How to Live Practically Forever
by Jesslyn Shields
This morning I went over to my grandmother’s house to bring her buttermilk and ice cream. She calls me once a week or so:
“Jessie, go to the store for me, will you? I’m outta cornmeal and see if you can get some of that cream for my eyebrows. You know, that cream you got at the pharmacy that one time …”
Most of my family lives within about five miles of her house, so I’m not the only one who gets calls like this from Gigi. She lives by herself in the home she and my grandfather bought in the 1940s, and she still does really well by herself, with a little help from about 15 friends and relatives. But Gigi’s funny and interesting, and calls everybody Baby, so nobody really minds running her errands or looking in on her once a week.
So, this morning I got to her house before she unlocked the doors. She’s too deaf to hear any sort of knocking or bell ringing, so I walked around the house, yoohoo-ing at every door and window (that’s what we do in my family: we “yoohoo”), and eventually I got around to the back door, where I saw her cat slide through the broken screen. I looked in, and there was Gigi, in just a pair of gigantic panties, fluffing her white hair in front of the mirror. She might be 95, but the girl’s still got it.
She screamed bloody murder when she finally saw me in the mirror, standing outside the screen door, yoohoo-ing at her, but she recovered fast, and after she got dressed, I helped her make her bed and rounded up her hearing aids — one of them was in the living room in a goblet full of loose change, and the other was on her night stand next to the antique handgun that she thinks is loaded, but which one of my uncles assures me is not.
Her coffee pot erupted this morning, too, so I was blotting coffee out of her kitchen carpet with a dishtowel when my uncle Lee called. Gigi’s got the volume turned all the way up on her phone receiver, so when somebody calls, you can hear everything the person on the other line is saying.
Lee’s not really one for preamble, so he got right down to it: “You know Cecelia died on Friday?”
Cecelia was a family friend — a baker. She made beautiful cakes like the ones you see in fancy magazines. I didn’t know her very well, and what I do know about her history with my family really isn’t my business to tell. I’ll just say, there’s a story there, and so her dying was significant, even though everybody knew she had been sick for ages. For a few minutes after Lee hung up, Gigi looked out the window, watery-eyed and very old looking, which I realized as I wiped coffee grounds off the kitchen cabinets, is unusual for her, even though she is very old.
Cecelia, on the other hand, wasn’t all that old — she might have been 70, maybe younger. But none of us die of old age; we all die of something, and Cecelia died of Parkinson’s disease.
But two things Gigi hates are 1) being sad, and 2) not taking advantage of the opportunity to chat somebody up when they’re sitting there right in front of her. In her life, she’s known a lot of people who are dead now, and I’ve been with her when she’s received similar news about somebody she knew. But strangely, the saddest I’ve ever seen her was the time Miss Josh, her Lhasa Apso died: she got extremely drunk on bourbon and cried all day with her friend Susan, who will cry about anything, always, to infinity. Especially dead pets.
So, I wasn’t surprised when, after a grave minute, Gigi turned to me and asked how preschool was going for my three-year-old. She asked to see pictures of her on my phone, and when I handed it over, she got right up close to the screen with her 7X power magnifying glass with the built-in LED. While she did that, I started making her breakfast: peaches, coffee, and four little biscuits I found in the refrigerator with a dollop of orange marmalade on each one.
When she was finished looking at pictures, she looked up at me making her breakfast and smiled a little:
“Nobody ever waits on me. I’ve waited on everybody all my life, you know.” That’s mostly true, and I smiled back at her and I slid a plate of sliced peaches between her elbows.
“When you’re 95, you get to be waited on sometimes.”
Gigi laughed, “I don’t feel that old. I just feel like myself, only my legs hurt.”
“Yeah, it is kind of weird that you’re that old,” I giggled. She’s the kind of person you can say stuff like that to. But then I thought to ask her something that you only ask very, very old people; something I never asked her before:
“How do you think you got to be this old?” She was eating a slice of peach from out of the skin (I had forgotten she didn’t like peach skin, and I had peeled mine, but not hers). She wiped her mouth and looked at me like you look at a child who asks a silly question.
“I stay happy, Baby. And I eat lots and lots of fruit.”