When Charlie turned 100 back in the 1970’s, I went to interview him. There I was, twenty-something, with my whole life in front of me. I’m sure he got a kick out of our meeting. I wanted to know the secret of his longevity, and he was happy to oblige.
He greeted me at the door with a big smile and twinkly eyes peering out from his coke-bottle-thick glasses. His hair was snow-white, but remarkably thick, despite a bit of balding going on at the top. He wore grey slacks, a professorial cardigan sweater, and a crisp white dress shirt. On his feet were a comfortable pair of sneakers which somehow gave him a youthful appearance, and even though he used a cane to steady himself, he did not lean on it much. Rather, he carried it along for security.
His home was comfortably messy. His son and daughter-in-law checked in on him every day and did errands, brought him meals and he had a lady come in once a week to clean, but Charlie was in his own house, surrounded by his life. Photos and books and collectibles marked his passage through time, and he was blissfully unconcerned about the future. He made me a cup of coffee, and showed me the book he was writing. It was a hand-written, looseleaf notebook, and each page was titled with a memory. He told me that whenever he remembered something worth saying, he wrote a few lines about it. He didn’t worry about the order, or the punctuation, or if anyone would read it. He just got it on paper, and often liked to re-read it himself. There was a page on his school chums, about his passage from Norway as a stowaway, the day he met his future wife, building the GunderDink boat with his son – all the important parts of a man’s time on earth. It gave him joy.
“So!” he said emphatically. “You want to know how I got to be this old.” I’ll never forget his words, and he said them this way – almost verbatim: “One, I have two oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Two, I drink a glass of red wine with my dinner each night. Three, I enjoy a good cigar every now and then.” Then he peered intently over his coffee mug to make sure I was paying attention. “The last is the most important: You should never get to the top of one mountain until you see the next one you want to climb.”
I understood exactly what he meant. When I was in school, people used to call me ‘the little mountain climber’ and ask if I was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who made it to the top of Mt. Everest. I can’t say for certain, but it has influenced the way I look at things. I’ve always quoted Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I am a firm believer that challenging ourselves to achieve a goal not easily attainable is what gives us the most satisfaction.
Charlie picked up a photo to show me. His look was somewhat wistful. “My one son and his wife and children live close to me. My other son died when he was only 60.”
I mumbled that I was sorry. I didn’t know what else to say. To have a son die so young and to live to be 100 yourself must be particularly painful.
“He had no more mountains to climb.” His meaning was clear, and I had my story.
I’ll never forget that day. And today I’ve turned 65. I am a bona fide ‘senior citizen.’ But honestly, I don’t feel it. I don’t think about white hair (my hair is long and has been going gray since I was 40), or wrinkles (I don’t have a lot of them as I stay out of the afternoon sun and eat very little sugar). I try to get enough fresh air and sunshine and drink lots of water, but I don’t always succeed. My gourmet cooking days are over. I prefer whole foods to processed, plain over fancy, raw over cooked. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t miss my thirty-year old body and energy level, but I keep active taking care of my 88-year old mother and walking up and down the stairs a million times a day.
I mostly exercise my mind. Mom always said that only boring people get bored and I know she is right. I have more projects going than there are letters in the alphabet, and that alone will keep me young for years to come! I now have the leisure to do things I couldn’t when I worked in an office in Manhattan. I just have to reel in my enthusiasm and tackle one thing at a time!
So, my prescription for a long, healthy and happy life is to heed Charlie’s advice -maybe not the cigar part, but occasionally something rich and ‘forbidden’ – get out the hole-puncher for your own looseleaf book, and wear sneakers.