Brand building through storytelling

A lesson in aging from my oldest friend

I have just paid a call on my oldest friend—in years on this planet, not years in my life. She holds court in a house with 30 rooms, every one of them dense with treasures collected on her journeys near and far. There’s a bust of Virginia Woolf, a carved blue heron that bobbles when you give his head a push, a light-up box that contains a whole brigade of painted Mounties and a whole lot more I haven’t noticed yet amid all the quirky abundance. For every objet, there’s a story.

“Your house is like a museum,” I told the Queen of 30 Rooms.

“That’s right,” she said, with an enigmatic smile. “A museum of me.”

We were sitting in her sunroom amid the remains of brunch: smoked salmon, bagels, croissants and imported preserves. She looked more glamorous in a white terrycloth bathrobe and a fresh manicure than the rest of us could look after a whole day of primping by stylists to the stars. She surveyed the orange tulips I’d brought and arranged in the first vase I found in her kitchen. “I’m not very happy with that vase,” she said. “It looks like that junk they sell in hospital gift shops. You’d better find another one.”

Did I tell you the Queen is in a wheelchair? Well, now you know why my visits involve some modest fetching and carrying. But if you think I stop by to help a poor lonely old soul, you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m in this for the fun, and so are plenty of others.

The Queen’s social agenda puts mine to shame. A while ago I was lamenting the inconvenience of traveling to Montreal to see the Saint Laurent retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts. I dithered so long, I never did get there. The Queen, a more enterprising sort, had already made the trip. After purchasing her ticket to the exhibition, she looked around and asked in a ringing voice, “Who will push my wheelchair?” Several men vied for the honour. You can bet the lucky guy was richly entertained. No one tells a story like the Queen of 30 Rooms.

My mother, who understood both the glory of fine conversation and the gallantry that thrives in sorrow, was a close, if competitive friend of the Queen and bequeathed their bond to me. She never told me about their girlfriends’ road trip through Mexico, which is just as well. I like the Queen’s version, in which Mother is caught trying to exit one of Mexico’s notable restaurants with a hand-painted dinner plate inside her bag. Couldn’t we all use a friend who tells the whole complicated truth about our parents?

The Queen and I talk about art and life, men and kids, desire and regret. She has a keen eye for absurdity, including her own. The one subject off limits is her age. I do know this: she has a framed photo of herself with Eleanor Roosevelt, and in that photo she’s the consummate 1950s matron, elegant in wasp-waisted taffeta.

I’d been feeling pretty cranky when I went to see her on Sunday. I wondered if I’d ever again wake up without hurting somewhere. I thought of all the conversations I’d had with friends roughly my age about sore feet and complaining shoulders. God, we sounded old! Not the Queen of 30 Rooms, whose debilitating ailments go unnamed, at least with me or the other visitors who gather at her table. She has found a more constructive and focused way to rant. She phones her older sister and the two of them take turns describing their physical woes. “We start at the feet,” she told me. “We might get as far as the knees. If one of us takes an extra turn, the other calls her on it. We have rules. And we always laugh as we go!”

I’ve come to think the art of living, especially in old age, depends on rewarding the people who can meet your accelerating needs. It’s often possible to bully or needle others into helping you out, but at a huge personal cost. Who wants to spend time with someone who can’t stop lamenting her loneliness?

I left the House of 30 Rooms feeling brighter and lighter than I had all day. It was unseasonably mild for late November; on every block people perched jacketless on ladders, bedecking their houses with lights and greenery. It struck me on the walk home that this time the Queen hadn’t told me she loves me. Of course, I already knew that. And besides, there’s always next time.

My other great mentor on vibrant aging is the British memoirist Diana Athill. I’ve written about her here


Posted by Rona

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