The author (right) and her daughter, Niki Ghent Wickenhiser, at a family birthday celebration Oct. 15 at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto.
The author (right) and her daughter, Niki Ghent Wickenhiser, at a family birthday celebration Oct. 15 at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto.

Who is that stranger in the mirror? It’s me at 80.

When I applied for my Real ID driver’s license recently, I listed my hair color as gray and my height as 5 feet. I am no longer 5-foot-1, my hair is no longer brown, and when I look in the mirror, my mother looks back at me. The full-length mirror is scarier. Whose body is this anyway?

When I kvetched to my obstetrician about my waistline after my second child was born, he nodded: “Janet, you can’t get from age 20 to age 40 without aging.”

At 80, the signs of aging are more prominent. I can laugh at the senior adaptation of “My Favorite Things”: “Cadillacs and cataracts and hearing aids and glasses.” I don’t drive a Cadillac, but I wear hearing aids, when I remember to put them in, and glasses. At night, I see auras around streetlights. “We’re watching those cataracts,” my ophthalmologist said.

I still have all my body parts, but my daughter, at midlife, recently underwent a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy. Neither of us has the BRCA gene. Why did breast cancer strike her?

Yet my daughter feels fortunate. She sees an expected survival rate of at least five years as a blessing. Should I feel blessed, as well? My father lived until almost 85, my mother until almost 87. If I have another five years, I have two novels in situ that I need to finish writing. I’d better get busy.

I joke that my tombstone will say, “She always made deadline,” and in truth, freelancing keeps me going.

When the pandemic first struck and I was confined with misdiagnosed Covid, copyediting a travel book lifted my spirits.

We do what makes us happy.

My husband, Allen, is in his mid-80s and still sings solos, consults, invents and applies for new patents — but he also takes more naps. There are things he can’t do, and things he shouldn’t do.

He knows wielding a hammer will result in hours of pain, so he may call upon his grandson to complete the task. He recently relocated his office from the loft to a front bedroom because taking the stairs repeatedly caused problems with his knees, not to mention his bladder. We both wear Depends while flying, just in case. But we still travel, just not as frequently as we did 10 years ago. When younger travelers offer to help with our luggage as we get off trains, we gratefully accept their offers. Why deny them the opportunity to do a mitzvah?

In my 40s, I interviewed a therapist and author on her experience of aging.

“At 80,” she told me, “you do less.”

“You do it more slowly,” said Barbara August, a retired therapist in my Zumba Gold class at the Palo Alto JCC, where we both enjoy dance movement at a comfortable pace. “Eighty still feels like an unbelievable number,” she added, noting that both her parents died younger. “I feel very blessed to have Jerry by my side,” she said of her husband, who is older.

Alayne Greenwald, 92, also feels blessed. On a recent Shabbat, she and husband Alan Greenwald, who is turning 97, were blessed at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on their 73rd anniversary. “Every day is a milestone,” Alayne said in a life-review video on the Stanford Medicine website.

Over their years together, she and Alan, who live in the retirement community Vi at Palo Alto, traveled to seven continents and lived in Italy and Israel. Now Alan’s heart condition precludes travel.

“I’m grateful for the memories,” she said, adding that gratitude is “one of the things that comes with age. I’m grateful that I’m walking and talking,” she added, noting that she swims seven days a week and walks two miles a day.

Gratitude is one of the soul traits earmarked in “The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions” by Greg Marcus, my teacher of American Mussar and a rabbinical student. “Mussar teaches that the gratitude soul trait governs our ability to recognize the good in any situation,” he writes.

I try to keep that in mind as I grab a handful of cherry tomatoes and parsley as I step out my door, grateful that the squirrels, which have ravished the Early Girl tomatoes, ignore the tiny Sun Golds.

At 80, I’m also grateful that I became part of the Jewish community after a long slumber. I am grateful for friends, family, grandchildren. And I’m especially grateful to the Jewish Bulletin, the forerunner of J., which employed me during a low period in 1993, and where I found the love of my life six years later through a silly singles ad.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].