My father-in-law Phil, who fancied himself a folk philosopher in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, was always regaling me with bits of wisdom he picked up along life’s boulevard of broken dreams.
He was a well-traveled man, who drove 18-wheelers across the country and through Canada. During World War II, he drove supply trucks for Gen. George Patton, until he hit a land mine and was wounded.
I’ve always admired the Greatest Generation. They lived through the war and the Great Depression and understood deprivation, courage and honor in ways that Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials never will.
Phil saw the best and the worst of life, and one of his favorite sayings was “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” I never particularly cared for that proverb because I’m prone to weaken and could never have endured the hardships his generation did.
Phil certainly had his share of idiosyncrasies. His mother, who was an Italian immigrant, made homemade pasta and tomato sauce, broccoli rabe and sausage, cannoli and ricotta pie, but his first love was Entenmann’s pastries, which he devoured with delight and washed down with large quantities of NESTEA ... to which he added heaping teaspoons of sugar. Remarkably, he went to his grave with his original teeth.
His always told me, “The first 100 years are the hardest.” He spoke those words with the heartfelt sincerity of a father-in-law sharing the greatest gift he could give — besides his daughter. If the first 100 years are the hardest, I couldn’t imagine the second hundred being any easier.
I never fully understood the lesson he was trying to impart, probably because during my 20s, I wasn’t worried about the next 75 years ... or reaching 100. Life was going along so swimmingly that I’d occasionally break into a chorus of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
More people are living to 100 than ever before, and centenarians are the fastest growing demographic. There are an estimated 450,000 worldwide. The United States has about 72,000, which is more than any other country, and by 2050 there could be 1 million. Several years ago, Connecticut boasted having more than any other state.
I’ve been privileged to know several centenarians. One was a Yale engineering professor who died at 104. The other was Father Philip Brady, my boyhood parish priest at St. Margaret Mary Church in Shelton, who is living in upstate New York and approaching 101.
My father-in-law almost made it to 100. His sister and brother weren’t as blessed. They were all great people, with one flaw. They loved to complain.
It would be 97 degrees outside, and Phil’s mother, who died a week before her 100th birthday, would look out the window at the scorched landscape and say, “Winter’s coming.” And I’d say, “Please, may it come now!” And she’d repeat, “Winter’s coming,” while I was wiping the sweat off my bald head.
If I’m going to get to 100, I don’t want to spend 80 years complaining. The first 100 years may be the hardest, but we don’t have to make them even harder. Here are a few tips for you would-be centenarians.
1. Avoid complaining because it can suck the joy out of life. Besides, no one likes a geezer who always grumbles.
2. We’ll all suffer at one time or another, but we have to look for the joy.
3. Remember to be grateful for what you have, however much or little.
4. Try to live a day at a time, not a 72-hour day with one foot in the past and one in the future. We’re given life a moment at a time because that’s all we’re expected to handle. Challenges and trials are more bearable if you live in the present.
And always remember what a wise man once said: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
Joe Pisani can be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.