Liz, our Ambleside neighbour, is a woman of the world. At 91 years of age, she is a dynamo with a wealth of life’s experience she is more than willing to share. We have lived at the same end of the apartment corridor for nearly five years now, and, although my husband and I are here only intermittently, we are getting to know each other.
Liz was the child of a supermarket chain executive who lived all over western Canada when she was growing up, ending up finally in Vancouver. Thereafter, she lived in the United States, central Asia, and Ireland before settling back on the west coast. She has a personality typical of the highly mobile: an ability to adapt to constant change, inherent curiosity, and a warm congeniality which engages strangers quickly. It’s an openness to meeting people one often sees in expats and in the military.
The first day we moved into our Ambleside apartment, we established a bond. One of the movers had come to Canada from Afghanistan. She saw him, talked with him, and, within minutes, learned the same life story he had told me earlier. It turns out she had spent ten years in Afghanistan, from 1964-1974. She lived there with her husband who worked with an American company in diesel engines. At the time, Kabul was a bustling and romantic stopover on the route to India, before the city was devastated by the Russians, the civil war, and then the Taliban. Our son and daughter-in-law are career officers in the Canadian military. Both have deployed to Afghanistan several times. It’s not very often that one meets someone who has actually lived in Afghanistan for a decade. Liz joined us for dinner one evening when “the kids” were visiting. It was fascinating to listen to the stories they exchanged.
I later learned that Liz also lived in California for twenty years, and another twenty years in Belfast Northern Ireland. When her American husband died, she trained as a massage therapist and worked at the La Costa Resort and Health Spa in San Diego County. Her pay at this most expensive and exclusive of resorts was $3.57 an hour and Gloria Steinem was one of her clients. Later, she moved to Belfast to live with her widower cousin who was a writer and a playwright. When he died in 2005, she returned to West Vancouver to the same apartment building once inhabited by her parents.
Liz is a painter who studied at the Vancouver School of Art. Over her lifetime she has had many exhibits, Today, her paintings adorn the walls of her apartment and grace the foyer of our building. Thanks to Liz for permission to include some photos of her paintings in this post.
Liz knows how to drink scotch with the best of them. At dinner recently, she drank my husband under the table. She was going strong when he made his excuses to go to bed. Later she apologized for staying so late.
She has also taken me under her wing. She recently confessed that she hated older women wearing long hair. When I first moved into the apartment, I was sporting braids. It was part of my “return to my roots” post-retirement phase which my western cousins loved but my eastern colleagues said was totally unsuitable for Toronto. Last week, I was complaining that my hair was too long. She immediately went into her bedroom, took out a couple of combs, and taught me how to pull my hair up into something more sophisticated. My new look I owe to Liz. I think I will keep it. And she has encouraged me to drink scotch: “it is the least caloric of the drinks.”
Liz has always been healthy and vigorous, until a freak accident recently left her in chronic pain. She now has a walker and is investigating how marijuana might improve her medical condition. She has visited a cannabis dispensary on Robson street, purchased some salves and tinctures, found a family doctor knowledgeable in the use of medical marijuana, and is consulting with others about appropriate strains. That, and her daily swimming, will undoubtedly keep her alive and kicking for at least another decade. We hope so. She is the most wonderful of neighbours.
At TIFF, I saw the wonderful French actress Fanny Ardant in the new movie Bright Days Ahead (2013) directed by Marion Vernoux. Ardant plays a dentist who reacts to the death of her best friend with a precipitous decision to retire. As the movie begins, she is faced with the fallout of her abrupt decision. She is given a trial membership in a local seniors center and, skeptical and bored, she decides to try it out. The movie focuses on her response to the activities and people at that Centre, and how she finds her own way into retirement. Suffice it to say, her adaptation is typically French, sensuous, wonderfully satisfying, and the movie a heart-warming experience which I highly recommend.
This movie is another in the rising tide of movies depicting adaptations to aging, obviously aimed at the burgeoning boomer generation. Within this genre, French movies have been some of the best I have seen. Amour (2012) directed by Michael Haneke and staring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film and was nominated in four additional categories. It depicts an elderly couple struggling with the effects of a stroke. It is not easy to watch but totally unforgettable. Another is All Together (or And If We All Lived Together) (20ll), directed by Stephanie Robelin and starring among others Jane Fonda, Guy Bedos, Daniel Bruhl and Geraldine Chaplin. Like Ardant’s retired dentist, Jane Fonda’s character finds her own response to aging as one of five old friends who decide to live together in their retirement.
As an aside, unrelated people coming together to live in retirement is the theme of the 2012 smash hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel directed by John Madden and starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson. I saw this movie in the theatre and have watched it numerous times since, whenever it shows up on an airplane trip.
What is particularly heartening about these movies are the performances of the actors who are themselves role models for successful aging. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for an Academy for Best Actress in a Leading Role at 85 years of age. When they made the movies I am describing, Jean-Louis Trintignant was 82, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith 78, and Jane Fonda 74. Fanny Ardant and Bill Nighy were born in l949, as was Meryl Streep whom I also saw at TIFF in the searing August Osage County. These actors appear in roles which deal with the issue of retirement and aging, while they themselves continue working in their chosen profession. They have not retired. But then, they have control over what they choose to do in their work. They can take on as much, or as little, as they choose. And maybe that is key.