Recently, during a cordial interview for a volunteer project, the interviewer suddenly looked and sounded apologetic. "I'm afraid I do have to ask your age," he virtually whispered.
"Oh, don't be afraid," I assured the much younger man, resisting an impulse to call him 'Sonny.' "I've never hesitated to provide my age, even to offer it. I'm 69."
Sonny breathed an audible sigh of relief; we smiled at each other and then resumed.
Walking home afterward, I was thinking about how sad it is that our youth-idolizing culture can evoke a sense of shame about advanced years. It's almost as if folks who dare to accumulate, say, more than 60 precious years are somehow at fault, somehow guilty of reminding others that their youth too shall pass.
Despite my cavalier attitude about my own age, I confess to feeling a bit of trepidation as I stand on the threshold of a new decade, the septuagenarian (what an ungainly word) one, often referred to as the middle age of old age. "It's a wake-up call to realize the end is closer than the beginning," George Clooney declared upon reaching the tender age of 50 recently.
The first time I heard the bell tolling, albeit faintly, was five years ago when my siblings and I spent an emotionally agonizing, physically exhausting weekend clearing out our mother's modest three-bedroom home. It had been only four months since she'd died and our grief was still raw.
Mom was not a hoarder, yet every drawer, closet and shelf was overflowing with 50 years' worth of stuff, including our ancient report cards. Although many items we unearthed stirred fond memories, even laughter, just as many, like Mom's rosaries and well-worn prayer booklets, exacerbated our grief.
Jarred by that ordeal, less than a year later I moved out of a similar three-bedroom home into a much smaller space. As my friends and I packed for the move, I set up a display table for items I was giving away -- lots of them. It was fun to watch my once-cherished objects find new homes. And now it's fun to catch sight of them when I visit friends. Oh yes, I remember that vase ... it really looks good in your living room.
On a merry morning in May I arrived at my new home in great spirits, unburdened of countless possessions and feeling exhilarated by the lighter load.
My children, however, were not so cheery. "Oh, Mom, this place is too small!" they groaned. Four years later, they're still apt to do so, despite the fact that my new space, on -- and I mean on -- the Allegheny River offers ample room for family dinners, inside and out.
When Elena and Vinny express disdain for Narrow Nook (as I christened it), I simply smile and predict, "When it's time for you two to remove my belongings, you'll be thanking me posthumously!"
"Oh, Mother, don't say that," one or the other will scold, appalled that I dare to name the unwelcome truth.
At such moments, I usually launch into my recurrent "sermon":
Oh, come on, kids. Get real. Tomorrow is not promised. Hey, even the next moment is not promised. Remember how Grandpa dropped dead at 68?
I love life and hope to emulate your great-grandmother, still alive and well and having her nails painted for almost an entire century. But let's not deny reality and assume we are somehow exempt from death, including sudden ones.
It's four and a half years later and I'm cozily ensconced in my delightful dwelling, the place from which I intend to move through my 70s and beyond. I'm aware that my serenity will, from time to time, be overshadowed by dark clouds of grief and the lingering melancholy which hovers when relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even friends of friends die.
The most challenging aspect of advancing age is, of course, just that: the inevitable onslaught of deaths and/or debilitating illnesses. There's Rose, 72, for example, a friend of a dear friend. After a fun day of shopping recently, she returned home happy, went into the bedroom to change, then screamed her husband's name. She was already dead of an aneurysm as he ran to her side.
For me, such losses began at age 48. Gradually, over two-plus decades, I've learned to grieve fully, overtly, even loudly, be gentle with myself for a spell, then resolve, once again, to never take life for granted and to live within each present moment -- where all living actually occurs.
Eileen Reutzel Colianni is a lecturer and a writer living in Oakmont. (firstname.lastname@example.org)