Former National Public Radio producer Ellis recalls the year she spent interviewing American centenarians for Morning Edition.
The author is willing to let her own anxieties seep frequently into the mix as she approaches stranger after stranger, all 100 or older. At first daunted by the occasional dementia and unresponsiveness, she wonders if the project is really a good idea. Then Ellis encounters some amazing centenarians, among them a woman who gets up early in the morning to row a boat on the lake by her house, occasionally indulging in skinny-dipping “when there’s no fishermen around”; a 101-year-old professor in his 71st year of teaching who tutors law students at New York’s Baruch College, using humor and a dry wit to impress the finer points of jurisprudence on slackers and hopeless cases; and an Oklahoma rancher looking for yet another wife. Ellis finds herself being drawn farther and farther into each of these twilight worlds, sensing rather than extracting into words the feelings of her subjects. When one man declares that the world is about to end, the hair on Ellis’s neck rises disconcertingly; it leads to a session with a (non-centenarian) psychotherapist about so-called limbic resonance phenomena, in which mammals’ brains apprehend others’ emotional states without benefit of the senses. In ensuing centenarian encounters, Ellis relaxes, worries less about controlling the pace or content, and just listens. Common threads emerge: it’s clear people who live this long basically want to; they would rather recall the good times than rail against the bad; most found love of one kind or other that became a central theme in their lives; and, finally, most are wistful about the vanishing of the work ethic and of unchallenged moral authority.
Rambling but sometimes inspiring.