think by giving them the facts; we should go out and make trouble instead of shutting up,” warned Holbrook. “I don’t know anything about life except to keep trying, keep working. It’s all I ever did. It’s all I know about; get up and start moving again.”
Bishop John Shelby Spong Jr. remains a dedicated Christian, one who continues to write, preach, learn and to teach. “To me, the way you prepare for dying is that you learn how to live,” he advised. “The more deeply you love, the more you engage in life now, the more life turns mysterious at its core. When falling in love, you’ve transcended one of the greatest boundaries and you get a taste of what might be beyond the limits of our humanity. Just take what day you’ve got and live it. I feel like the mystery in every day is an adventure and I want to keep walking into it.”
Read more about Elizabeth Meade Howard’s interviews at www.agingfamously.com. Aging Famously: Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Aging-Famously-Follow-Admire-Living/dp/0984992138.
Elizabeth Meade Howard, an award winning reporter, magazine writer, and former lecturer at the University of Virginia, is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is currently an editor with Streetlight Magazine online. Howard has also made documentary films that have aired on Virginia PBS; several focus on remarkable older women. She and her husband, John, live in Charlottesville, Virginia.