Unlike our more youthful co-travelers on the road of life, those of us of the mature persuasion tend to think more about our days being numbered. We begin accumulating numbers that serve to focus our attention on this fact, such as blood pressure readings, cholesterol counts, years between colonoscopies, and other figures that can spell our doom. Youth’s birthday glee and/or ambivalence gives way to aversion and unease.
For instance, I even admit to a twinge of angst earlier this month when I celebrated my younger son’s last year as a twenty-something. Maybe part of that twinge was financial angst because the celebration involved my going to NYC and celebrating in appropriate NYC style (including a personal trip to my favorite number “21,” namely “Century 21,” the discount department store). But there was the growing acknowledgment that after this birthday, I would have to accept that Dax, my baby, is an adult. (You might quibble with age 30 as the onset of adulthood, but I think I’m right.) How can I have two thirty-something children?
And in October, there was our 40th High School Reunion, during which the big topic of conversation was a shared amazement of our impending 60th birthdays. I kept hearing my classmates voice their surprise. “Can you believe this is happening to us?” As if growing up with a 1960s soundtrack of Beatles and Dylan gave us some kind of immunity against old age!? Who knew we really believed in Peter Pan?
At some point, it occurs to me, we might enjoy life more if we quit thinking about chronology and concentrated on quality and the types of experiences we can have now, largely because we have this rich (and long) past to draw on. In short, can we have both quality and quantity?
An example that came to mind was the reunion again. Despite (or maybe as a result of) our dread about the number 60, there was something unique about this 40th Reunion, like a sense of liberation, perhaps. At first, I thought it was just my own perception, but I began to get notes and comments from fellow classmates, explaining that they had felt something similar. One classmate summed it up like this: “At past reunions . . . it seemed that the barriers that kept many of us separated during school days, were still in place. At this reunion, the barriers have largely fallen away. I really enjoyed myself for the first time at a reunion and look forward to future ones.” Did we have to wait 40 years in order to really appreciate our shared history and humanity free of the artificial barriers? Maybe. Was it worth it? My vote: yes.
But my reveries in quality over chronology really found inspiration from my first cousin once-removed, Campbell Geeslin, a charming widower who still mows his grass in White Plains, NY. I never met Campbell, now in his late 80s, but I had often heard of him from my mother and other relatives who were more his contemporaries. His mother, Lee, was one of my grandfather’s six sisters. She and her husband, Edward, raised Campbell and his four brothers in Brady, Texas.
But, after serving in WWII, Campbell had little appetite for more West Texas or small towns, locating in NYC, the biggest city he could find, to finish his college degree. After graduating from Columbia, he pursued a career in journalism (writing and editing), beginning in Houston (Houston Post), then Florida (precursor of USA Today), and finally, returning to NYC where he worked on the editorial staff of This Week, People, and Life magazines. He wrote the 1981 book, The Bonner Boys, a fictionalized version of five grown men who, reflecting on their shared childhood and the different directions taken, come to together for probably the last reunion with their mother.
But after retirement, Campbell didn’t just sit around or tend his garden. He began writing children’s books with settings in the Mexico he remembered from childhood vacations. Capturing that child’s sense of fantasy, his stories are flavored with ingredients of magical realism and playfulness. The book How Nanita Learned to Make Flan – about magic shoes – was made into a children’s opera, and Elena’s Serenade – about a young girl who wants to be a glass blower like her father – has been optioned for a children’s movie.
We had sporadically corresponded, but given the distance between Austin and White Plains, I never really thought I’d ever meet him in person. But in planning my son’s birthday visit, I learned that White Plains is a mere 30 minutes by train from Grand Central station. And, as fate would have it, he was happy to host a visit from me, my son and his girlfriend, Tacie, at which he would serve lunch. Even better, he arranged a visit from another unmet cousin , Diane DeSanders, another writer, who lives in Brooklyn. The granddaughter of my great Aunt Jeffee and namesake (one of the 6 sisters), she, too, was on my wish list of family to meet.
I will not bore you with the details of the table Campbell set, the excellent food he served, or all the family talk. I will tell you, however, that the five of us – over 60 years between the oldest and youngest – gathered around that table for about 4 hours, drinking wine and eating, while we talked of books, movies, our careers, music, writing, working with and for the rich and famous, and life in general. We eventually had to get up and leave, but only because it was getting late. As Tacie wrote to me later: I’ve reflected on that afternoon a number of times – thinking about how unique a situation it was to have us all at the table, with our different backgrounds and life experiences, and how easy and comfortable it was sharing our stories with each other while jumping seamlessly from topic to topic. I can honestly say I’ve never really been in a situation like that before but it was one I hope to be in again!
When Campbell drove us back to the train station, I, like Tacie, knew something remarkable had taken place that afternoon. No doubt a large part lies in being in the company of someone who has lived a long and interesting life. But he has more than memories. Campbell still writes a quarterly column for the Author’s Guild, reads the latest new books, has meetings with movie producers (and distant cousins), and in short, is actively involved with the world. Even as I wrote this, he was cooking cornbread for his Texas-style dressing and readying the Thanksgiving turkey for his family’s gathering. I have no doubt his family loves the tradition.
For this, my 50th blog entry I wanted to share something special and inspiring, never thinking I’d find it at the end of a half hour train ride from NYC’s Grand Central Station. There, I found a living example that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between quantity and quality, i.e., that one can survive to see a ripe old age even while experiencing the full ripeness of being. And isn’t it nice to know that even while our own books get closer to the end, we can still count on some grand chapters?