My mother’s birthday snuck up on me. It isn’t as if I’d forgotten the milestone. It just seems strange that she’s turning 90 Monday.
There are several reasons I hadn’t considered it a big deal.
For starters, she doesn’t seem 90. She has trouble walking, but that hasn’t markedly affected her lifestyle because she never did that much walking anyway.
Wildly unathletic, she has spent much of her life on her bed, and on her telephone, taking calls from friends and relatives.
In that regard, the quality of her life continues to improve as she enters her 10th decade. She’s also enjoyed the company of her Boston terrier Skippy for 50 years. (Skippy isn’t the longest living canine in human, or dog, history. My mother is on Skippy #5. She just gives them all the same name to foster a sense of continuity.)
Several years ago my brother brought home a cat. After Skippy #4 passed, the idea was to replace the dog with a lower maintenance animal as my mother entered her dotage. And also because my brother prefers cats and owns a couple himself.
Except that my mother wasn’t entering her dotage. Far from it. She loved the cat, who she called Cookie, but still missed having a Boston terrier.
So now Cookie and Skippy #5 spend the entire day in her bedroom playing and sleeping. I’m relieved to report they’re also best friends.
Another reason my mother doesn’t seem old is because 90 qualifies as middle-aged in our family. My mother’s mother lived to be almost 105. My mother’s aunt was 102. A favorite uncle died at 104.
More remarkable than my grandmother’s age, my wife always thought, was that my mother continued to live next door to her mother—in adjoining apartment buildings—when my mother was past 80.
My mother is as engaged in the world as she ever was—to the extent that someone who spends most of the day in bed can be.
For instance, she called yesterday in consternation because “Entertainment Tonight” had been pre-empted by an Arkansas Razorbacks–Texas A&M football game.
Why was she upset? She was desperate to see coverage of George Clooney’s wedding in Venice.
I didn’t even realize she had a thing for George Clooney. Or maybe it was for Venice, where she’s spent many summers. But it didn’t surprise me, and not just because she’s always been a sucker for good-looking men.
She reads both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, cover to cover, every day.
When I take a day off and don’t tell her, I can expect a call by 10 a.m. demanding to know why I wasn’t in the paper.
Within the last few years she has read both James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” the latter in French. (She speaks six languages fluently.) She’s currently on a Gabriel García Márquez kick.
She also has a Netflix account; my daughter Lucy replenishes her queue every few days, even though my mother complains about Lucy’s movie choices. She doesn’t get Wes Anderson, one of my daughter’s favorite directors. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have much patience for movies made since the 1960s.
However, she loves “Two and a Half Men”—the original with Charlie Sheen. Her affection for the franchise doesn’t extend to his replacement, Ashton Kutcher.
Despite the fact that my mother is mostly housebound, she’s not without companionship.
Wong, her housekeeper, has been with her a quarter century. Indeed, he drove Lucy, who is celebrating her 26th birthday Tuesday, home from the hospital during his first day on the job.
Also, her cousin Lily calls her several times a day, and often at night, from Paris.
And Lucy, who works at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks from my mother’s apartment, frequently drops by after work for cocktails.
Undoubtedly, the free booze is part of the allure. (A guest once described the apartment’s walk-in bar, with mirrors and mood lighting, as stepping into a “Mad Men” episode.) But most of all, it’s because my mother remains excellent company, and more than a little vicariously engaged in the lives, especially the love lives, of her six grandchildren.
We’ll be celebrating my mother’s birthday at Cipriani. While crowded, noisy, and not inexpensive, it’s her favorite restaurant because it reminds her of Venice.
It’s testimony to my mother’s lively state-of-mind that she plans to return there next summer. She plans to return to Venice every summer, though she hasn’t for several.
But I wouldn’t put more trips past her. She’s got time.
Meanwhile, we’ll be raising a Bellini, or two, to her health Monday night.
Write to Ralph Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org