Do you know any old people?

This is my 100th post as Late Fruit — amazing when I think about it. Who knew I had so much to say? I don’t always know what I’m going to write about, but I almost always seem to be able to find words.

By the way, WordPress has put a “like” button at the bottom of all its posts (or so they say), and it would be great if you, kind reader, would hit it when a post pleases you. My sister, on the other hand, should press it for every new post. Blood is thicker and all that….

I’ve been thinking about old people, as usual,  but this time about how few of them I’ve known in my life. When I was a child, the only old folks I knew were my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side. On my father’s side they were clear across country. Grandma Ritchie was mean and my father’s father had died at an early age in a flood, so there wasn’t much reason to think about them at all. No, my main old person growing up, and the only one I knew well at all, was my mother’s mother. Grandma was vintage old person. She was rotund and her white hair was rolled into a neat bun on the back of her head. She always wore rayon house dresses and sensible black shoes. She baked wonderful Volgadeutsch pastries and talked in an old voice.

Grandma and Grandad, 1956

For years I’ve been surprised by the grandmothers I’ve known who were my age and younger and didn’t look remotely like my Grandma who was the kind of kin who lived “over the river and through the woods” and never drove a car, took yoga, or drank wine. She was the beginning of my knowledge about old people. She was its definition.

It seems astounding to me now that I don’t remember any other old people from my childhood, not in church, and certainly not in school. I don’t remember seeing them in the street or in department stores. And yet today, everywhere I go I see them. They’re white-haired and bald, paunched and slow-walking. There’s no question but what they’re old. Were old people just uninteresting to me back then before I got old — did I just not see them? Or were there fewer of them? Or are both things true?

I do remember a few incidental old people while I was in college. A friend and I hitchhiked from Vancouver, B.C. to San Francisco and stayed overnight on a Sausalito houseboat owned by a sixty-plus artist whose girlfriend was younger than both of us. And from Michigan. I’ve never forgotten that particular old artist.Then there was my friend Ada (see my post of March 20) who was in her mid fifties when I was just twenty, and bitterly fighting growing old. And Betty Moon, the owner of a Vancouver bookstore who served me tea and hired me to help in the store, even though customers were few and far between.

Still, through my twenties, thirties and forties I encountered few old people, and most of those in interviews, which automatically made them exceptional — fascinating, lively, and not at all typically old. But it was also in my late thirties that I met Wes, who was by then in his middle sixties. He was definitely old: his hair was white and his face creased. He and I became cohorts. He was a sound man and photographer. I was a writer and producer, and sometime photographer. For more than 15 years we worked together. (For more about Wes see my blog of June 24.)

Wes was the second important old person in my life after my grandmother.

Wes had been made conservative and private because he was gay and despite the years difference, so had I. He would be amazed by how things have changed. I am.

He was also someone who had led a life. He’d watched Bea Lillie roller skate at a Village party; he got Christmas greetings every year from Margot Fonteyn; he had been to Machu Pichu and Alexandria and the Congo. He had stories to tell.

Wes and his dance partner, Lisa, in Egypt, 1930s

We had season’s tickets to the opera and heard some of the Metropolitan Opera’s most amazing singers. When the opera was done we’d walk together to the 50th Street subway. Wes would go to the downtown train, and I would wait for the uptown. I’d watch him waiting on the other side of the tracks. Then he was gone. His train almost always came first.

Wes died at 79 (he’d never let anyone know his age), but even before he died he’d added to my years. My past was lengthened by his lifetime. It was a past that wasn’t communicated in books or film. It was a past made of memories, breathed and sweated, made intimate by our friendship. Because that’s one of the splendid things old people have to offer, whole lifetimes full of memories that make the past part of the lives of their younger friends.

Old people are important. Everyone should have a few.

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