Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life


I ran some errands over lunch, and of course the errand running took longer than I had planned. So, working against the clock, I went to the closest fast-food drive-thru window for lunch. By doing that I could multitask my way back to work—clogging my arteries, sending my blood sugar into the stratosphere and navigating Madison Beltline traffic simultaneously.

When I pulled up to the kiosk at the drive-thru to order my meal, I noticed a sign that read “Clara is 79 years old today.”

I wondered a little about the sign. “A 79-year-old? Working in fast food?”

I drove up to the first window to pay my bill and was greeted by a senior citizen whose name tag read “Clara.”

I handed her my money, and she returned my change, counting it back to me with the confidence. I wished her a “Happy Birthday”, and she smiled and said “thanks.”

My first thought as was, “Gee, bummer to work on your 79th birthday.”

My second thought was that this lunch-time drive-thru window was one of the smoothest working ones that I had ever experienced. It was noon; the restaurant was crowded, and Clara, at age 79, was handling the hustle of the drive-thru with more grace and aplomb than most twenty-somethings. She was certainly adept with math as evidenced by her ability to count back change, and traffic was not getting backed up.

So maybe, it’s not a “bummer” for Clara to be working the drive-thru on her 79th birthday; maybe it’s a thing to celebrate.

For a while now I have been interested in the things that make a difference and allow a person to age “successfully”. My interest started in graduate school when my work led me into the Alzheimer disease research field. Some age-related dementia appears to be inevitable, a consequence of a person’s genetic history, but genetics doesn’t explain the vast majority of dementia that we see. Environment, diet, exercise, and fuzzy things like “outlook” and “verbal ability” play significant roles as well.

I recently read the book Aging with Grace, about work with the School Sisters of Notre Dame to investigate factors important for successful aging. This book describes life styles of sisters who are sharp and alert, even at age 100+ and sisters who are experiencing dementia much earlier in life. The results of the study are perplexing and not straightforward. A couple of things are striking though. Sisters with more well developed verbal/language skills early in life (as evidenced by essays written when they became novices), were far less likely to develop dementia, and sisters who stayed physically active also fared better in their elder years. One sister, when asked why she thought she had aged so successfully, said it was because she walked seven miles every day.

I thought about Clara and pondered my future. I didn’t know if she worked the drive-thru on her 79th birthday by choice or circumstance. But wow, she could work—handling money in a fast-food drive-thru at the lunch peak. As I negotiated traffic, I wondered what her secret was.

“First off, I bet she doesn’t eat this junk for lunch.” I put the rather tasteless sandwich and cardboard fries back into the bag and decided to opt for peanut butter crackers and an apple at my desk. At work I pulled out my pedometer and decided start working on my own seven miles a day.

Happy Birthday, Clara.

© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Clara

  1. Dad says:

    79 don’t seam all that old.

    1. Michele Arduengo says:

      That’s ’cause it’s not.
      Love,
      Michele

  2. prags21 says:

    Nice story.

    1. Michele Arduengo says:

      Hi there,
      I hadn’t heard from you in a while. Glad you liked the post.
      Michele

  3. smumbeews says:

    Lots of guys write about this topic but you wrote down really true words.

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