My mother is turning 80 this weekend.
For a long time, I never imagined my mother could be 80. It was forever away. We all know, with any good fortune, that we, too, will be 80 one day, but we’re also certain that day will never arrive. Surely, life must pause somewhere around 55, because growing older is only something that happens to other people.
Yet, here we are. My mother is 80.
She was certainly born during the winds of change. World War Two was well underway and the Manhattan Project was ramping up and would soon introduce the world to atomic warfare. Car manufacturers stopped making cars that year to produce goods that would help in the war effort. The first nuclear reactor was created in ’42, and the Voice Of America began broadcasting a month before she was born.
Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” for the first time in 1942. In new technology, duct tape was invented along with instant coffee. The Walt Disney film “Bambi” came to life and fifty years later my mother was making popcorn, and watching that same movie again with her grandchildren, but this time on video.
She has seen more change in her lifetime than any generation born before her.
“In 1941, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 64.8 (today, 77.8), only 6.8 percent of the population was over 65 (today, 16%), penicillin was on the horizon but the Salk polio vaccine was a dozen years distant, and most hospitals spent more on clean linen than medical technologies,” one article I read about the 1940’s explained.
Sixty-three percent of households did not have telephones, less than half the U.S. population age 25 and older had a high school diploma.
The fact that my mothers calls me on her iPhone is really something. My mother was once a consummate phone talker, connected to the wall by a cord, and thus she was in a semi-permanent station at the kitchen table for many decades of her life. But now she is taking pictures and Googling facts on her hand-held computer.
My mother living a long life may become something novel down the road: The cohort of Americans who have lived for eight or more decades is rising steadily and projected to grow faster than the cohort of youngsters under 18 for at least the next 40 years. In fact, as more people in the late decades of life continue to thrive, morbidity and mortality were rising among middle-aged men and women even before the pandemic. The average newborn today is not expected to make it to 80, thanks to a whole host of reasons we won’t lament today while writing about birthdays.
Studies suggest that motivation, attitude and perspective are important to a long, healthy and fulfilling life. My mother always laughed a lot. Maybe that’s her secret. In fact, several of the times I laughed the hardest in my life was with my mother.
One time, she had come to bring me some gas because I had run out of it while driving my car. I don’t know whose bright idea it was to put the car in neutral while it was parked on an incline, but moments later, I was chasing the car down a hill, trying to jump in the driver’s seat and hit the brake before it landed in a pond.
I actually saved the day in that instance, but we laughed so hard for a good ten minutes by the side of a road, we couldn’t breathe. We were bent over holding our sides. People driving by thought we had lost our marbles.
I’m not sure what was so funny about it now, to be honest. If the car had hit the pond, I don’t think we would have been laughing at all.
Anyway, I’m going to encourage her to write down 80 things she wants to do this year. We don’t have to go skydiving like George Bush, Sr., but the list can contain little things like baking strudel or reading a classic.
I’m going to ask my mother to be a guest columnist one day soon so she can tell you what it feels like to be 80 in her own words, and she might put forth her opinion on who put the car in neutral on a hill.
She’s going to say, “It wasn’t me.”