Corie Skolnick

Communiqués From Geezerville: How To Be Ninety

(Betty White at the Time 100 gala in 2010; photo by David Shankbone; CC BY 2.0)

Corie Skolnick’s latest Communiqués From Geezerville column “How To Be Ninety” is about exactly that, how to be ninety and crushing life. Meet Aunt El.

 

Somehow, don’t ask me how, during my lifetime, I acquired a gang of geezer ladies who lived well into their nineties, all of whom are now up in Geezerville in the sky, but before they departed, as geezers often are, they were free with their advice on just about everything.

Most of the advice on the subject of accumulating nine decades of life—living to a ripe old age—tends to endorse temperance and, well … I can’t even give up gluten, so, my role models in the category of longevity were not selected to roll in that direction. Not a one of them could have been perceived as “temperate.” My homies were from the Betty White School-of-Aging-With-Grace*.

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I didn’t know El all that well. Truthfully, she was just one of those old aunts in the background on Pablo’s side. A sweet old lady. El lived in Queens, New York, and we rarely went back to visit the relatives on the east coast, so, until my youngest went to New York for grad school, we hadn’t had much contact that wasn’t filtered through Pablo’s mom, El’s big sister. That all changed when my son’s landlord wanted someone to co-sign his lease and that someone had to be a New York resident. Pablo called Aunt El and within a few hours she was down in the village meeting the landlord at the fourth-floor walk-up and handing over a sizable local personal check for first, last, and security. No questions asked. For a great-nephew she hardly knew.

A month later, we flew into New York to check on the kid, see his new apartment, and meet up with some of Pablo’s old friends from his college days. (This is something parents do—check in with their old college roommates the minute their own kids go away to college. You’ll see. You’ll do this too, if you haven’t already.) While we were in town, El invited us to come for dinner with “the kids.” J had already been out to Queens a few times, always taking a friend or two with him. El cooked them dinner and made them fancy cocktails and they quite fell in love with her. She charmed them. In doing so, she charmed me too. Why had I overlooked this marvelous woman? You want the god’s honest truth? Probably because she was O.L.D. and for no other reason. (My bad.)

Back in L.A. one day, after Pablo’s mom had sent an article from The New York Times about El’s husband, I got curious. The Times art reviewer called Uncle Gene an “American Master.” Gene had already gone on to his eternal reward, but he’d left behind hundreds if not thousands of paintings and other works of art. He had been an art professor at City College and many of his students had “made it big” in the art world. I googled him, joking that maybe we would find out that the large painting we’d received as a wedding present from El some years prior could be worth millions. Alas, we were not instantly made millionaires, in fact, there weren’t even any notations about Uncle Gene on Google. Instead, what was there was every last word of El’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee from 1954. In front of Joe McCarthy himself. Seated right next to Roy Cohn. Yes, THAT Roy Cohn. Donald Trump’s Roy Cohn. There was an old photo of our tiny little Aunt El telling the scourge that was Joe McCarthy et al. to go fuck themselves. (Metaphorically.) And the whole thing, every word of testimony from those hearings is all up there on the internet for anyone to read. Forevermore. We are certain to perish, every last one of us, but the internet never dies. (Think about that the next time you tweet.)

 

There was an old photo of our tiny little Aunt El telling the scourge that was Joe McCarthy et al. [in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954] to go fuck themselves. (Metaphorically.)

 

Meanwhile, the kid had hit his stride in the city. He’d hooked up with a few music pals and they were getting gigs in dive-y clubs with names like “Joe’s Tiki Bar” and most Saturday nights El would take the subway down and sit at the bar, dressed to the nines, always drinking a cosmo or two before putting a large bill into the tip jar. I’m sure the punk music or post-punk was anything but her cup of tea and much too loud, but she stayed until the bitter end when the kid would hail her a taxi and give the cabbie instructions to get his favorite aunt home to Queens in perfect condition or he would regret it. She loved to tell that story.

One day, El called me from an airport shuttle taking her from JFK back home to Queens. She’d just flown in from Turkey where she’d been on a long tour. She had taken the Nobel Prize winner book Snow (by Orhan Pamuk) with her to read on the plane “to get a sense of the place” and she had made some notations that she wanted to share. She couldn’t wait to tell me all the passages where his book had reminded her of mine. After that, El was my favorite beta reader. She always told me the truth, even when she was dismayed, even when I wrote a whole chapter about an unlikable character who picked his nose. Who would’ve thought? She faced down Joe McCarthy, but a fictional nose picker made her queasy.

 


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The very last time she came out to visit us in L.A. she was sitting at our kitchen island and telling me about her trip with a “friend” to France. The two of them, both ninety-plus at the time, had flown first class to Paris and rented a car. (You gotta love the French, right? Who else would rent a car to two ninety-year-olds to drive all the way to Provence?) Curiosity about this “friend” got the best of me, so I stopped her. I hemmed and hawed a bit and finally she interrupted me.

“Honey, do you want to know if we have sex?”

“Yeah,” I told her, embarrassed by my own audacity, “I know it’s none of my business, but … I kind of do want to know what there is to look forward to if I make it to ninety.”

She laughed and stirred her dry martini with three olives and said quite matter-of-factly, “Of course we have sex. Why on earth would I bother with him if we weren’t having sex?”

She outlived that guy by a few years. And then, when she finally died, she left every one of us—all the nieces, nephews, their kids, and even all the in-laws—a small inheritance. Something to remember her by.

Mine is in the bank. Waiting. I’m going to use it when I’m ninety to fly to Paris. First class. With any luck, I won’t be alone.

 

*Lodestar and fabulous lady geezer Betty White will be 100 years old in January and she still tweets from @BettyMWhite. Ms. White, like the internet, seems poised to live forever.

 

Corie Skolnick

Corie Skolnick is the author of two novels, ORFAN and AMERICA’S MOST ELIGIBLE, both published by india street press the publishing subsidiary of indie record label, Mannequin Vanity Records. She is a contributor to the non-fiction anthologies, ADOPTION REUNION IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGE and ADOPTION THERAPY. Her essays have appeared in THE BIG SMOKE AMERICA and NAILED MAGAZINE. She writes regularly for the travel website, DESTO3.com. She is a San Diego State University/Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series selectee. Her first novel, ORFAN is in development as a feature film.

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3 Comments

  1. Wesley L Mahan said:

    Wonderful post! I know Corie from when her and I were both Pro-Choice Clinic Escorts volunteers in Portland, Oregon.

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