This week I went up to Hartford, Connecticut, to hear my aunt, Caroline Zinsser, speak at the Connecticut Historical Society – of which the director is my cousin, Kate Steinway. Nepotism, not! Caroline has a doctorate in education and several successful careers under her belt, most recently as a historian and the author of Vine Utley, The Remarkable Country Doctor of Lyme, Connecticut (1768-1836), the topic of her excellent talk that day.
Caroline’s husband Bill is the youngest of four siblings, one of whom was my mother, and at 88 he’s the sole survivor. Cousins representing all four branches assembled to hear Caroline’s talk and repair to Kate’s for dinner and a mini-reunion. We actually like each other, and we covered a lot of pretty intimate ground: successes, disappointments, what’s got each of us in its grip at this stage of our lives. It was in that context that I tried to summarize my thinking around this project: that we boomers are so terrified of aging that we perceive none of the gifts of late life, when in fact … it’s just not that bad. Then I looked over at Caroline, herself 80-something, wondering whether she found this wildly presumptuous or inaccurate.
Reminding us that Bill has been losing his sight to glaucoma, she told us that he plays the piano on a regular basis for a group of aficionados at a club in midtown Manhattan. Bill has an encyclopedic knowledge of the great American songwriters and provides introductions and context, and the regulars belt out every verse. “But when he got home the other week, he was upset,” Caroline recounted. “He told me he’d started missing notes because he was having trouble seeing the keys. I said all the things you say: ‘You still play well.’ ‘Nobody but you will ever notice.’ ‘The guys still love singing with you.’ All true. But you know what? Now, almost daily, Bill Zinsser practices the piano with his eyes closed. And he’s stopped missing notes. So Ashton is right.” Thank you, Caroline, for the generous response and the compelling story.