Monday, February 23, 2009

Memories and Wisdom from Past Friends

I remember interviewing Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon many years ago about aging. They were both in their mid sixties at the time and both still very active and successful writers and actors.

They sat on the couch in their living room in New York City. At one point I asked them what was the most difficult thing about getting older. In unison they said, “losing your friends.”

Ruth then expounded on the statement. She said, “My advice to all who are entering old age is to make friends with the young too. Cultivate relationships in all ages so that if you are fortunate enough to grow old you won’t be the only one left in your circle of aging friends.”

In an interview at another time with the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta we talked about life and its seeming difficulties. I asked her what she thought was the most difficult part of life today?

Her answer surprised me.

She said, “Loving your family.” She went on to say in essence, It is very easy to love strangers, but very difficult to unconditionally love members of your family because of living in proximity and everyday irritating habits or affectations. She said, “Pray for tolerance and compassion.”

I had dinner with famed Broadway and Hollywood director George Abbott when he was one hundred years old. Other than a hearing difficulty he was “with it”, exuded vitality and a wise youthful attitude. He was excited about new things and people and interested in life and living.

Perhaps that’s what kept him young until his death at age 106.

Another youthful at heart woman of wisdom was renowned choreographer and dancer Agnes DeMille. I answered the phone in my office one day in the early 1980’s and a voice said, Mr. Smith, this is Agnes Demille, do you know who I am?

I said, “Yes, Ms DeMille, I do”.

She said, “Good, I think it’s time we met. Shall we have lunch? We set a time and place and that began a magnificent multi-year dialogue with one of the great lady’s of American theatre.

I was doing occasional television commentaries at that time and she wanted to talk about philosophy and spirit and the raison d’ĂȘtre of my ethic of offering a non-attacking alternative view of events and issues. We would meet for lunch every so often. She had difficulty walking at that time because of an earlier stroke, but that didn’t stop her from making the hard effort to leave her apartment.

I had the pleasure of briefly meeting the wonderful dancer and actress Ginger Rogers. She sat next to me at a benefit in San Diego where she was being honored. We had a delightful conversation about success, fame and debilitation. She was in a wheel chair at the time and told me the story of her accident.

She said she had been invited by “Ronnie” (President Ronald Reagan,) to attend a function on board the Presidential yacht, The Sequoia. Rogers said she was going down one of the internal gangways when she fell and the injury put her into a wheel chair.

She died not long after our conversation and I put my experience into a celebratory poem entitle “Ginger”.

She lives now in a wheelchair
Aged by grace and not despair.
She once was light in song and dance,
Though now her steps are dream nuance.
She knows she is different now,
Yet mind remembers every bow,
With wishes and abandoned hope
Tucked within mind’s envelope
That once held honors for the pair
When she danced with Fred Astaire.
We all go through this change in time,
With added years above our prime.

I cannot leave you in this tale
For you to think her spirit frail.
Ginger’s heart is young and agile
Though her body is now fragile.
Her inner light is in control,
Patient waiting for bell to toll
The numbered days for time’s release
When all the pain will finally cease.
It was a pleasure once again,
To honor her long lasting reign
As queen of dance and radiance.
I’ll always be her audience.

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