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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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“She’s smiling at us, dear. Do we know her?”

“She’s probably smiling at my Hanna Hat.”

Frayed at the ends and looking like it had seen better days, my husband’s patchwork cap often brought smiles. But most people pay little attention to two old folks on a walk. To them we were invisible. They didn’t notice the spring in our steps, the silent relief that comes from surviving months of COVID-19 challenges.

My 95-year-old Nonno taught me a lot about how to live, even in our last week together

This university student connected, however, and sent me sailing back across the years. Was she smiling because we looked like sweethearts strolling hand in hand? Did we remind her of her grandparents? Old age can be difficult to comprehend when you are in the prime of life.

I was 15 when Bud and I first walked hand in hand around our hometown. A shy ponytailed girl and her 18-year-old crewcut friend were dating. Dates in the 1950s involved outings with several friends tagging along – parents’ rules. We didn’t mind. A thousand dreams and expectations filled our hearts as we sipped vanilla Cokes and talked about the future.

The young woman who smiled reminded us of our granddaughters, out with friends, wearing ripped-at-the-knees jeans, Blundstone boots and quilted jackets. When we were the same age, my friends and I fancied ourselves smart-looking in rolled-up dungarees, bobby socks, saddle shoes and not-so-warm casual coats. For special occasions, we donned sweater sets over pleated plaid skirts. Older girls complemented their sweaters with pearls, but my mother knitted fuzzy white angora collars, “to add a touch of class.”

I wondered what the student saw as she glanced our way. Did she see an old man and an old woman or a handsome white-bearded grandfather with high cheekbones and bushy eyebrows, a kindly grandmother by his side?

She couldn’t tell of course, but beneath my husband’s Hanna Hat lies a bald pate. Only 40 when this occurred, it’s never bothered him. He’s always had the knack of letting go of things beyond his control. If she could have peeked beneath his coat, she’d have discovered a bespoke 1958 Harris Tweed sports jacket. He’s proud of this Gieves of London purchase that still fits. I’ve shoved it to the back of our closet many times, but he always finds it – his Linus blanket.

When I look at my husband of 60 years, I see a gentle man who does yoga or tai chi every morning, a grandfather who spins salty-dips about his escapades at sea over and over, a golfer who practises putting all winter long. But there were patches of darkness in our early years. It was the Cold War, and as a naval aviator, he flew aircraft off Canada’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, searching for Russian ships prowling Canada’s coastal waters. He had one close call when an arresting wire broke and his aircraft almost slid over the bow of the ship. A number of friends lost their lives to the wild Atlantic during those years. In naval terms, they “departed the delta.” Throughout those fraught times, we held our love together on blue tissue airmail letters.

Upon his weathered face I see storylines of a husband who truly loved his navy career. “Glory days,” he tells anyone who will listen: “Taking off and landing on Bonnie’s 700-foot runway was pure heaven. After the adrenalin rush, the calmness was incredible.”

Many emotions surface as a stranger’s smile fades into memory. It’s difficult to think of oneself as a woman in her 80s. Age doesn’t change one’s thoughts or dreams. But as eyesight dims and joints ache, I often return to simpler times to remind me of my strengths; to the early 1960s, when I was 21 and entertaining other navy wives as our husbands sailed the high seas; to the mid-60s when these same friends became family, helping one another through pregnancies, miscarriages, deliveries and loneliness.

In the early 1970s I see a homemaker with three happy, healthy children. Later, I see a nurse working the day shift and studying university courses at night. In the 1980s I see myself disciplining teenagers who challenged every rule in the book. And as balm to my soul, I see a wife and lover, waiting on the dock when Bud’s ship came home.

But waiting in silence for God is not one of my strengths. I’ve never wanted aging to creep up on us; I’m always thinking ahead, planning what we should do to keep our minds and bodies functioning safely.

After many moves around the globe, we’ve sold our home and moved to an apartment complex in town. A place where we’re creating memories for a time when one of us is left to muddle through alone. Younger and older folks are our role models: They walk every day, curl, belong to book clubs. We also have artists, musicians and writers who inspire us – keep us young. We haven’t encountered another Hanna Hat amongst our neighbours’ ensembles, but my husband regales one and all with tales of this treasure he bought in Doolin, on the west coast of Ireland.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, our date nights have been cancelled. We meander home to our deck overlooking Cape Blomidon in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin. Over a beer and pinot grigio we chat about our day – acknowledging how great we feel, marvelling how one student’s smile could make us feel so blessed. All because she saw us. Within two aging bodies, she saw a young girl and a young boy who still dwell within. Who still hold hands.

Phyllis Jardine lives in Wolfville, N.S.

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