MA mother is relaxing on her sofa. She does a lot of that these days – watching TV, reading, crossword puzzles, waiting. Keep in mind that it took Marge until the mid-1990s to get there. Two years ago, she felt guilty if she didn’t garden, cook, empty the bins, drive her to the shops in her old Nissan Micra, and visit the “old people” at the local nursing home by lunchtime. It took a bad leg break to change all of that.
Now, 94, she’s learning how to handle it with ease. I am approaching the age of sixty. What advice would you give me about aging? “Just accept it tactfully,” she says. Did you find it difficult? “No, I don’t think so. Most of the years I’ve been fortunate not to look awfully old.” I say you are not looking at him now. “Yeah, but I’m terribly old.” She laughs.
She knows she’s lucky – she has two children and four grandchildren who absolutely love her, has been able to stay home with the help of great caregivers, and her brain is still in great shape even though her short-term memory is not. t what it was. But this also has its advantages. She won’t hold a grudge for long.
Margie is the youngest of four children who have long since died. She was never a confident child, despite being a girl boss in her high school. She often says that she believes her parents had had enough of parenting by the time she arrived. “Did I ever tell you, my mother used to say Golda [the oldest girl] He was the smart person and Renee [the second oldest] Was Beautiful. I knew she missed me.” She told me. Often. Indeed, Marge was smart and wonderful—and oblivious to her.
Coming of age has not been easy, though she quickly points out that few of us get an easy path. When I was young, she nursed me through three years of encephalitis surrounded by people telling her either I was going to die or there was nothing wrong with me. In the last years of my father’s life, she cared for him through psychotic depression. She has many qualities (kindness, wisdom, sense of humor, and an almost monstrous ability to protect her children) though for most of her life she has lacked the confidence to see those qualities in herself. Ironically, one of her greatest talents was making others feel good about themselves while often feeling worthless.
But that’s all a long time ago. For many years she was getting rid of the doubts of the past. At 60, she says, she was just beginning to move on. “I thought I was of a very good age because most of my fears and anxieties had left me.” like what? She points her finger at me. “I think if you have kids, you worry about them as much as anything else.” My mother has two years – my sister Sharon is two years older than me. “Sharon went well, but you were always doing the unexpected. And that worried me.”
I expect her to talk about my illness, but she doesn’t. Perhaps this is too obvious. “This example sounds silly, but at the time I came home in a huge high heel, my heart sank.” I remember well. I was 12, and they were great – matte black plastic with a 4-inch platform and 5-inch heel. Why do they worry you so much? “I was thinking, ‘He would make such an offer to himself. “The shoe mysteriously disappeared. I didn’t want to get rid of them, so I hid them,” she admitted. I thought she burned them. “No, I didn’t. I knew this was going to go away.”
Margie was a curious mix – she hated tradition, but she was also a stickler. She was not religious but grew up in an orthodox Jewish community, and was afraid of causing offense by doing the “wrong” thing. “I wasn’t confident enough in my own judgment to be able to accept what others said.”
Despite everything, she was unconventional for her time – her spirit was liberated. She went to Birmingham for a two-year teaching diploma, studied in Glasgow at age 19, lived in Israel for two years right after independence, became an inspirational teacher for children with special needs, and was engaged twice before marrying my father.
In the lounge are pictures of Dad and Alex, who became her boyfriend after Dad died 15 years ago. It was a wonderful and improbable love story. When Marge lived in Israel, she and Alex were good friends. After his wife’s death, he calls Margie and reintroduces himself, some 65 years after they last met. He still lives in Israel. They became inseparable – chatting, playing, eating, drinking, planning, memories, dancing and romance, all over Skype. They never met physically. They thought it might destroy what they had. Alex died in 2017. Who do you think is more, dad or Alex? “I think of both in different ways.” What do you think when you think of dad? “He was a good man; a very principled man. I heard you say that too. Fair.”
But it was Alex who made her feel the love. He was a very open man. He said what he thought, and what he thought about me was good, which made me feel great.” Do you regret not meeting you physically the second time? “No. I think it would have been very difficult.” She was ready to visit him if he encouraged her. “I was saying he was more rational than I was, which is why he didn’t encourage me to go, because he knew it was going to be far from perfect. I think we would have been a bit of a shock.”
After Alex died, my mom struggled. Her arthritis was playing, and her back bones were broken, she often told me that old age is not for cowards. She seemed lonely and alone, but she wanted to stay home and be in control. Last year, she hit a low with a broken leg, a series of infections, and spent a long time in the hospital. It all led to a new, happier phase of old age – returning home with the support of caregivers.
Of course, there are days when you are frustrated. Once we talk before our daily crossword puzzle. I ask if she is still enjoying life. “It’s a moot point,” she says. “In general, the quality goes down a bit. It does. I think it’s closer to a yes than a no.”
What do you miss the most? “Going out for a walk on my feet.” She hates being pushed into a wheelchair. I say you are doing well. “I’m fine. Of course I am. Yes. Well shall we play the children?”
Should I ask you more questions tomorrow? “No, ask me now and you’re done!”
Do you worry about money? “No, I don’t care, I know you and Sharon will take care of that. I think I have enough to see me until the end of my days.” She always hoped to leave something for the grandchildren. Now if the money runs out, so be it.
I ask if she regretted it. “I’m not telling you my regrets, that’s for sure, sure, sure. Do I have do I have? Yes. But it’s stupid to think of remorse. There are certain things, Simon, that I can’t talk about. That’s too personal.”
In general, Marje is in a good place. I ask how important it is for you to have a healthy relationship with me and Sharon. “Incredibly important. This is the backbone of my life. The most important thing to keep me going.” Marge was an early adopter of technology. Since Sharon and I live in London, and she’s in Manchester, Skype has played a huge role in keeping us close. She also seems more aware that it doesn’t make sense for parents and children to continue. She says: I suppose a lot of people simply don’t like each other.”
What are you proud of? “You and Sharon,” she says. I say this is out of business. “Well, going back, I’m glad I was so good at my job when I was teaching handicapped kids. I was made for it. Loved it.” Marge loves to talk about her time in Bethesda—or give the place its full title Bethesda for Disabled and Incurable Children, in Chetham Hill. She adored children, taking them home to her parents on the weekends (the 1950s were very different). On one occasion, she drank a Dettol one and had to stack children and wheelchairs in her car and take them to the hospital. “I felt tremendous satisfaction from that job. It was perfect for me – half teaching, half nursing.” She started believing in herself.
What scares you the most about getting old? She says, “Don’t laugh at me.” “I never want to be a smelly old man. That’s number one. People say when you get old you get disgusting. I don’t want people to say that about me.”
Is there anything else?
“Well, just because you realize your time has been cut short, and you sometimes think what it would be like? Then you think very well that everyone should go through it, you’re not the only one, so move on.”
Marge says she never thought about death when she was younger. And now? “I would if I hadn’t stopped myself.” I say you look pretty phlegmatic these days. “I am now.” why? “I don’t have to shake the worries anymore. They’re gone.”
This is awesome, I say. What made them go? “There was a time when I cared so much about what other people thought of me. When I was young, I thought about every word that came out of my mouth: Is it right, is this wrong? All I did. Now I don’t care.” She laughs. “Maybe because there aren’t many people left who think of me!”
Margie has made us promise that if she gets seriously ill or becomes incapacitated, we won’t keep her alive for much longer than she wants. But now she is looking forward. She recently took her first unsupported steps since her leg was broken. Yesterday she was in the kitchen making Easter cookies. There is a lot of relaxation you can do at the age of 94. And she has set herself a new goal. By August, she is planning to walk properly and she has done so with a wheelchair. We filmed her taking those first steps a few weeks ago. Having reached the end of the room, Marge waved to the camera triumphantly and returned to the sofa. “I think I’m on my way,” she said.
a It’s been two weeks. Marge’s gait is greatly improved. She even made it up and down the stairs. Tell her we need to take a picture to go with the piece. She asked me to tell her why we had this interview. I say it is a special supplement for aging.
She replied, “Bloody cheek.” “I’m not getting old!”