When I grow up I want to be just like my father. And I’m no kid. I’m an adult with a recently past milestone birthday that rhymes with nifty.
Turning forty had rocked my world. In the years running up to it, I had often declared, “By the time I’m forty…” and then heaped imaginary events and accomplishments into the blank. Some things happened in time. By forty, I was happily married with two wonderful children and had completed a first novel. However, other things didn’t pan out in time, like getting the aforementioned novel published or running a marathon. In need of an attitude adjustment before the big nifty, I had looked to my father for inspiration on how to turn my dread of aging into acceptance.
At the time, my father was eighty-four, retired and living in Florida. After my mother passed away twelve years earlier, my father had sold our New Jersey home and moved to the Sunshine State.
While my father lives in Florida, I call North Carolina home. We speak by phone weekly and he regales me with tales of his senior shenanigans. The highlight one week last year: the Saturday dance at his retirement community’s clubhouse. My father has always loved to dance. For years he and my mother often went dancing on their date nights. His favorite is the jitterbug, learned in his teens while he and his family lived in England during World War II.
At this particular senior dance night, he was in high demand. The woman he was dating didn’t jitterbug. “But she doesn’t mind if I do,” he said. He danced with several friends and then again with a younger woman in attendance, another jitterbug fan. “She must have been around forty,” he said. “And she asked me to dance.” He sounded like a giddy teen invited to his first Sadie Hawkins dance. “You know, every day is a bonus. That’s how I feel.”
“It’s terrific that you feel that way, Dad” I said, marveling at how he had summed up his life so simply. The unabashedly positive declaration was heartening.
He continued to explain, his theorizing rooted in family history that I already knew, but oddly, didn’t mind hearing again. “My brother died at thirty-eight years old of a heart attack. My uncle passed at fifty-nine. He also had a heart attack. Grandpa (his father) was seventy-three when he died of a heart attack. I’m eighty-four. You see what I’m saying?” my father asked. “Every day is a bonus!”
When we hung up, I began unloading the dishwasher but stopped with a warm cereal bowl in hand, struck by the fact that my father was in fact the happiest person I knew.
Setting down the bowl, I turned the conversation over in my mind. My father had endured plenty of hardships. A Belgian Jew, his family fled to London during World War II. As a teen he and his brother were sent to the country during the city’s bombings while his parents stayed behind. Reunited after the war, the family traveled to the United States.
Life in the New World wasn’t easy either.
He met my mother, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, working in a coat factory in Newark, New Jersey. He sewed buttons. She sewed pockets. Somehow, love blossomed amongst all that stitching. As newlyweds, they lived with my mother’s family—six people crammed into a tenement apartment. “We were the poorest of the poor,” my mother would say as she and my father recalled those lean early years. And yet, they both would smile at the memories. They had been married for forty-nine years after my mother died from a long battle with emphysema.
When I was young, my father worked two jobs—landlord of several apartment houses and salesman for a kosher food distributor—until he had a heart attack. He was forty years old. I was five. For obvious health reasons, he then sold the apartment houses, but kept his job with the food distributor, where he worked until he retired at seventy.
Seventeen years ago, he needed quintuple bypass surgery. The doctors predicted it would add twenty years to his life. It added much more. Post-surgery, my father embraced the doctor’s orders, followed his dietary directives and began a daily walking regimen. And today at eighty-five, he can still jitterbug.
I’ve taken much from my father’s outlook, and welcomed turning nifty having learned to embrace the coming years rather than lament the past. Remembering my father’s words—every day is a bonus—I now celebrate not just each year, but each day for what it brings rather than what I expected.
When I reach his age, I hope for a dance card full of bonus days, too.
A longer version of this essay appeared in the small print journal Still Crazy, in January 2013.