Jennifer Moses
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Endless childhood

My 94-year-old father's verve allows me the semi-fantasy that I have decades of vigor and dreams still to go (semi-fantasy because... I know I've aged)

I am a grandmother. I am also the mother of three adult children, a mother-in-law thrice over, the wife of the same husband I’ve been married to for decades, and the proud recipient of not one but two hip replacements. Born late in the Eisenhower administration, I have vivid memories of watching JFK’s funeral on our black-and-white TV: my mother crying, my father looking ashen. I am nearly a decade older than LBJ was when he assumed the presidency in 1963, with the gray hair, complaining joints, and war stories to show for it.

That said, in some ways, I’m still one of the kids. Specifically, I’m one of my father’s four kids, known collectively as “the kids,” and as often as not treated as such. At least by my father, who, at 94, continues to burn so brightly, bark so loudly, and generally impress anyone who dares to cross him with such vigor, wit, recall, and general force of personality that such a person typically wishes he might grow wings and fly away. That said, for all his bark, my dad has softened. So much so that people who have only known him in his later years can’t imagine that at the height of his career as an “inside-the-Beltway” lawyer, he struck fear into the hearts of young lawyers (“young associates”) throughout the District of Columbia and beyond.

When my mother died, of cancer, at the age of 71, I and my siblings were still mere pups of early middle-age, with minivans, carpool duty, and orthodonture bills to pay. My mother’s death was a blow, to be sure, but it didn’t alter my sense of being cared for and looked after: in a word, of still being someone’s child. Mom was gone, but I and my siblings were nowhere near being the leading-edge generation. That role of course went to my father, along with his two sisters, who continued apace until the eldest of them, my aunt Amalie, died at the age of 91. Or as my father put it at the family farewell service: “But she was so young.”

My father’s line is blessed with longevity genes. They live well into their 90s, and in the case of my father’s grandmother, beyond. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I found myself with no living grandparents. (Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers lived halfway into their 10th decades.) As for my father: as above. He’s the Little Engine That Could. The Energizer Bunny. Or, as I like to joke, the world’s first immortal.

He isn’t, of course. He’s 94. But his attitude seems to be: So what? There isn’t a trip he won’t take, a celebration he won’t celebrate, or a wedding toast he won’t spontaneously give. He was in Tel Aviv when the Israel-Hamas war broke out, and though dozens of friends were working to get him back to the United States, he refused to fly out until a flight west (rather than through, say, the United Emirates or Bahrain) could be arranged. Principles!

The point is that with a father who continues to live so large, both in reality and in my own psyche, I have a hard time truly grasping the reality of my own non-youth. With a living, op-ed writing (he loves to write op-eds), telephoning, deal-making, and world-traveling father, I’ve been able to put off thoughts of my own mortality to the degree that I dwell in the semi-fantasy that I have years, if not decades of vigor, still to go. I say a semi-fantasy because the adult, reasoning part of my mind knows full well how old I am, what’s happening to my own body, and what I look like. But the other part, the part where hopes and fears and dreams and aspirations and psyche itself lives — that’s another story.

And on those rare occasions when the bottom-line reality of the incessant ticking out of my own lifespan hits, I can always turn to my collection of family photographs. See? In that one, Dad’s sitting in the middle, flanked by two kids per side. And there he is again, seated on the sofa, with the four of us behind him. And again and again and again, as the family is large, and the weddings (and other occasions) keep coming.

Unlike me and my siblings, most of my friends have long since been orphaned, long since become the older generation, and with the promotion, lost any illusion they might have had of endless parental protection. My hunch is that for most people who manage to grow up to be grownups, the illusion wanes, and then disappears altogether no matter what. After all, our parents, age, and with age comes illness, weakness, confusion, senility, and worse. But I have never had to care for an aged or sick parent: when my mother was sick, she was cared for at home by professionals, and even if she hadn’t been, she lived in Virginia, whereas at the time I lived in Louisiana, a bit far for a daily round of caretaking. As for my father, he continues to live in his own home, all four stories of it, where he conducts his own affairs — albeit with the help of an assistant and a housekeeper and regular visits from family and his large fan base — but nonetheless without much in the way of fuss.

My cousin Clare also has a living father, in her case, my uncle by marriage, Frank, and Frank is even older than my father, if only by half a year. Clare and I recently talked about our respective fathers’ seeming immortality, how wonderful it is to still have them, but how downright weird it is, too, to look in the mirror to see gray hair, lines, wrinkles and (in my case) dewlaps, and still perceive yourself, in some essential inner way, as someone’s kid. Clare and I didn’t come to any particular insights on the matter — the matter being a problem that isn’t a problem — but we are sure to continue the discussion at Uncle Frank’s 95th birthday party this winter. May he live to be 100. May my own father, who always played to win, live to be 101.

About the Author
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and non fiction, including The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition. Her journalistic and opinion pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Newark Star Ledger, USA Today, Salon, The Jerusalem Report, Commentary, Moment, and many other publications. She is also a painter.
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