BY Eileen Z. Fuentes (@theSPEACHgal)
I’ve always felt a deep admiration for the elderly. Growing up, I lived in the same apartment building on 181st and Bennett as my grandmother and great-grandmother. We were on the 3rd floor and they were on the 6th. Together, they’d pick me up from school and I’d head straight to their apartment until my mom forced me to come downstairs when she arrived from work. My grandfather who passed away last year was my good friend and my hero.
Recently, I was having a conversation with my teacher Dr. Annemarie Colbin, leader in the field of natural health and someone I deeply admire, about an author who said the only way to prevent illness is to not smoke. I’m sure this statement was either taken out of context or made to get a reaction. I was upset and expressed my feelings to her and she calmly responded “Honey, if you want to know secret to a long life, why not ask someone who has actually lived one.” The answer was so obvious.
Soon after, I overheard my co-worker Jassmin talk about her grandmother Pilar who was in her 90’s. One week later, I was in Pilar’s quaint apartment. She had no idea we were coming but much to our surprise, she was happy to talk and tell us a little about herself. I expected to see a frail old lady and what I found was a vibrant woman with little grays, soft skin, no glasses or hearing aids. With her was her neighbor Antonia, who spends most of the day with her ensuring that her needs are met.
Pilar De Jesus Gonzalez was born in Azua, Dominican Republic on April 8, 1920. When I asked her if she went to school, she redirected the question to me and said “Well, wouldn’t I know how to read?” I took that to mean she didn’t. I asked her “Did you ever smoke or drink?” she said “No, that’s disgusting. Why would I do that?” I asked her a question. She responded with a question…
Abuelita Pilar did not remember exactly when she got to the United States but did say she liked the cold. She said the Dominican Republic was too hot for her. When she came to New York, she worked in a factory, washing and ironing because “Well, what else was I supposed to do if I wanted to eat and keep a roof over my son and five daughter’s head?” When her marriage dissolved, she vowed to never be with another man and she has kept true to her word.
Nowadays her life is a series of rituals. She goes to sleep daily around 11pm as her neighbor Antonia watches and then proceeds to sneak out of the apartment. She doesn’t particularly enjoy sweets and has a thing about not eating anything white including sugar and potatoes. When I asked why she said, “That’s not good for you. I think it gives you anemia.” She makes a remedy for any ailment made of beets and honey and even brought me to the refrigerator to see the concoction. As she was talking she kept checking to make sure all her cups were facing upwards. When I asked why, she responded. “Well, facing up to heaven symbolizes life and downward is death. I would never do that!”
She enjoys the company of her family but gets a kick out of her parakeets. She often lets them loose but worries about one of the birds who is blind and crashes into everything. She has a battery-operated parakeet that works when you clap. She lit up as she showed us how it works. When she was done I asked her if she ever gets stressed and she responded, “Why, I don’t have any problems.”
If the weather is nice she’ll go for walks with the assistance of her home attendant, which includes the four flights of steps to get to and from her apartment in a building with no elevator. If it’s too cold, she opts for walks around the apartment. She used to go to church on Sundays but now watches service on the television instead. Her favorite activity, however, is dancing to bachata music. Right next to her favorite chair is the radio. When we put the music on, she jumped out of her chair and began to dance alone then invited her granddaughter to join her. She laughed loudly and went around and around with ease.
I ended our conversation by asking her if there was any advice that she was willing to share. She quickly turned to her granddaughter and said, “Study hard so you can rule and not be ruled”. To everyone else she said, “Dios es que manda” (“God is in charge”).
“The oldest trees often bear the sweetest fruit” ~ German Proverb