“The best thing about getting old,” said my mother when she was 95 and appeared in a CBS special on aging, “is that you can flirt with the men and their wives don’t mind.”
To which a wife, watching my mother on TV, responded, “Wanna bet?”
My mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, was — and is — my role model on aging. She was almost 99 when she died, and that day she went to church, to the christening party for her twenty-second great grandchild, read the Sunday New York Times, wrote her weekly column for the local paper, and was getting ready for an evening meeting on spiritual growth when we found her. She had slipped away.
What was her secret? She heard that question often once she hit her mid-80s. Her stock answer was, “I just don’t think about myself.”
She didn’t. She thought about world issues and sent off small contributions of two, three, or five dollars to organizations that might find cures for world problems.
She thought about state issues. She wrote letters to her senator, who recognized her when he visited our Island.
She thought about local issues. She was active in the Conservation Society, the League of Women Voters, the Island’s NAACP, the Up Island Council on Aging. She read to schoolchildren at the West Tisbury school and once a week would “read to the elderly” at the hospital. She, herself, wasn’t elderly, even in her nineties.
She was game for anything, from an evening of dancing to a lecture on econometrics.
I’m sure she had the ailments that I, in my eighties, have. Teeth, eyes, joints, flutterings around the heart, strange grumblings in the gut. But whenever I asked her how she was feeling, she had to re-focus, because she had been thinking about something more important than herself.
It’s no wonder I’ve used my mother as the model for Victoria Trumbull, the 92-year-old sleuth in my mystery series. She’d have been pleased to ride shotgun with the local police chief, out-thinking the bad guys.
But even more than honoring one remarkable woman, I wished to attack the rampant ageism of our times, the stereotypes of sweet old ladies and cozy grandfathers, of elders fretting about change and the lost good old days, and the emphasis on youthful appearance.
Victoria Trumbull’s face is wrinkled, her fingers are gnarled. She’s shrunk from a stately five-foot-ten to a mere five-foot-five. She uses a walking stick — but only to keep from hurting the feelings of her granddaughter, who cut the stick from the lilac bush for her. Her shoe has a hole cut in it to relieve the pressure on her sore toe.
Yet Victoria has nine decades of experience that the police chief has come to depend on. She knows everyone in her small town, and almost everyone on Martha’s Vineyard, the Island where she was born. She knows who’s related to whom, who’s not speaking to whom, and who lives down that unmarked sand road. She knows the trees and shrubs and wildflowers. She can look at the sky and forecast the weather — better than that Providence, Rhode Island, weatherman on the local TV channel.
Because Victoria is wise, she can state opinions on issues I would never dare allow a younger sleuth to voice. She understands why the local Indian tribe wants to build a casino (Victoria is a gambler). She scolds a gay friend for yielding to blackmail. She cares about the hurts of a mixed-race couple when the pale mother wheels her dark baby into the supermarket. She takes for granted the non-traditional jobs people around her hold. A woman gravedigger, a male nurse, a carpenter with an MBA from Dartmouth, a female boat rigger.
Victoria is willing to express her opinions now that she’s older. She scolds a stalker. She argues with the editor of the local paper over his editorial positions. She stands up in Town Meeting and changes voters’ minds. She confronts a murderer and convinces him to give himself up.
She is no longer afraid of the world outside her door, although I don’t think she was ever seriously afraid of anything. She escapes from a kidnapper by pretending she’s a feeble old lady, the very stereotype she abhors. She volunteers to serve as bait to trap a serial killer.
“I’d rather be the age I am now, than any other age,” my mother used to say, as my sisters and I watched her through her seventies, eighties, and nineties.
She was proof of the grace and freedom that comes with age.