It was 1967 and like all good Canadians, my husband and I had set out to show our 100- year-old country to our young children. We were on our way back from the east coast when we stopped at my grandparents’ farm is Quebec. The next afternoon, we got a call on the party line: could my 33-yr-old husband go up to my great aunt’s farm to help get the last load of hay in before the threatening storm broke. He set off, eager to give himself a workout after days of driving.
While we were eating supper a few hours later, he burst through the door from the woodshed. “You’d never believe it,” he cried. “There was an 88-yr-old woman driving the tractor. A 78-yr-old woman up on the hay wagon and a 71-yr-old man pitching the hay up.”
We turned to stare in incomprehension. Yes, and …
That was my grandmother’s sister, Eva, driving, not an actual tractor, but an very old stripped down Ford pickup, my other grandmother’s sister, Betsy, building the load and her husband, Ralph, pitching up. They hayed every year. Evidently, an outsider regarded such work as beyond the elderly.
I never worried about having to work hard when I got old. I never expected to get old. I almost exited when I was two weeks old, and again when I was starting school at six. That was only the beginning of my almost ends. Then, suddenly, I woke up one day to discover that I was almost as old as Aunt Eva, the tractor driver. The young husband, no longer mine, was even closer to Eva’s age. What’s more I found myself in the unlikely role of caregiver to a 90-yr-old friend. When she handed me a beat-up copy of Jonas Jonasson’s novel, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, she said, “I couldn’t get into it.”
The hundred-year-old man is Allan Karlson, a Swede – the novel is translated – who was born in 1905.
My grandmother, Eva’s sister, was born in 1900, and much to her chagrin, she lived to be 96. For at least 20 years, she went about wondering out loud why she was still here. I found this alarming, but I couldn’t convey to her how she was the center of the world for me, and, I suspected for all the other grandchildren she was so fond of enumerating. Not having her would be like not having the earth’s axis.
She lived within the same ten square miles her entire life. She never traveled farther away than 500 hundred miles. She had five children, three of them were born after me, her first grandchild, and two of these were twins. When she was already a grandmother, she had three babies. Diapers had to be washed then. She had no electricity, a tin tub with a wash board and only a clothes line for drying. Or – when she got desperate – she hung the damned things over the wood stove.
Allan Karlson, the Jonasson’s hero, who lived to be 100, had a much more exciting life. At the age of 10, he went to work in a nitroglycerine factory and taught himself to be an explosives expert. So much so, that he ended up helping out, in a strictly informal if significant way, at Las Alamos. He had already met General Franco in the Spanish Civil War before he met Harry Truman on the day President Roosevelt died. He went on to meet Churchill, de Gaulle, LBJ, Stalin, among other heads of state, and to intervene, however inadvertently, at crucial points in history. He learned many languages, spent long periods in various prison camps, walked across the Himalayas and blew things up just to be helpful. In short, he had the fabulous adventures that only a character in a satire can have. On the last page – spoiler alert – he finally overcomes the forced castration he suffered in his 20s.
The Hundred Year Old Man Who... is the work of a vivid and quirky imagination but it also contains insight: “The following spring he would be seventy-eight, and Allan realized that he had gotten old against all odds and without having thought about it.”
Meanwhile, my ninety-year-old friend has had her car keys confiscated. I’m pretty sure she had been driving for awhile with no idea of which dial was the speedometer. She is not happy to have her independence curtailed. Me neither. Everyday, I find myself driving her wherever her whim takes us. My dear friend with her sparkling blue eyes and her ready wit has to have me identify friends we meet in our forays, and all our conversations are conducted at the top of my lungs. Don’t talk about hearing aids, please. They are tiny, the batteries are impossible to change and they have feedback. She dreads the loss of her short term memory. Too late.
My once young husband has run through every treatment for his stage 4 cancer in the last ten years, and reports that he is unaccountably tired. He speculates that he may have to give up flying to Miami for Caribbean cruises or at least stop zip-lining in ports of call.
I have never been robust (see exit above). Unlike my friend and my ex-husband, I have spent my life not feeling up to par. I have numerous vertical and horizontal scars. I have to eat carefully, exercise carefully and rest half of every day. Yet here I am, completely unfit for the task, but still pitching hay.