The real secret to long life

On my Great-Uncle Jim’s 99th birthday he had a dilemma. He had booked a restaurant at a wine farm near his retirement village and invited had thirty or forty friends and relatives, but now he had to figure out how he could sit next to Maude, his girlfriend, and at the same time sit next to Angie, his other girlfriend, while at the same time sitting next to Carlotta, his third girlfriend. Fortunately Mae, his fourth girlfriend, was in hospital with a broken hip, so that was one less worry on his mind.

Uncle Jim solved the problem by seating them all at separate tables, as far apart as possible. I sat beside him at a different table with our backs against a wall, so that none of his girlfriends could sneak up and catch him unawares. We looked out at the sunny afternoon and the lawn glowing a deep bright green and the vines stretching up the hill. There were horses in a paddock and the sky was very blue and my Great-Uncle Jim was pleased with life. “It’s expensive here,” he confided to me, “but maybe I’ll die before they manage to send me the bill.”

That was just big talk. My Great-Uncle Jim has no plans to die. As we sat there, a long-legged woman in a short summer dress walked past outside, and both of our heads turned. “One of the great joys in life,” said my Great-Uncle Jim, reaching happily for his wine, “is a summer dress on a windy day.”

I like spending time with my Great-Uncle Jim, because I hope that some of his secrets of life rub off on me. The problem with living a long time is the bit at the end. What’s the point in having an extra twenty or thirty years if those years all get added on when we’re already old? I want those years to be added on in the middle, when I can still use them and enjoy them.

But Great-Uncle Jim seems to have solved some sort of mystery. He enjoys a gin and tonic and chatting up the ladies and he eats whatever he feels like eating, as much of it as he wants. He takes the same long walks in the mornings that he has taken all his life. He reads novels when his eyes are fine, and when they’re giving him trouble he listens to audiobooks and music and gossips on the telephone. In the afternoons he sits with friends and plays cards and picks arguments with them about techniques of gardening or how best to catch a tiger-fish. “A good friendly argument,” he says, “does more good than a tonic.”

He believes in flirting and always having good manners and in taking an interest in the world but not getting too upset about it. I asked him if those were his secrets, if that’s how we can all manage to have a good old age.

He looked at me thoughtfully, and I know he was also thinking about his sister, my grandmother. She is one year younger than him and she has done everything in life he has done, and every day after lunch he walks to visit her in her house in the retirement village, where she sits immobile in a chair in front of a window and doesn’t always recognize who he is.

“You want to know how to have a good old age?” he said.

I told him I did.

He put his hand on mine and patted it gently. “Oh, my boy,” he said. “You have to be lucky.”

Clicks magazine, October 2017