How to Live to Be 86

Searching for wisdom while navigating between two very different generations.

ILLUSTRATION BY DOLA SUN

At my mom’s house on Sunday afternoons, I work on my list. It’s called “how to live to be 86.” My two sisters are there, as always, because we spend almost every Sunday afternoon at her house—a ritual we’ve kept for 10 years.

We talk about politics, history, jobs, husbands, everything. When we started, our dad was still alive but declining, and it seemed important to spend as much time together as possible. My kids were 1 and 3, and I remember those Sundays as very difficult, because Dad was cranky and my kids were wild and I felt exhausted all the time.

It’s so different now. It’s just the adults, though my daughter, now 10, will often tag along. She comes mostly for the pit stop at Finke’s, the little market full of snacks and fountain drinks just down the street from Mom’s house in Ft. Wright. She alternates between eavesdropping on the grown-up conversations and FaceTiming with her friends in my old bedroom while eating her Finke’s chips.

Mom has outlived just about everyone in her circle. My dad. Nearly all of her in-laws. Several of her friends. It’s occurred to me lately that I should be paying more attention to this feat and mining her longevity secrets.

“So, Mom, let’s talk more about how you’ve lived to be 86,” I ask, rummaging around in her kitchen for a pencil. I find one in the magnetic memo pad holder that’s been a fixture on the fridge forever. It’s dull white with little green flowers and a dried-up eraser. “Wait a minute, I remember buying this pencil at Card Station at Tower Hill Plaza when I was, like, 11.”

“Well,” Mom says, with her characteristic head tilt, “it’s still a good pencil.” “Add it to the list: Take care of your things,” my sister, Laura, quips.

In fact, more than one artifact from my childhood peeks out. I spot the plastic yellow colander in the drain board, the same one I remember from when I was a kid. It has a hole in the corner from when it must have caught the edge of a burner before someone poured boiling pasta into it. I remember that you always had to pour the pasta a little askew so it didn’t fall through the hole. Mom could have bought a new one long ago. But this one still works well enough, she says, so why throw it away?

As a middle-class white woman from a family with no significant history of the diseases that tend to claim lives early, Mom has plenty of advantages in the longevity game. She’s made good choices, too, like eating healthy, taking walks, quitting smoking back in the 1970s, and staying social through friends and volunteering. “And water,” says my sister, Nancy. “Make sure you put the thing about water on the list.” The joke is that a glass of water was always Mom’s go-to first aid.

We laugh as I start jotting down notes. And though I agree about the water—my kids have bruised knees but are well hydrated—I’m not actually after a prescriptive list. I’m searching for something less tangible.

On one hand, Mom hasn’t strayed far from her Depression-era upbringing that said Make do with what you have. But she’s managed to balance those formative influences with the idea that you have to stay current and not be seduced by the notion that your generation was the only one that knew anything.

Sure, she holds on to old pencils, but she has an ever-rotating stack of library books on topics ranging from voting rights to religious conflicts. We trade book recommendations and read many of the same novels. She was the first person I knew who listened to NPR, and her radio is still permanently tuned to WVXU. Her coffee table holds the daily paper every day. She may not want to read it digitally, but she’s not fighting the modern world. She’s eager to participate in conversations about culture and politics, not to pontificate but to learn.

That ability to balance the essential part of you with the ability to evolve how you think is what I want to capture on my list. How do you do that over a lifetime?


At Mom’s house on Sundays, I’m the youngest of my generation. I’m the baby of the family, at the tail end of seven kids.

But on Tuesday nights, at our neighborhood book club and equity action group, I’m often the oldest person. I didn’t expect this when I joined with some neighbors a little over a year ago to read books and have honest conversations about racism, ableism, sexism, LGBTQ issues, and other equity topics. I didn’t even notice the age gap in the first few meetings—we were meeting via Zoom, after all. It wasn’t until we were able to start gathering in person that I looked around one night and thought, Oh, this is new. I might be the oldest one here.

I think about my age a lot, but not because I’m worried about wrinkles or holding on to youth. I’m trying to make it to 86, remember? No, I think about it because I’m always trying to figure out how I fit in. I’m a bit of a generational outlier, raised by Silent Generation parents who had mostly baby boomer children and then, in 1974, Generation X me. I waited until my mid-thirties to have kids, which means I’m one of the older parents. I have a mother who remembers when FDR was president and a daughter who will vote in her first presidential election almost 100 years after FDR was first elected.

So in this group of mostly (but not all) millennials I’m hyperaware that our cultural markers aren’t the same. It’s not just that I remember using a typewriter to do papers in college; I also remember when Cincinnati was not a gay-friendly city at all. I grew up with messages about color-blindness I thought were good until only a decade ago. I’d already voted in six presidential elections before I understood that gender identity wasn’t a fixed thing. And concepts like sexual consent have markedly evolved since I was a teenager.

As months have gone on and we’ve read books and had great discussions in person and over social media, I realize how much I don’t know. How I thought I was one of the progressive ones. But you don’t get to keep that identity if you don’t continue to progress. I see how the presence of younger people with unfamiliar ideas can throw a person and trigger their fragility in all kinds of ways. And how it’s tempting to lash out at the younger generations. Call them a bunch of snowflakes. Retreat into the idea that your generation had it right or at least deserves a break.

I see how people get older without getting any wiser. I want to live a long life, but not a stale one. Not one where I think my cultural and historical markers are truer or earn me anything. I want more than years. I want wisdom.

So I go back, month after month, to our Tuesday meetings. I don’t compare my Gen X sensibilities to their millennial ones so much any more. Those divisions aren’t helpful or particularly interesting. We’re all just learners.


The other day, Mom and I were talking about someone we both know from her social circle who’s a little younger than Mom but seems to have suddenly aged beyond her years. “She doesn’t have what I have, with you girls coming every Sunday,” Mom said. It’s not just as simple as the cliché that we keep our mom young; it’s that our presence forces her into action. “You know I clean up the house every Sunday when you’re coming,” she says. “I don’t want you to think I’m some old lady who can’t manage.”

I laugh, because that’s so Mom. No one would ever mistake her for someone who couldn’t manage.

But there’s a gem in there. Something that definitely needs to be on my list. One of the best things my mom has taught me is to just keep showing up for people. You show up for you and you show up for them, and it creates a beautiful blend of mutual wisdom and accountability.

Gen X is so angsty, but I’ve realized how lucky I am to inhabit this particular generational sandwich. I think about the book we just read in my group, Redefining Realness, by Janet Mock; it’s her story of being a Black Hawaiian transgender woman who grew up in poverty. I did the newfangled thing all the kids are raving about and got the audio book. I listened while running. It was so good, the miles dropped away. I can’t wait to recommend it to my mom.

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