I have many great memories of the time I spent in Pacific Grove, Calif., this past summer:
Looking out at the ocean on a sunny day in July when the air was so crisp I had to wear a jacket over my turtleneck.
After doing quite a bit of walking around town, finally getting to the top of a hilly street without being totally winded.
But what affected me most were the people I met — particularly a few spectacular senior citizens. In spite of challenges they face and advancing years they still have, in their own way, a great interest in life, a certain joie de vivre. That combination is what I call character.
Emma, for example, a blind woman of 77, got my attention from the moment we started talking on the bus. Formerly sighted, she now can only distinguish between light and dark. Undaunted , she has found a way to remain independent in her own home, enjoy gardening and even tend to some rental units she owns.
John and I got to talking on the bus when we were both headed to a Buddy Holly revival concert. A man of a certain age, somewhere in the 70s, John had moved to the Pacific Grove area to undergo medical treatment for a serious heart problem. When I asked him if he was afraid, he answered immediately, “Why should I spend the day in fear when I could have fun going to Big Sur?” (a metaphor, he explained, for any enjoyable activity). And go he does. We met on the bus many times after that.
But it was Julia I got to know the best. I found out about her while serving up salad at a local event. When a fellow server found out I was a former classroom French teacher, she told me I must meet Julia, age 86, born in France but living right in “PG” — what the locals call Pacific Grove.
Waiting for Julia a few minutes ahead of our rendezvous, I thought, “Will I recognize her?” I needn’t have been concerned. Very soon, an elegant, slender “very French”-looking woman walked toward me, smiling. “Bonjour, Barbara. Enchantée”(pleased to meet you) she began, warmly extending her hand.
Over tea, I listened fascinated as Julia talked about her life. Born in Saint-Florent-sur-Cher in central France, Julia was married for more than 50 years and lived in Michigan for 30 of them. After her husband’s death 10 years ago, she moved to PG, where she lives in the guesthouse of her son and daughter-in-law’s.
Julia joins family every night for dinner, even partaking of the occasional glass of red wine. When I teasingly asked if she indulges in the famous patisserie française (French pastry), Julia responded, “Once in a while I will have an éclair au chocolat — but only once in a while.” (Hmm, maybe the mystique of the slim French woman isn’t such a secret after all!)
Even though her hands are arthritic and she has some macular degeneration, Julia is always on the go. Walking is one of her favorite activities — she strolls about two hours along the ocean six days a week and to church on Sunday. “I love to walk, she said.” Walking makes me happy. I have to walk to live.”
Her other interests include reading (world history in particular), listening to classical music, taking aerobics at the senior center and meeting with friends for good conversation and laughter.
Blessed with an intense curiosity about life and an interest in others, Julia continues to travel. Every summer for the past 10 years she has gone alone to France, dividing her time between staying with family in Saint-Florent-sur-Cher and spending several weeks in a hotel in Paris close enough for her to walk to The Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and even the Sacre Coeur church, perched at the top of a steep hill.
With her many interests, enjoyed in an ideal climate and close to family, Julia still admits to getting a little down from time to time.
But, she said, “I will not allow myself to be sad. I want to be happy.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest secret of all to her longevity.