The older gentleman in the locker room at the gym, fresh from his workout and shower, is looking for his glasses. “I need ‘em to see which hearing aid goes in which ear,” he tells me. “It’s no trouble getting dressed,” he says, “the hard part is putting the parts back together.” Glasses, hearing aids, dentures, knee braces – the older we get, the more parts there are to put back together. But thank goodness, there’s still a place to put all the parts.
I celebrated one of those milestone birthdays recently. I love celebrating birthdays, being a year older. The alternative is not worth thinking about. In fact, I celebrate what my daughter Lee and I call birth-halfdays. Her birthday is February 22, mine is August 22. When she’s having a birthday, I’m having a birth-halfday, and vice versa. Another 6 months vertical. It’s cause for rejoicing.
Thankfully, I come from sturdy stock. My maternal grandmother, Nell Cooper, lived to be 94. She spent most of her life comfortably in her own home, but when she turned 92, she called my mother and said, “Emma Margaret, it’s time to go to the nursing home.” She lived comfortably there until she fell and broke her hip and spent her last days bedridden. But at the last she told me, “Bobby, I’ve give out, but I haven’t give up.” Nell Cooper is my hero, more so with each passing birthday.
I’m fortunate to have a job I love, a wife I cherish, and an extended family that provides me with endless entertainment and grist for my stories. The late North Carolina author Reynolds Price once said, “In the South, our families are our entertainment.” I think that’s not just the case in the South. And the older we get, the more family lore we have to ponder, agonize over, and often enjoy.
In my second novel, Old Dogs and Children, I used some of my family lore – people and happenings that are part of my tribe’s history. I turned them into fiction, but to the members of my family, the generation of my grandmother and my parents, they were thinly disguised. When the book was published, I braced myself for the worst. To my great relief, one of my uncles called and said, “You got it right.” I think they loved it, at least most of them, most of it. What they were appalled over, they kept to themselves.
There’s still a lot of stuff in the family baggage I haven’t used, but I keep writing these books, and everything – well, most everything – is possibility. And I do keep writing. It’s what I want to do when I grow up (not that I intend to ever completely grow up). If things work out perfectly, I will write my last word as I’m drawing my last breath, and the undertaker will have to pry my fingers from the keyboard.
Meanwhile, I’ll celebrate those birthdays and deal with the growing number of parts I have to put back together.