“Who is that beautiful woman over there?” my young friend Nico asked at a recent reading at an art gallery here in Taos.
“Where?” I said, looking around.
“At the end of the row behind us,” she said.
“Oh, yes, that’s my friend Grace. I call her Amazing Grace. She turned 90 last month.”
Nico, who at 41 has just begun to grapple with the issue of aging, looked at me, wide-eyed. She was almost speechless. “Wow,” she said.
I’d met Grace Fichtelberg, a diminutive woman with soft white hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, a radiant smile, twinkling eyes, and a strong New York accent undiminished by twenty years in Taos, in 2007 when she, at 83, was a student in my first Creative Nonfiction Writing course at UNM-Taos. Fortunately for me and everyone else in the class, she has attended every CNF course I’ve taught since. We’ve all learned a lot from her and her stories.
Undaunted in her 80s, Grace was still pursuing her lifelong desire to become a writer – a goal she’d had to postpone while she was married, raising three children, and doing office work to help support the family on the East Coast. In fact, the first writing course she took, she told me in a recent interview, was at The New School for Social Research in New York in the late 1940s. It was there that she met her future husband, Jack, to whom she was happily married from 1950 until his death in 1998.
Encouraged by her grown children and grandchildren, she’s been taking the sharp memories she cherishes and turning them into true stories to share with others. “I used to try to tell the kids about my past,” she told me. “But they’d say to me, ‘Put it in writing, Mom!’”
Several of Grace’s personal essays have been published in Howl, UNM-Taos’s literary magazine, and she has done a number of public readings in Taos in recent years. “Heaven,” another of Grace’s personal essays, was one of the 180 stories (chosen from 4,000 submissions) included in Paul Auster’s 2002 collection, I thought My Father Was God, and read on NPR. In his Introduction to the collection, Auster states, “If I had to define what these stories were, I would call them dispatches, reports from the front lines of personal experience.”
For me, the story that stands out especially among the ones Grace wrote for class was of the work she did in New Jersey when World War II broke out, filling requisitions for Navy destroyers docked in the Hudson. Before I was born.
When in our brief interview I tried to press her for some of her secrets of successful aging, Grace shrugged her shoulders. “Good genes, I guess,” she said, and laughed. And then, little by little, a few “secrets” trickled out: Choose younger friends, she said, smiling. (“I can’t relate to old people,” she confessed.) Love animals. Take your dogs for daily walks (as she does). Read at least one book a month. (She belongs to a book club that meets monthly.) Laugh a lot. Volunteer your time. (She still volunteers two days a week at the local hospital.) Be a good human being. Keep dancing.
The subject of health came up, of course, and I solicited Grace’s thoughts.
“When you’re ill, you’re old – at any age,” she stressed. “As long as I’m healthy, I feel great. And when I feel great – as I do now – I’m me.”
When I asked whether she thought about the future, she shook her head firmly.
“I never think about the future,” she said. “I just live day by day.”