When was the last time you were entertained by a 92 year old?
And I’m not talking about watching grandma gum a steak, or grandpa try to keep his saggy pants up when he forgets to put on a belt. I’m talking about a little song, a little dance (well, expressive hand gestures anyways), and a few zingers.
The other day my great aunt (and my bitches, great is an understatement — the woman is truly spectacular!) put on a show for her assisted living community. She came to fame by way of the Catskills and in her heyday was the Toast of Pittsburgh, so she had the perfect background to entertain the potentially tough LA crowd/somewhat captive audience.
When I heard my aunt was planning to perform, to be honest I was a little worried. Not because she can no longer carry a tune or tell a good joke — she does both, and often, when I visit — but because in recent months her ironclad memory has finally started to fail.
I have to call her a half dozen times to remind her we’re having brunch together, and inevitably when I arrive I find her already biting into a bagel in the community restaurant.
But who am I to tell this lifelong-performer that it’s time to throw the towel in? I honestly believe that doing what you love isn’t a source of literal riches, but actually more figurative ones: it’s not money that follows (although it’s nice when it does!), but purpose.
And a special purpose is the key, I believe, to a happy life. This is something that I came up with when I felt most adrift: the first few years of motherhood. Once upon a time, I had a big, phat job in NYC, and while I managed to be Superwoman after the first kid, the second followed way too quickly to keep any semblance of normalcy in our household. The logical choice was to slow the ponies and step off the career carousel for those early years of my children’s lives.
While good in theory, in practice it led me to find myself one day soon after on the verge of a nervous breakdown — two babies strapped in their car seats, howling at the top of their lungs, while I literally ran around our suburban cul-de-sac in circles, holding my head in my hands and muttering to myself, what have I done, what have I done?
The answer wasn’t so simple. It took me a long time to realize that I had made a choice. And that choice was to walk away from what I thought defined me (a career, a title, a salary) to step into whom I am truly meant to be.
Before you go all glassy-eyed on me, the end result wasn’t an all-or-nothing scenario; I’ve been on both sides of the mother ’hood, bouncing around sometimes happily, sometimes uneasily, in the fuzzy gray in-between.
Back to that special purpose thing – being a mother is many wonderful things, but it is not that. It is, however, my divine inspiration.
To be the best mother I can be, I feel very strongly that I have to do what I love for a variety of reasons. It begins with being a great role model, because more than anything I pray my children follow their hearts’ desires and passions to a career that offers them creative fulfillment, productivity, and yes, a good living.
It ends with having a mom whose happiness is enhanced by her children’s accomplishments, but not defined by them. Someone who can go about her business and not spend too much time poking around in theirs.
When my aunt took the stage, the muscle memory of her act kicked into schmaltzy high gear. She sang her heart out. She riffed. And she zinged.
I couldn’t help but notice, every song, every joke, every story cycled back to those who dwell not just in the corners of her mind, but also in the deepest places in her heart.
She’s always had an Erma Bombeck bent to her act, but this time the references to her husband (now three years gone) and to her children (both grown, both in attendance) tended to repeat more than usual.
Maybe she was forgetful, or perhaps what she had to say bore repeating.
The heart is a muscle, the most persistent and perhaps strongest in the body. It seems to me that even when the mind falters, the heart’s muscle memory recalls what — and whom — it knows and loves best.
My great aunt didn’t miss a beat. Her performance was both a glorious exhibit of her natural talent and yes, a full expression of a life-long special purpose. Normally her Henny Youngman-esque one-liners have a little bite, but this time, the jokes were more loving and poignant.
Later she told me she wasn’t as nervous or anxious as she normally would be. She said, “I just decided I wanted to have fun, and I really did!”
That is the gift she gave her daughters, and giving her the space to be celebrated, even at this late stage, was the gift they gave her.
So if you hear me hollering, “Take my aunt… please!” just know I’m reminding you that inspiration never grows old, love has no bounds, and if you’re going to do something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.