Act two: Mom starts over at 87


"I'm nineteen and my life is just beginning." That line from John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, has been sliding around inside my head since the day I first read it in 1981.

It feels as though the remainder of your life is set in cement. What has already happened will determine the next step on your path, and the next one and the next one.

Until, that is, an opportunity pops up, and you seize it. That sweet thrill of revival might result from a chance meeting or a pivotal decision. And suddenly, it feels like a whole new beginning.

In Irving's novel, Mary is a maid at a hotel, and has resigned herself to a small and solitary life. And then, the man who will become the love of her life slips his hand around hers, and everything changes.

A moment like this is akin to hiking through dense forest and then coming upon a clearing and discovering that you've arrived on a mountaintop overlooking the ocean. You think: Who knew? In an instant, a world of possibility has opened up.

And these expansive turning points are not, apparently, only for the young.

My mother, Edie, is a city girl at heart. As someone who grew up amid streetcars and subways, she has always loved the hum and flurry of urban life, the easy access to everything.

But for nearly all her adult life, Mum has lived in distant suburbs far away from cities. This is a woman who finds it depressing to be surrounded by trees (as she was in my childhood home). On a car trip through Ireland, she beheld the endless green hills and shook her head, saying, "It's just so... desolate."

Edie's first job was as a secretary in the Harvard Law School Library, back in the day when Felix Frankfurter was on the Harvard faculty. (And she used to– no fooling– park her car in Harvard Yard.)

When she married my father, they lived in Harvard Square and loved it– loved living in the heart of Cambridge among people from all over the world. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was their neighbor down the hall.

As the family grew to include three children, we withdrew to affordable housing in the outer suburbs of Boston. My mother never did embrace any sort of outdoorsy appreciation of nature, preferring the world she left behind– the urban shelter of tall buildings and the subway train to Filene's Basement.

During a severe shortage of Camp Fire Girls leaders, my mother the city-girl was drafted into being what my older brother called "the great blue eagle" of my fifth-grade Camp Fire Girls troop.

For months, every week we sat around in the church basement making rings out of wire and little beads while Mum and my friends chatted about anything and everything: boys, clothes, school, the olden days.

Surely, this was not what the Camp Fire Girls Council had in mind when looking for a leader. We didn't even go outdoors– forget about going into the woods or sleeping on the ground– or making a camp fire.

Over the years, my childhood girlfriends have told me that they loved those long afternoons around the table in the basement of St. Thomas's Catholic Church, making the same bead-and-wire rings over and over again, every week, just for the opportunity for good conversation with a grownup who would listen to them.

For decades now, Edie has lived in the same suburban home, watching grandchildren grow up and move away. A few months ago, when I suggested that she sell her house in Massachusetts and move into an apartment in Charlottesville (Why didn't I think of this years ago?) she didn't miss a beat. "You bet!" she replied.

And so, at the age of 87, at a time when most people's lives are becoming smaller as they enter assisted living facilities or a nursing home– Edie is moving to Charlottesville for a wider life: to attend the theater, to meet new friends for lunch on the Mall, and to get to know her great-granddaughter.

Last week, I went to Massachusetts, picked up my mother, and over the course of three days, made my way south with her. This woman– in nearly constant pain because of compression fractures in her spine– is happily starting over in a light-filled apartment in the heart of our sweet city.

Welcome to Charlottesville, Edie. You're 87, and your life is just beginning.

Janis Jaquith can often be heard reading her essays on public radio stations.