After all of that depressing rumination on death and disseminated disease, it’s time for some Harold and Maida. Ahhh, The Millers… whenever I think about my ancient neighbors, it makes me smile, or giggle, (and hope they’re not on the floor unable to get up). It was Halloween the first time I met Dr. Miller. He was a spry 92 years when he shuffled across the street to give my boys some early treat-or-treating candy, “we’re too old to have people ringing the bell all night.” He welcomed us to the neighborhood, and reported a happy half-century in his (now crumbling, but still pretty) center brick Colonial. Harold was thrilled we were a family of doctors, and he rattled off his curriculum vitae culminating in his Reagan era retirement from surgery. As he hobbled back home, I just had to follow him to meet his bride, Maida, who was balancing on her tennis-balled walker, sporting wrap-around glaucoma glasses, compression stockings, and boatloads of chutzpah.
From that day, I kind of adopted the Millers (and they, me). I’m fascinated by their sustained marriage, their ability to endure unassisted, their quick minds inside of their failing bodies, their never-ending stream of flattery, and the ever funny predicaments that befall my ridiculously elderly friends.
“Oh, Britta…” (Maida’s pet name for me), “it’s just so nice to have someone pretty to look at over here.”
“Deep down, you really are a good, Jewish girl.”
“BRITTA! CAN YOU HELP ME FIND MY HEARING AID?”
“Harold had three cocktails…. we spent most of the flight thinking he was dead.”
“Please don’t worry about us, Britta. We’re decrepit, but we can still find the remote.”
Over the years, I’ve spent dozens of mornings at their Formica kitchen set to share my pumpkin bread and little boy news. If the kids request a quick visit on the way home from the bus stop, the Millers can be found having drinks in the living room at 4. They still take the car out for lunching (yikes), and Maida still makes the pot roast on Sunday. If I offer to do a bit of grocery shopping for them, they mostly refuse… or only need vodka. But now (at ages 96 and 89), Harold (but not Maida) has decided it’s time to sell the house.
Maida’s very suspicious of the real estate agent that knocked on their door this summer and offered them a million dollars for a house bought for little more than what we’ve spent on Legos. She’s doesn’t trust this “shyster” who is trying to dupe her out of her home, despite the completely generous offer (and the fact that Maida keeps falling down the stairs). “And you know what, Britta? I think she is going to rip everything out!” I look around at this 1962 time capsule with its sagging ceilings, duct-taped carpets, peeling linoleum, and black-mold encrusted windows… and I see a too-big house that could kill them in a half a hundred ways.
But this is the home of a successful surgeon and his family. Their son was married in the back yard. Maida remains furious that the neighbor’s gardener ruined her grapevines and apple trees—a dispute with the Jacobs that is 30 years strong. And she’s still proud of her living room, draped in cloths in anticipation of some future, uncover-worthy guests. A-Ma has suggested that the house is imbued with a superpower Chi, that it must be a Feng Shui nirvana for these two to keep plodding along like there are so many tomorrows. She has even snooped around the yard a few times attempting to grasp the energy of the Miller Stronghold, and finding it in spades, recommended that we buy this Magic House across the street. But I think Harold and Maida have found the secret to longevity by assuming that there will always be more time; because for them (for nearly a century!) there always has been. It’s hard to ignore the power of this kind of willful naiveté:
“Oh, if Jerry gets that job in Shanghai, we might go live over there for a couple of years…”
Although they spend half of the year living in a more assisted way in California, the Millers still fly back to the house where they began their married life, and spend the warmer months getting never-filled quotes for a Stannah Stairlift, gleefully yelling at political callers that they’re sworn to Obama, and sharing muffins with their butt-inski blonde neighbor who doesn’t bother knocking anymore. I’ve been coaching Maida to say, “yes” to everything: “Sell the house? Yes! Throw things away? Yes! Move to California? Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“Oh, Britta, this is a youthful way to think.”
I now have little doubt that Maida will botch the purchase and sale and hold on to her home until her final pot roast. I think the Millers will probably be our neighbors for another handful of Halloweens during which I will continue to worry about them coexisting with a stove and stairs. But I will butt-owski out of their decision to sell because, well, (in addition to it being none of my business) having them around just makes our life a bit brighter, funnier, fuller. While I’ve been morbidly fixated on “life is short,” the Millers are enduring proof that (maybe?) it’s not. For them, the house is likely a symbol that they still have time. And Maida’s not giving up one second. Not for a million dollars.