Lying in the back seat of my mom’s car as she drove to the Rike department store in downtown Dayton, I pondered my impending birthday. I was about to turn double digit for the first time. I also considered the incomplete marathon between 10 and three-digit age.
Last May, I wrote about two friends in the late 1990s: Barbara Campbell and Bascom Biggers. Barbara started sending me handwritten letters in 2017, a few months after I started writing this column. For three years, our relationship was strictly epistolary. Then, when she moved to New Hampshire in 2020 to be closer to her family, we started talking to each other on the phone regularly.
Barbara turned 97 last March. In June, I sent him a card with a clipping from this newspaper, a satirical editorial in which the author wondered what version of the Bible Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was reading, because her copy is clearly different from hers. .
Over the years, Barbara has sent me numerous newspaper and magazine clippings, most of them humorous. Unfortunately, she never received my last letter. After a brief illness, Barbara died on June 25. I had never seen a picture of her before receiving her obituary. She looks as deliciously infectious as she always has in her letters and our phone conversations.
Barbara chose happiness over sadness, gratitude over bitterness. She lost her first husband and one of their sons within a few months. The year before her move, she was hit by a car while walking from her own car in the parking lot of her building, which left her in lingering pain.
Rather than complaining, Barbara spoke graciously about the people in her life and all the things she loved. His vocation was to make people laugh; even in her final days, she told jokes at dinner parties in her assisted living community. When we were discussing challenges, such as COVID and other nasty news, she would always end by saying, “It’s in God’s hands.
If there is a paradise, Barbara is there laughing with those she has brought together. I miss his voice, his many encouragements and his joyful comments. Every conversation with Barbara was like receiving a bright bouquet of flowers from the garden.
I have met centenarians, but never a dear friend turned 100. That is, until last weekend. I’ve written several articles about Bascom, who I became friends with when he was just a spunky 86.
Except when I’m in Michigan during the summer, or in recent years when COVID rates are increasing in the area, I see Bascom every two weeks. I arrive at his house in the middle of the afternoon and often stay until 10 p.m.
We talk non-stop about everything from politics to pets. And, like many old people, Bascom remembers what Proust called lost time. His mother, Rose, born in 1901, was intelligent and capable. She led a stifled life as a wife and stay-at-home mother.
Bascom adored Rose and by the time he was a teenager he was perhaps her best confidant. Knowing him, it is easy to imagine that Bascom tried to make his mother happy when her situation, proscribed by the time and her position, left her bored and unsatisfied.
His father, Buck, was tender, which Bascom did not realize until he was a young man. Buck had steel gray eyes that could stop a child in its tracks. But when Bascom was fighting in the European theater during World War II, his father’s letters referred to Bascom as “my darling boy” and, clearly worried that he would never see his son again, expressed how much he loved him.
It may just be a function of age, but I wonder if his relationship with his parents is what made Bascom such a brooder. He reads a lot, maintains a circle of friends, and is more engaged in life than many who are decades younger. However, his ruminants often prolong themselves in excessive thoughts, which in turn hinders his happiness.
Last Saturday, on his 100th birthday, Bascom and I sat on the couch in his living room where the largest wall in the room is almost entirely glass, minimizing the separation between the interior and the surrounding forest where is his house.
After an hour, we left for dinner with her friend Laura and her husband, Mark. (Laura does all the things, of which there are many, that allow Bascom to stay in her house.) Or so Bascom thought. In reality, several friends were waiting at the restaurant and we threw a surprise party which I wasn’t sure the guest of honor would enjoy.
He loved her. Sometimes the noise made it hard to hear Bascom, but he told the band it didn’t matter, their love was as clear as it gets. Then, when we got home, he quickly started wondering if it was okay if people liked him more than he liked them.
In my birthday card to Bascom, I wrote, “I wish I could help you worry less and laugh more.” I’ve also included Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day”, which ends with “Doesn’t it all die at last and too soon?/Tell me, what do you plan to do/ With your only wild and precious life?”
It’s a question worth asking every year, even for those lucky enough to reach triple-digit ages.
Contact Holly Christensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.