I invited my neighbor Miss T. out to dinner for her 100th birthday. “Anyplace you want to go,” I said. Tiny and trim, surely under a hundred pounds, her features were birdlike, her movement slow and circumspect, her thin gray hair pulled back into a bun, stray wisps escaping. She still wore the cotton shirtwaist dresses in pastel stripes and checks and dainty florals that she’d made herself and worn in the classroom back in her teaching days. She lived alone in a small California bungalow across the street from me in our retro-chic San Diego neighborhood, where she sewed and gardened, read mysteries, watched sitcoms, serenely self-contained. A caregiver/housekeeper came in daily, and her only relative, a nephew in L.A., visited sporadically. He’d been urging her to move to an assisted living facility. Leave her home, give up her independence? “No,” she said. “Not until I have to.”
In my mid-forties, I wasn’t seeking a mother-figure, although I had lost my mother ten years earlier. It was her age-defying pluck and peace of mind that drew me to Miss T. I wanted to emulate her, to be her friend, not her daughter. On brief afternoon visits we would drink tea, steeped in a vintage floral teapot, out of delicate bone china cups. With a little prompting she would talk about growing up in Southern California at the turn of the century, changes she’d seen from decade to decade, living through two World Wars. My mother died at 60, and it was hard not to make comparisons, to wonder what she would have been like at 70, 80, 100; to realize how little I knew about her childhood and early life, how I’d failed to show the curiosity with her that I did with Miss T.
I pitched a few posh San Diego restaurants, but she chose our neighborhood Mexican café. “I love Ponce’s ground beef enchiladas,” she said. We arrived well ahead of the dinner rush and were seated in a comfortable booth, warm chips and fresh salsa brought to the table by attentive servers the minute we sat down. Declining a celebratory margarita or glass of wine—“But you have one,” she said—Miss T. ate sparingly but with obvious enjoyment, happy to have leftovers to take home for another meal. I’d gotten word to the manager about the occasion, and when we finished our dinners, they brought a dish of flan with one blazing candle and sang “Cumpleaños Feliz,” with the whole room joining in. Over dessert I asked the secret to her longevity. Good genes? Diet and exercise? Abstaining from alcohol and tobacco? She was a regular churchgoer, so I was prepared to hear about the good lord’s blessings, her unshakeable faith. But she grinned impishly. “Well,” she said, “I never married or had children….”
Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in numerous literary journals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, ellipsis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), Superstition Review, and Whale Road Review. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and she recently served as guest nonfiction editor for Hobart. She lives in San Diego, California and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.