My mother turned 96 earlier this month. She is still in very good health and has never worn glasses or needed help hearing. She had her hips replaced when she was in her 70s and got a pacemaker in her 80s. She has no short-term memory but is every bit as funny, witty, and logical as she ever was in her younger days. She has lived longer than anyone in her family tree that I have been able to find so far (going back to the late 1500s), and she has a younger sister who will be 90 soon. The photo here is of my mom at age 90 watering the lawn outside the little bungalow that my brother built for her. Her brothers have all passed on. But what is it about these two sisters – and especially my mom – that makes them appear to live very charmed lives?
I would say that the answer is in living a very healthy life in every area. Let’s take the areas one by one:
Mom has always prepared and eaten whole, fresh food. She had gardens when I was growing up and rarely used packaged or processed food. She was never partial to sweets or snacking and didn’t eat after dinner. Following our generational New England habit, dinner was normally around 5 pm unless my Dad was delayed.
My mom was always in motion and loved being outdoors. She enjoyed walking (had many dogs over the years) and gardening and loved to swim whenever she could. There were 5 of us children with 13 years between the oldest and the youngest. After she no longer had mom duties to perform, she ran a Montessori-type school and summer camp in the countryside outside of Rome, Italy for many years. She built all the furniture for a play kitchen in the kindergarten, installed a water filtration system on the roof of the main building, did many of the repairs, cooked or drove bus when her employees were sick, and ran the best fresh air camp ever. Seriously, the children cried on the last day. There were bug collections, tree climbing expeditions, sports, games, theater productions, and all kinds of other day camping activities. And she STRETCHED – every day – and still does. She may have slowed down quite a bit, but she has never stopped stretching at least twice a day. Her favorite shoes have always been sneakers with good rubber soles.
When I was growing up, my mom used to take cat naps to stay energized. As she got older, they got a little longer. But she was a master at power napping. She and my dad got a good night’s sleep every night. He needed more total sleep than she did, so sometimes she would get up in the middle of the night and do housework and then go back to bed. He passed away 30 years ago, so I’m not sure how much sleep she needs or gets now. But she never complains about being tired or needing sleep.
My mom has an optimistic, very pragmatic outlook on life. She is honest, respectful/circumspect, and plain spoken – more New England traits. If she is faced with something that she doesn’t understand – even if it disturbs her or confuses her at first – she asks questions until she has satisfied herself that there is common ground somewhere. She used to cry the few times she ever got so frustrated that she raised her voice at one of us. But that was all she seemed to need to process the upset. Her philosophy (expressed to me many times) included sayings like: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything”, “Life isn’t fair, so just do your best”, “Treat people the way you want to be treated”. She was never jealous or bitter or unkind, and she never held grudges. She always modeled the way I thought a person should live. She built fun into the mundane, especially when there were children around. She saw and built beauty into all things (grew and arranged flowers; played the clarinet; loved to recite poetry; painted in oils, water colors, and acrylics; wrote short stories, poetry, and even an autobiography; was the best gift giver and always wrapped each present in a unique way). She had a never-ending sense of adventure and was always eager to try anything that anyone suggested or that she thought up herself. When she was running the school, for example, she took all of her students on a bus trip (she drove, of course) to see a medieval village high up in the mountains and walk to the edge of a live volcano – things that would probably be illegal today. The kids loved it. She and my dad held hands every day for as long as he lived.
We siblings grew up without medicine as mom had. Ophthalmologists and dentists, yes, but that was about it. We didn’t get shots. Her philosophy on healthcare was that we would probably live through it unless something was broken or on fire. She used warm olive oil for earaches and tea with lemon and honey or steam for just about everything else. We were all encouraged to play outside A LOT, so our “medicine” was good food, lots of fresh air and exercise, and the rough and tumble environment of a large family with pets. We went to church on Sundays and took music lessons, or dance, or whatever we needed to feed our talents and interests. That was our home health program.
Mom has always been interested in science and how things work. I think that trait has helped her to see life as a curiosity to be solved and enjoyed. Despite the many unexpected twists and turns that she has faced over the years, she has never seen obstacles; she has only seen opportunities to think up new solutions. She had studied physics and worked in the aircraft industry during the war years (WWII), and she and dad lived in France for a year after he was discharged from the Army. They (and the French) had little food or any other luxuries that year, but it was an amazing way to start married life. It led both of them to be open to moving the entire family to Italy 20 years later in the course of my dad’s work. When he passed away, she stayed on in Italy until she was in her late 80s and needed more support for daily life. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a high school principle in a small New England city, she became a teacher and mentor for young students from all over the world. One of her former students started a Facebook group for her school more than a decade ago so that they could all keep in touch with her. Her love of gadgets, electronics, and staying in touch kept her online with them and many others until just a couple of years ago. Bottom line: at 96, she loves life and is eager to welcome each new day.
Thanks for joining me in paying tribute to my mom. She continues to be my inspiration in just about everything I do. I hope that each of you finds a spark here to uplevel your own journey.
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