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Reform Magazine | June 24, 2017

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On the pilgrim way: ‘They talked about when they were young’

Sheila Maxey hosts lunch for octogenarians

‘How’s your Alzheimer’s, Bob?’ I asked an 85-year-old relative as he arrived at our house for a family lunch for the ‘oldest generation’. It was a serious question. Five years ago, at a large Boxing Day family gathering, Bob announced that he had Alzheimer’s and was going to be part of a local study. The rest of us were, of course, dismayed but Bob seemed just curious about this new thing that was happening to him. Five years later, his answer to my question was that, although he made far more mistakes on the computer and found it difficult to remember which day it was, he continued to be very busy. His expertise on Indian art was still in demand – for cataloguing, for advising PhD students – and he could hardly keep on top of it all.

There were three octogenarians at the lunch. One had been driven there by his daughter, a 160-mile round trip being a bit too much for him now. The third, Bob’s wife, had driven them both over but she is now so bent I wondered how she could see over the steering wheel. The remarkable thing about this lunch party was that we spoke very little about children and grandchildren and not at all about our health – the two usual topics among people of our age. Instead, the visitors talked about themselves when they were young.

Bob’s wife, with her bent neck and shaky hands, told us about her dream of becoming an actress and the great disappointment of being turned down by Rada. My brother-in-law (now 88) had also wanted to go on the stage and spent some months in a repertory company. He talked with passion of the actor/manager who had mentored him during those months and whose lessons he had put into practice in the following decades of playing leading roles in amateur dramatics.

But Bob was not the only one still also living fully in the present. My brother-in-law brought me a late birthday present – one of his recent exquisite bird paintings, this time of a waxwing to join the puffin he gave me last year. Bob’s wife wanted to discuss a novel we had both recently read and had very different views about.

I felt so cheered by this visit from my octogenarian family. It brought to mind a poem by EJ Scovell which compares the ageing and deaths of the iris and the tulip (‘Deaths of Flowers’ in Selected Poems of EJ Scovell, Carcanet Press Ltd, 1991). The iris turns in on itself with a ‘clenched sadness’ but the tulip ages and dies outwards. The poet asserts: ‘I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going’. Me too.

Those mysterious words in Psalm 103 about what God offers us also came to mind. ‘Who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.’

Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform

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This article was published in the June 2017 edition of  Reform

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