Mondays with Mrs. Harris
What my new BFF teaches me about thriving in old age
My latest novel follows the adventures of Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a flamboyant, sensual woman dancing on the edge of old age. I initially envisaged my character as being in her eighties, but given the exuberant life I imagined for her, I was talked into lowering her age. In the novel, she’s 74 which is still a stretch for some readers. Then I met Mrs. Harris.
We were seated next to each other at a nail salon. Mrs Harris was getting her nails painted and I was doing the same. Unlike me, Mrs. Harris looked like the sort of woman who is always well groomed. She spoke with a slight Southern drawl, wore her hair in a neat afro, and looked smart in tailored black trousers and a lavender pink sweater. I thought I’d met a real-life Morayo, a fabulous older woman in her seventies, until Mrs. Harris mentioned a 75th reunion. Puzzled, I wondered if she’d made a mistake. Leaning towards me, she whispered, “I’m 96 and turnin’ 97 next month.” Amazed, I had to know more.
Mrs. Harris, I discovered, was the first African American Director of Nurses at a major San Francisco hospital in the 1970s. She had long since retired from nursing but had never stopped working. These days, she works as a proctor, “a security guard” she jokes, making sure the students “don’t cheat.” She regularly attends her college sorority meetings, she’s a lay minister at her church, does water aerobics twice a week, and has just started piano lessons to help with arthritis in her fingers. I was now Mrs. Harris’ student and I was learning. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you must act the way others might expect you to. Mrs. Harris promptly christened me her “new best friend” and asked if I’d like to join her and a friend for an early morning walk — laps around Kezar Stadium! She drove there, from her house. She explained that walking with others kept her motivated, but what soon emerged as her rich social life seemed just as important as the exercise itself. She had friends and family near and far — as far away as Germany where her grandson and great grandson live. Email was how she suggested we stay in touch.
And perhaps it was because Mrs. Harris kept herself so busy that she also didn’t appear anxious about things I would have expected her to be anxious about. Teeth extractions, for example. The day after her dental surgery, I phoned to see how she was doing. There was no answer so I went to her house and left a small gift by the front door. I thought she might have been sleeping, but as she explained later in an email, she’d simply gone out.
“Dear Sarah — -how sweet of you!!!! — I will surely enjoy, beginning with tonight (teeth or no teeth). I went shopping — bought a new bathing suit, top to match (blue) and a pair of BOOTS (now that it has stop raining — who knows it may rain again).”
Mrs. Harris’ age doesn’t stop her from seizing life, or being open to new things and laughing. Every time we see each other, we laugh. She laughs at herself, joking about things like not getting a tattoo, only because she’s heard that it hurts, or the fact that she’s taken swimming lessons in every town she’s lived in (from Tennessee to New York and California) yet still hasn’t learned how to swim. And no, she won’t let me write her life’s story because she’s got “too many secrets,” including the fact that her gentleman friend doesn’t know that she’s older than him. And so it is that we sometimes roar with laughter. Just “like two crazy women” she says, after we discuss what I should wear to a fancy dinner party rather than the occasion itself. “Stand up there and look pretty, like Michelle! And make me proud!” she exclaims, starting off another round of laughter.
Mrs. Harris doesn’t take herself too seriously and nor will she allow me to describe her as exceptional. “I’m still learning,” she tells me early on. “Trying to decide which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” And while she is laid-back about herself, she has a heightened sense of things that matter beyond herself. On the day after we got our nails done, November 8, 2016, she was working all day as a volunteer, managing our local poll station. She’s seen a lot in her lifetime and continues to keep herself politically and socially engaged. A few weeks later, she was up at 5:00am, taking an elderly friend to hospital, a friend younger than her.
So what does Mrs. Harris attribute her long life to? She says it’s because God has put her on this earth for a reason. She’s grateful for friends and family, her children, grandchildren, and great grandson. She also starts each day (except during Lent) with a splash of brandy in her coffee. All sound like plausible explanations for longevity to me. She reminds me though, that “we never know when our winter comes,” but until the good Lord has reason to call her home, she’s getting on with life. When I first met Mrs. Harris I wanted to be like her if I made it to a grand old age. But now I just want to be like her at any age. What’s the point in aspiring to age “gracefully” when I can be badass right now, dressing like Michelle, eating macaroons (teeth or no teeth) and ready to meet the rain, in style.