Monday, September 3, 2012

90 is the new 90

My mother turned 90 yesterday, and she is finally starting to look close to her age. It's something of a shock to both her and us, who have assumed her youthfulness would go on forever.

This year has been harsh on her. Tough on all of us.

Last year at 89?

Mom & me on her 89th birthday last year
Still going strong. We drove out to Coney Island to visit with friends, made a full day of it, took Grandma out to dinner at a diner near her NYC home when we got back to Manhattan.

But this year?

Wheelchair bound now, post broken-hip fall; sleeping much of the time (her heart not pumping efficiently enough to give her a full day's energy). Living in a nursing home. Still bruised from her latest fall.

Danny and the boys and I came out from the city by train (the car is still in the shop) and my Uncle Walter - my mother's 85 year-old "baby brother" - picked us up and drove us to the nursing home which is just a mile from his house.

We gathered in one of the small lounges, just off the dining room, where there was a table, sofa, chairs.
Uncle Walter & Mom
Three generations
Walter brought flowers. We brought a cake (chocolate - is there any other kind?) and candles - nine, one for each decade.


We visited for a while, ate cake, interspersed hugs and kisses with stories. Mom napped in her chair, on and off throughout the proceedings.

Birthday kisses from Jake

I gave her a bracelet, a simple string of blue-grey pearls on an elastic cord. Something easy to wear, not too valuable, as things of value are not possible to keep in a nursing home (the sad truth).

I had no idea they would be the exact same shade as the shirt she was wearing today, a bit of serendipity, something cheerful to cut into the sadness that was running a deep vein throughout the afternoon.

Walt told winding stories of their childhood together. Tales of their parents, and the candy store they ran together; of his father's earlier work as a waiter, filling in some details I had not heard before.

(The children were bored. They played video games. Hopefully, someday they will have interest in  the currently unimaginable past.)

I hadn't realized Grandpa Joe had worked in high-class joints like the Waldorf, and been instrumental in founding the waiters union, NYC Local 1.

They talked about their grandfather, their father's father, remembered only as Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather), first name obliterated by time. Walt remembered how harsh and bristly his beard was, like razor blades, and how his father had inherited that same rough stuff.

"You have a beard like none other I have ever seen!" declared his barber when Grandpa Joe went in for his twice monthly fancy shaves, "It's tough as nails!"

Walt doesn't have this. Did it die out with my grandfather's generation, or is a steel wool beard in store for my boys when, in a few years, they sprout facial hair?

(This is why I feel it so important to gather these stories now, while those who lived them first hand are still among us and remembering. That world has long faded away, and yet my children walk into the future carrying the genes of their ancestors with their every step. these are their stories too, even if they don't know it yet.)

We took leave of Mom as dinner was being served, handed out the remains of the cake to the folks at her table.  She looked so sad, sitting there in her wheelchair, dozing off, waiting to be served.

I had to work hard to walk away without spilling over into sobs, remembering my father's bountiful 90th birthday celebration just five years ago, with abundant food, family and friends gathered 'round; not this paltry, anemic thing we had just done, too slight to be called a party.

Mom with birthday flowers and cake
Mom, I know this is not how you wanted it to be, but you made it to 90.

And 90 is still 90, a big deal. Nine decades.

And I know you don't think so, are distressed by how much you now look like "an old woman" but you are still so beautiful, so beautiful to us all.

Happy Birthday Mom! We love you!


  1. She is still a lovely woman, and you're right, 90 is a BIG deal.
    Happy birthday to her!


  2. Varda, this is gorgeous and touching and your love and devotion to your mom shines through every post you write. I hope you're at peace because I think it was a lovely celebration and a beautiful job of meeting your mom where she is and loving her.

  3. happy happy happy birthday to your mom - she IS lovely

  4. Congrats to your mom on her 90th birthday.

  5. Happy birthday, wonderful lady!!

    You have a wonderful daughter, and I know that is so so much because of you, and what you passed on to her.

  6. Happy 90th Birthday! Chocolate cake and grandsons is all I'm sure it takes for a celebration!

  7. Happy birthday, lovely lady.

  8. Hi. This is my first time commenting, but I wanted you to know that I loved this post. I came across it just minutes after I finished talking on the phone with my mother. She won't be ninety for many years yet, but I see her age showing more and more lately. Your post came to me at a time when I needed to be reminded to appreciate every conversation with her. Thank You.

  9. Thanks for inviting us to the party. Am honored to attend.


I am so sorry to have to turn word verification back on, but the spam-bots have found me - yikes!