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Why I Will Never Be as Cool as My Mother

What she did to live a long and healthy life.

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The Author With Her Mom (Courtesy Lorraine Merkl)
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Instead of blowing out candles, watching balloons bounce off the ceiling and opening myriad presents, my mother, Angelina, celebrated her 100th birthday on an operating table.

The night before her milestone year was to begin, she broke her hip. Despite her infirm state, my mother managed to secure her spot as the hospital It Girl, with many of the staff popping by to wish their centenarian patient a happy birthday and ooh and aah over her.

Ever since Angelina had turned 90, people complimented her shock of bright white hair as well as her skin, which was not wrinkle-free but close to it. More than once in the following decade, I heard “She doesn’t look her age” and “Oh, she’s so cute,” as if she were a doll.

Although I’m grateful for everyone’s kind words, I’ve come to believe that many forget older people like my mother were once young and truly lived a life. Because she suffered from dementia, I can tell you that my mother, who died in March, had forgotten more than some people will ever know.

Born during the Roaring ’20s, Angelina grew up tough as nails in Italian Harlem. By the time I came along, she’d relocated to the Bronx, where I grew up in a tough neighborhood and was anything but.

My mother came of age during the Great Depression, learning early how to scrimp and save and not be wasteful. But it wasn’t all bleak. One time she skipped school (something she would have grounded me for) to go see the Wizard of Oz. After the show, the film’s star, Judy Garland, came out onstage for an impromptu live performance. “They did that back then,” she told me.

As a young adult during World War II, Angelina lost her saddle shoe in Times Square running after a young crooner named Frank Sinatra. She spent every Saturday sewing for that night’s USO dance, so she’d always have a new dress. She managed to afford material by walking instead of taking the bus, which cost a nickel.

After high school graduation, she defied my grandfather, who wanted her to get married. “I’m going to work and make money.” Thirty years before women linked arms and marched down Fifth Avenue, Angelina knew the power of being independent. Her first career was as a seamstress; her second, in the 1950s, was as an operator for the phone company (when there was only one). She rose through the ranks and eventually retired as an executive.

For all my years of working, I never garnered a fancy title. I was an ad agency copywriter, and when my first child, Luke, was born, I went freelance.

Angelina became a single mother (not by choice) in the ’60s, when there was still a stigma attached to that. Yet she held her head high, as well she should have. On her own steam, my mother sent me to private school and then college and bought us a house. I did all this for my children as well, except with the help of a husband.

When my grandmother passed in 1978, Angelina took over as family matriarch— even though she was the second youngest of 13 — because she was the only one with real leadership qualities.

For a good 20 years, she hosted Christmas for our very large family, preparing everything, catering nothing. My children were lucky that I was able to create something remotely edible for their dinner each night.

When my second child, Meg, was born in 1997 and Angelina was 75, she moved from the Bronx to Manhattan, across the street from my apartment, so that my kids would continue to have their granny as their nanny, without the commute.

My mother remained independent for two decades, until she moved in with me and my family right before the COVID lockdown in 2020.

Intergenerational living isn’t new. For the past decade, there has been increased media attention on grandparents moving in with their children’s families instead of going to assisted living or homes for the aged because those facilities are expensive and people are living longer.  

According to data listed on Statista.com, in 2016 there were 82,000 centenarians in the United States. This figure is expected to increase to 589,000 by the year 2060. In fact, there are five places in the world referred to as Blue Zones where people currently live the longest and are healthiest. They are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California, which is about 60 miles from Los Angeles. At the core of this West Coast community are some 9,000 Adventists who live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us due to a largely vegetarian diet, regular exercise and a tight community.  They also don’t smoke or drink alcohol.

My mother, Angelina, adhered to a lot of healthy lifestyle choices that lead to longevity.  She was a big walker, stayed connected to family and had the same best friend for 49 years. She also loved to laugh: When she turned 99, she flipped the numbered candles on her cake upside down, declaring herself 66.

However, she also enjoyed a nice steak with her buttered baked potato, smoked cigarettes into her 50s, and liked her scotch on the rocks.

I will embarrass myself now by confessing that I didn’t always appreciate all that she was, and spent most of my life trying to avoid being like her. As if I ever could have been that cool.

Are you a lot like your mother? Let us know in the comments below.

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