Special to the RoundTable

People ask me why I chose to write about old people in my novel “Old Heart.” One reason was my mother who died at the age of ninety-four six years ago and lived every day to the hilt right to the end. Another is myself; I just turned sixty-eight. A third is Athene McGruder.

I was 28 when I fell in love with Athene McGruder. She was eighty-five.

It happened on a January day in Chicago. Athene had gotten herself trapped on a patch of sidewalk ice outside the Beachview Tap in Rogers Park. Her feet were far apart, her eyes were wide and she was hanging on to her walker for dear life.  All I did was help her into the Beachview and to her seat, but she insisted on buying me a beer.

Athene came to the Beachview every day about 3 o’clock to meet two old pals, the sisters Rosemary, who was large, and Janet, who was small, Bowler, and the three of them usually dressed for the occasion despite the fact that the Beachview was a little seedy. They always wore dresses, sometimes hats and occasionally Janet wore white gloves as well. Each day Athene and the girls (Rosemary and Janet were in their seventies) ordered Manhattans in stemmed glasses. They had one apiece, ate the cherry and went home to wait for Walter Cronkite.

This day I was in a hurry to go somewhere. I was young so I was always in a hurry. I tapped my feet as Athene complained about old age. “I hate being old,” she said. “I just hate it.”

I think I said something dumb and forgettable.

Then Athene said something I’ve never forgotten: “You probably think I was always old.”

And that of course was exactly what I thought.

“Well, I wasn’t.” Then she told me about her life, about marrying a man who was older than she, about moving down to the Texas oil fields, about going square dancing every Friday night (she looked me in the eye and said “I was an excellent dancer!” as if I wouldn’t believe her) about moving back when her husband died suddenly, about rearing their two sons and putting both of them through college, about working as an office manager of a law firm in Evanston until she was 75. By the time she finished, she was a lot more than an old lady to me.

And she was handsome. No, she was pretty; she was beautiful. Athene McGruder had bright blue pinpoint eyes even at 85 and behind glasses. She had a straight nose, a strong chin, high cheek bones and a melt-your-heart smile.

After that day I never passed the Beachview in the afternoon without glancing in to see if Athene was there. Often enough she was. “There you are!” she’d say. “Come give me a hug.” And after her children persuaded her to move away from the neighborhood and into a more secure building downtown (she hated it) that had a doorman and maid service,
I visited her.

Then I lost track of her.

Until 15 years later when my phone rang one day and someone said, “You don’t know me, but I’m Athene McGruder’s niece, and she is living with me down here in Florida, and she is about to turn 100. We found your name in her address book, and we’re asking all her friends to write a little something that we can read at her party.”

So I did. I wrote the story I just told you about the day I found her stuck on the ice.

Then my phone rang again, and it was Athene herself. In an ancient, distant voice, she thanked me. “Oh my,” she said, “I can’t believe I said all those dumb things.”

That was the last time I ever talked to Athene, and that was a while ago. No doubt she’s gone now. But I often think of her: every time I see square dancing or a patch of sidewalk ice or a Manhattan with a cherry in it. Every time I realize I’ve been taking someone for granted or looking at someone without seeing him or her.  Every time I see myself in a store window and know suddenly that I’ve gotten old.  

Peter Ferry is the author of the award- winning novel Old Heart. He lives in