Hanging with Nonagenarians

My parents in 1990

Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.

Dancing to “Oh My Papa” at my wedding, 1985


In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.

My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!

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10 responses to “Hanging with Nonagenarians”

  1. Joanne Richman says :

    This writing could not have come at a more appropriate time, on many levels, for me. Poignant and inspirational as always. Thank you, Rabbi Drill

    • Rabbi Paula Mack Drill says :

      Dear Joanne, I will always remember your loving devotion to your mother of blessed memory. Thanks for dropping a note here.

  2. Lydia Katz says :

    On my next journey I will join your wonderful group. Your article is great incentive to keep going and continue my active life. I have been so blessed with a loving family, spiritual leaders who give me support and the love of so many that helps me deals with any adversities. Thank you so much for a wonderful and timely article.

    • Rabbi Paula Mack Drill says :

      Dear Lydia, You ARE one of those inspiring ones, and when you hit 90, it will just be official!

  3. Arthur Shapiro says :

    Can’t wait to read your blog on centenarians.

  4. Miriam Rosenstock says :

    Dear Rabbi Drill
    I am so proud of you. I recognize your love of Torah, appreciation of all good in your life., your ability to share your knowledge with us. Personally also, our sing mShalom Aleychem ever Erev Shabbat.Stay well you dear Rabbi .Cherish your dear Jonathan , children , grandchildren and all you hold dear.
    ,

    • Rabbi Paula Mack Drill says :

      Dear Mimi, Thank you so much for your loving and supportive words! One of the best parts of my week is Shalom Aleichem with my Partner!

  5. Mimi Rosenstock says :

    Did u get my post?

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  6. Gisela Berns says :

    Dear Paula, thank you for your loving memories that I can heartily share. I fondly remember your spirited service for Grandma Gusta’s funeral. Laurence would have been 93 this year, and it’s 10 years that he died. The stories that he and Phil could tell of their lives together! I am still grateful that the whole Drill clan, Phil and Ellen included, came to his funeral, with Jonathan driving from New Jersey to be here with me and Anna and Joel on that cold March morning.
    Thank you, Paula, and all of you Drills that now, 56 years ago, welcomed me into your family! With much love, Gisela

  7. Cat Cantor says :

    Dear Rabbi Drill,
    As my own dad’s yartzheit, like your father’s, has just passed – both of blessed memory – I found your writing so moving. Full of beautiful memory, inspiration for today, and hope for the future. Thank-you so much.
    Love,
    Cat

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