October 27th, 2009

A Long Life of Learning


My much-loved Aunt Barbara died last week, 10 days past her 100th birthday. It was time—her mind had left her several years ago.

Barbara loved learning and that love filled her final decades with richness and reward. She matched her broad and eclectic interests with a fierce commitment to mastering new ideas and skills. At 94, when she could barely operate her TV remote and was just about to move into assisted living, she begged me to help her pick out a computer.

In her 80s she took Tai Chi lessons and practiced religiously—“really helps my balance.” She lived in a retirement community surrounded by trees, and in her 80s she undertook to identify all the different species on the property. Once she thought she had them correctly identified, she hired an arborist—“just to see how many I got right.” She missed only one. She had labels made for the trees, listing both their Latin and common names. Then she decided to photograph the identifying charactertistics of the trees and capture them in the different seasons. Using these photos she created a lovely book so that the other residents could learn more about the Trees of Knollwood.

For one of her later 80s birthdays, someone sent her an orchid. She loved it and bought herself a second, followed by a book on growing orchids, followed by more orchids, fertilizer, lights, pots and bark. Before long she had orchids blooming in various locations around the facility and was giving talks on the history and lore surrounding orchids.

She learned to play pool and took a class in line dancing. She wrote articles “on topics of substance” for the local newsletter. She memorized and recited a long Robert Burns poem at a local event. The last place she could find on her own was the in-house library.

These various interests would consume her. She would read up on them and talk about them, happily sharing what she’d learned. Her interests brought her such pleasure—she celebrated them.

Photography occupied her for many years—she took classes, went on trips, acquired bags full of equipment and took impressive pictures. Once while visiting her, she announced that we were going to take pictures of the moon through the trees—hopefully there would be a few clouds. Close to midnight we headed out, me carrying bags of cameras, tripods, light meters and lenses. Barbara carried the champagne and glasses. After lots of pictures and most of the champagne, we laid flat on the cool grass. Barbara talked about Ansel Adams and composition, the special challenges of black-and-white photography and how much natural beauty filled the world. I remember feeling wonderfully alive.

The love of learning sustained Barbara—it brought her joy and made getting old more an adventure and less an affliction. In her honor, please join me and take a moment to appreciate how much the gift of learning can give us and those we teach.