The day after I flew back from England, I met with my financial advisor. He informed me that actuarily I should plan to live to age ninety-three. I’m having a hard enough time wrapping my head around the fact that I turned seventy-five last month. I couldn’t imagine being ninety-plus until I remembered the reason I went to England in the first place. It was to celebrate my friend Jan’s ninetieth birthday.
Jan makes ninety look like an enticing adventure. She and I have been friends for fifty years, meeting when we both lived on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. She moved to England about the same time I moved to the Okanogan in eastern Washington. We’ve managed, from time to time, to arrange joint birthday celebrations—revolving around mine in May or hers in June. A few years back, she suggested to me that when we reached the ages of seventy-five and ninety respectively, it would be reason enough for me to fly to England. It was.
After I finally managed to debark from the train at Great Malvern, I was happy to settle into Jan’s tiny Chevy. I knew from past experience that we’d be traveling England’s rural roadways at a good clip. Jan, wearing tight leather driving gloves, adroitly manages clutch and gearshift as she maneuvers twists and turns among the hedgerows. She says she always wanted to compete in the Grand Prix as a grandmother. Walking is a challenge for her; she uses a cane to steady her balance. But get her behind the wheel, and she combines the reaction speed of a teen-ager with the maturity of ninety.
We toured the countryside as we celebrated throughout the week—high tea at an elegant hotel, family time with her granddaughter and daughter-in-law in homey pubs, and a culminating event involving nineteen of us in a hotel private dining room.
“Tell me about the women who will be there,” I suggested to Jan earlier in the week. One by one she briefed me about her friends so that when we finally gathered, I could fully appreciate this wondrous roomful of women. Each was accomplished in her own way, representing the arts, education, spirituality, environmentalism, family nurturing, and global efforts toward world peace and justice. One woman, buxomly built, simply dressed, told of a global conference she’d just attended in Italy. Despite the world’s dismaying problems, there are people finding a way forward, she promised, offering her bywords: “Stubborn optimism.”
At Jan’s request we totaled up our ages: some thirteen hundred years of combined experience and wisdom. You could almost feel the walls of that dining room vibrate with the intensity of women who’d grown into their power. We sat at three tables in a triangular arrangement, so that everyone could see and talk with everyone else. Three birthday cakes held thirty candles each. Jan ended the celebration by reading from the finale of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” My favorite lines are:
“We shall not cease from exploration
“And the end of all our exploring
“Will be to arrive where we started
“And know the place for the first time.”
When I returned home, a birthday card from Jan awaited me.
“You will always be any age you wish,” she’d written. So much for actuaries.