An Elder Couple's Suicide – A Reasoned Choice
INTERESTING STUFF – 23 January 2016

The Theme of an Old Woman's Life

The specifics of this story are unlikely to match any of yours but perhaps there is something in your life that provokes a similar longing.

It begins at Christmas 69 years ago. I've told this part of the story on TGB in the past and if you know it, well – too bad. It belongs here today too.

As a gift that season, my parents received a 78 rpm record set of Manhattan Tower, a musical suite about New York City composed and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.

I was only five years old that Christmas but I was captivated with it. I listened and listened and listened until I knew every word and then I listened some more over all the years of my childhood and youth, placing myself within the story of the songs, dreaming of living in Manhattan some day.

(You can listen to Manhattan Tower here in four parts. It's about 16 minutes long altogether.)

The recording stayed behind when I left home after high school in 1957 and I don't recall if I thought about it in the following years. I suppose I must have because I certainly didn't lose the idea that I would someday live in New York.

Life has a way of interrupting all kinds of dreams but eventually I married and over a few years, we moved from San Francisco to Houston to Minneapolis to Chicago and then, in 1968, to New York City. Manhattan.

My first grown-up magazine subscription ten years earlier had been to The New Yorker and that's how, through the years, I learned my way around the city even before I got there – the streets and avenues, names of the neighborhoods, the subway lines, Broadway theaters, museums, the main library with the lions, restaurants that came and went, what parts of town they were all in and more.

I also read biographies and autobiographies of well-known New Yorkers. I read histories of the city and politics, and pored over maps. I went to movies that were shot in New York whether I cared about the stories or not and generally absorbed as much of the sense and sensibility of the city as one can get from a distance.

You can read about my first day in Manhattan here. On second thought, no. This too belongs here today. I want it all I one place and if this gets to be too long for you, it's easy to click away. Besides, I'm writing this more for me than you.

So, from 12 October 2004:

On my first day in Manhattan 35 years ago, having just stepped off a bus, I stood on the corner of 50th and Broadway orienting myself as to east, west, north and south to determine which way to walk to my destination.

It was noontime and the crowd was the largest and busiest I’d ever seen, a whirlwind of bodies weaving in and out and around one another, each independently intent on their individual goal.

As I sorted out the street signs from the profusion of gaudy neon, flashing store front lights, and walk/don’t walk indicators, a single voice made itself apparent above the din of traffic and several hundred people.

When I located the source of the shouting, I was mortified to see a man in a propeller beanie yelling, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” while pointing directly at me.

No one stopped as they passed, but they glanced at him and then at me, and I wished with all my might to be made invisible. In a panic, I took off in the direction I hoped was the one I wanted, with that pointing finger and his words, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” following me across the street.

A few minutes later, as I waited for my friend in front of the entrance to Saks Fifth Avenue, taking in the amazing crowds of New York City at lunchtime, a well-dressed man of about 30 suddenly grabbed my arm and asked, “Are you married?”

Having escaped the verbal assault just 15 minutes earlier and shocked again at being singled out by a stranger in this strange, new town, I managed to stutter, “Uh, well, uh, yes.” The man looked at his companion as they walked on and said, “Damn, I’ll never find anyone to marry me.”

Welcome to Gotham, little girl.

Nothing like those two incidents had ever happened to me anywhere in my life and when the surprise wore off, I loved it. They made me laugh and what I learned was that anything, any amazing thing could happen at any time – even twice within an hour.

And over the next 40 years, they did, many times, and I made Manhattan my home as much as if I owned the island, as if I had been born there.

In fact, I came to believe (still do) that it was where I had always belonged, and it was just that the gods had maybe been busy on 7 April 1941; that they got the location mixed up a little on the day I was born.

Leaping ahead 40 years, after nearly 12 months of banging my head against an immovable wall trying to find work at age 64 following a layoff, I made the soul-searing decision to sell my apartment in Greenwich Village and leave Manhattan.

Although I knew I had no other choice, it took a three-day weekend home alone weeping and wailing to come to terms with it before I could start planning.

A short time later, Dr. William Thomas, in his book, What Are Old People For?, supplied an explanation for why it was so hard for me even in the face of financial ruin if I didn't:

“…far more powerful is the older person’s attachment to place,” he wrote. “This should not be confused with nostalgia or simple habit. A sense of place is woven into the being of an elder in ways that adults have a hard time understanding. A sapling can be dug up and transplanted with little difficulty. Uproot a mighty oak and it will die…

“The gift of place is the gift of meaning. Human beings possess a remarkable ability to unite meaning with the material world. This is how a person, place, or thing becomes sacred.

“Is a Bible, a Torah, or a Koran made of paper, ink, and glue? Yes. Is it much more than paper, ink, and glue? Yes, again. Holy books are different from telephone books because the former are enriched with meaning while the latter have none…

“For the elder, a loss of place carries with it a potentially lethal loss of meaning. Taking meaning away from a person or place is a form of profanity…”

Well, not lethal in my case but too strong an attachment to get rid of like a pair of worn-out shoes. New York is my home.

Now, at last we arrive, you and I, at what I've been leading up to all along.

A couple of days ago, in a long phone conversation with an old friend who lives in New York, we talked about how, sometimes, a certain song can perfectly capture an era.

Oh so correctly in that regard he named Billy Joel's New York State of Mind as being that perfect song for the city in the aftermath of 9/11 - that it did then and still does rip at your heart in the way that awful day did and makes you ache for that certain spot on the planet, for your home there that you love almost like a person.

We went on about New York songs a bit and I told my friend that I had once made a playlist for myself (I would never inflict it on friends) of the hundred-plus songs about New York that I own. He countered with the fact that he has a much longer list.

Yesterday morning, he emailed it to me. Oh my. Thirty-two single-spaced pages of New York songs. Okay, some are the same song by several different artists but still.

I have been gone from New York now for nine years. I miss it every day and I sometimes think this is how exiles (back in the days of ancient Rome and other olden times when exile was a punishment for crimes against the state) must feel.

From time to time, though not often nor for long, I allow myself to wallow in the depths of my yearning for New York.

I did that yesterday morning, and as I perused my friend's New York song list, I recalled what we had said about New York State of Mind while I let my fingers wander over the computer keyboard until I arrived at YouTube.

As it always is when I think too hard about New York nowadays, my heart was aching even before I clicked the play button. And the last 90 seconds of the song just about destroyed me - in the best and worst possible ways at once.

This was recorded live at Madison Square Garden in 2009, the concert for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

I don't care if it's Chinatown or Riverside...

There wasn't any way for a little, five-year-old girl to know in 1946 that a Christmas gift to her parents would create a theme that has carried through her entire life.

Comments

Beautiful post! I could/can so feel the longing you have for your special place.

I doubt my feelings for my last home are as strong as yours for New York, but it's good to know that my longing for the past place I lived isn't just an old man's foolishness. Like you, I moved here for good reasons; like you, I imagine, I'd move back there in a heartbeat.

Ronni, I love it when you write mainly for yourself. 😀

I completely understand you feelings and love for NYC.

Ronni, is there any possible way you could move back to NYC?

Have you explored every avenue?

What are the options?

doctafil...
It's all about money. Short of winning the Powerball, not a chance. New York City, Manhattan in particular, was always expensive but until the last decade or so there were options for people who were not rich. Pretty much all of that has disappeared now.

These days, too, even the outer boroughs require a lot of money and anyway, the point for me is to step out of my home and walk to the Met Museum or Washington Square Park or Chinatown or just down the street because there is no place in Manhattan that is not interesting to walk.

I won't be living there again. I think by old age, we all accumulate sorrows. This is mine.

I completely relate. That "sense of place" is what has kept me here in my southern home city. I've traveled a lot, but always returned here. And even though we have our faults, serious disagreements about politics, etc. I still remain here. In fact, I live about two miles from where I grew up. As I got older, I realized it nearly made me physically ill to be away too long. Horrible longing, unrelenting feeling of being in the wrong place elsewhere.

Enlightening post! Thanks.

It always grieves me to see how much you miss New York. It's easy to understand why you love Manhattan.

I love the passage you quote from What Are Old People For? I feel like that about Buffalo and Western New York. This is where my grandfather came, straight from Ellis Island. When my mother was deep into Alzheimer's, I took her for a ride through her life - where she grew up, where she married, where she met my father, where she raised her kids, where she worked. Some days we'd go to Chestnut Ridge Park and I'd tell her stories about how we'd gather apples there so she'd make her pies.

There are very few places within a 30-mile radius of where I sit without some memory, some attachment, some meaning: a friend, a lover, a home, a hang-out.

It's a different kind of love, I think, from yours for Manhattan. Mine is more a love for one's nuclear family; yours is more a love of longing, of desire, of choice. Leaving New York, it seems to me, was a kind of divorce for you, a divorce from someone you wanted never to leave. I'm always saddened by these posts, but I love to read them. I love your New York.

A life's theme song...I love that idea.

I understand your love for New York City as I have the same for San Francisco. When I retired, my husband and I had 15 magical months of living there. Like NYC, though, SF is very expensive and it made no sense to continue paying over $2000 a month to stay there when we had a house paid for in Fresno. A large house, with all the stuff we didn't have in the tiny SF studio. So, we packed up and returned to Fresno.

I must accept that it is where I will live out the rest of my days, but San Francisco still calls to me.

I've always wanted to live in NYC, but never have. Only made one visit in my life. I still love to read about living there.

Great post. I agree with Linda C, I love it when you write about yourself.

Ronni, old and dear friend, if I win Powerball or the like before you do, forget that Greyhound, you're flying back here first class and we'll go apartment-shopping.

You had us weeping along with you, Ronni. It might be small comfort, but you can go back to visit. And you should, as often as you can, although I know from experience that even a short visit to New York is very expensive. This is a very thought provoking post. Loss of place is a common occurrence in this society, where buildings and streets disappear, and small towns are mowed down in the name of progress.

I can relate to your loss and longing for a place that means something to you. For me, it's a country cottage where I spent all my summers growing up. Fortunately, my niece owes the place now and has given me a key and a standing invitation to visit whenever I like. When the place was sold nearly two decades ago, I couldn't afford to give up my career to move there in the land of no jobs and I couldn't afford it as a second home. We all do what we have to do but that doesn't mean it's always easy to give up our dreams and muse.

Love this post!

Your beautiful story touched me deeply Ronni. Although I grew up in SW NY, and raised my sons in NW Pa I always wanted to leave... I flirted with NYC but couldn't commit. Finally, in my 40's I made the move to Tucson, Az and recognized HOME for the first time in my life. I fell in love with the spaciousness and the mountains, and the desert. I was able to stay for most of the next 20 years.

Three years ago I chose to return to Pa, for several good reasons, but, like you, I miss it every day.

Thanks for another great post!

I know this "longing of place" quite well. I would give one of my significant body parts to be able to move back to my old apartment in Queens. But alas, I can no longer afford it. I recently checked apartment prices in Forest Hills and found that my $982 per month, rent stabilized 2 bdrm. apartment would now cost me over $2700. I fear that the great middle class, which once made up the very fabric of the city, will soon have no place in it.

Your account of your first day in Manhattan also made ME laugh, and reminded me of my one and only visit to New York, back in 1967. My ex-spouse and I went to NY and met friends, staying at the Picadilly Hotel. We did the entire sightseeing bit, Frauncais Tavern, Empire State Building, and so many other places. We got tickets to see "Funny Girl" with Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, and on the way to the theater, we stopped and the guys bought flowers for the gals. After the show, we found a place to eat, then wandered a bit, just savoring the idea of being in Manhattan. NYC is the only place in the world where one can get on the subway at 2:00 a.m., barefooted, in a black chiffon cocktail dress, eating an ice cream cone, and no one bats an eyelash! I loved it!!!

One day I'm going back for a longer visit than just 3 days.

Wonderful reading this Ronnie on a rainy morning in Northern California. "Homesickness" - such a powerful and often overlooked emotion. Especially now in the unprecedented global movement of people leaving their homelands probably forever.

I am just reading From Time to Time, the sequel to Jack Finney's time travel book about New York. Reading his memories that allowed him to return to the New York of the late 20th century really amplified the idea of place being woven into us.

Beautifully told Ronnie

Oh I felt your pain and longing, Ronni. I was lucky enough to have that visceral feeling when I first come to Newfoundland and decided, crazily, to move the 3,000k here. Never looked back. When I'm away from here I have that heart squeezing longing to be back. So yeah, I get it.

I find it hard to describe to others but you nailed it.

XO
WWW

I enjoyed this. A lot.
I hadn't read this - “For the elder, a loss of place carries with it a potentially lethal loss of meaning. Taking meaning away from a person or place is a form of profanity…”

I obly visited NYC once-at age 13-my parents and I were visiting Moms parents in Conn. and the nearest airport was New York..this was in 1955. I am from Los Angeles and frequently visited my dads mom in Hollywood on the outskirts of downtown L.A. A busy place for sure but nothing like New York. I always wanted to go back but never made the trip..though I sent my children - each has had a time in NYC on Manhatten Is. and each is far too Oregonian to want to stay there for long.

What made you decide on Oregon for your relocation destination Ronni?

Elle

Montreal is our city. We enjoy travelling, but when flying home or seeing the city skyline after a long road trip, I get emotional. But I would love to live in NYC, Paris, San Francisco, or Hong Kong for a year or so, to study and write.

Thank you for this Ronni.

I've been in love with NYC since my first visit at age 13.
Now in my seventies, the magic continues whenever I'm there.

As I sit here today waiting for the much talked about blizzard to arrive, I plan to recall all those wonderful and most exciting times.

"Listen all you New Yorkers, there's a rumor goin' round...." I may not have the words exactly right but at one time I knew the words and could sing Manhattan Tower from cover to cover. My roommate and I discovered it while living in NYC. We lived there for 2 wonderful years and every day was an adventure. I visited NYC often while growing up having had relatives living on Long Island and nearby communities and always found it exciting.

What an introduction you had to the city!...Love it! And love your story...I sure can relate. But one too many blustery, bone-chilling nights waiting on the corner for the bus to take us crosstown to to work made us decide to head for a warmer climate. We ended up in southern California which took a LOT of attitude adjusting! That was 1955, my roommate has since returned to her roots in PA, but CA is in my blood, my love for tall trees has proven greater than my awe of tall buildings.

Thanks for sharing your 'theme song', I hope Oregon will become as fond in your memories.

"...tell me how's your cousin Ben?"...
You just know those songs will be playing in my head for the next couple of days...

I totally agree with you about a sense of place. I came to my places, the desert southwest and Texas very late in life. But, I knew as soon as I reached both places I was home. Something about the wide expanse of land as far as the eye can see. I grew up in New England and lived in New Orleans for 33 years and while there is much to love about both those places, I never really felt either was my home.

I will be bereft when I have to leave where I am now. But, unfortunately with rising rents, the time will come.

A big lump in my throat always appeared when I saw Pikes Peak appearing on the horizon after being away from home for even a few days. My family had transplanted to Colorado Springs when my mother was two years old so it was definitely "home" to me.

I thought I would never want to live any place else, but after a half a century living in Arizona my adopted home seems like it has always been my home, although I don't have the same emotional feeling of nostalgia that I felt for Colorado.

A few years ago I went to Colorado Springs for a reunion and I discovered that the magic was gone, as was the lump in my throat. Perhaps that's because it had changed so much that I no longer recognized it, but, to me, it was just another big city.

It still surprises me that I did get over being homesick for the place of my birth. But time changes so many things. Perhaps in time you will get over the ache of not being in the 'Big Apple, Ronni.

What a beautiful and touching blog post! Started following you from the Happiness at Midlife Pinterest group and am so glad.

Hello everyone! Coming back in the evening to read TGB again and to visit Ronni and her friends has become a happy habit.

On a very personal note, I finally feel I'm home. I grew up in the town I live in now, but always felt I was in the wrong place. I love big cities, have only lived in a couple for short periods. I had 10 years of "wandering in the desert, looking for the promise land & job".

Because I had no other place to go, I returned to my hometown. I met Mr. Right in 1998 and have been with him ever since. We lived in his house, but I hated it. Three years ago we moved into our small, but perfect house. The minute I walked in it, I had a sense of peace and "I'm home."

Thanks for listening.

Oh Ronni - I read the whole post - hoping - hoping - hoping that you would finish with - "guess what - my friend just offered me an apartment!"
Not to be apparently - I have just finished reading a marvellous book on Stoic philosophy by William B Irvine - A Guide to The Good Life - you would enjoy it - perhaps it would help with the accumulated sorrows - it certainly helps in looking at age etc philosophically.
Enjoy the music and the memories.

I think bloggers should always right for themselves .... first, audience second. Good job!

Born in Ohio, several years in the Bay Area, 30 years in Portland ... now feeling at home in Maui.

Dear Ronni, Thank you for sharing this very eloquent description of belonging/feeling at home/not feeling "at home". I wish I had a magic wand and could make it possible for you to go back to New York to live. Visiting is almost more painful than not living there ... not to mention the pain of traveling. Will keep my fingers crossed that there is a lottery win in the future for you, Wendl or one of us that will do the duty of the magic wand.

I adore you and your blog. This post brought me back to the NYC of my childhood and youth (all three gone, gone, gone). While I am neither feeling bereft nor eager to live there again, I wept for your profound longing and loss. I love your signature honesty to share openly your convictions, joys, fears, creative solutions, and major disappointments. I recall your post following a conference or panel presentation requiring air travel that you're done with that. And, I hope that your readers and real-time pals "heart listening" is affirming, and that sharing memories and playlists via distant travel in-situ help honor your journeys launched by your earliest dream, a gift of specific vinyl to your parents lifetimes ago. Much love from TLV

Superb post. It's crystal clear to me why you once made your living in a writing-oriented world. You're an extremely talented writer about many things but especially when the subject is personal.

Unfortunately, I never made it to New York; however, I owned the "Manhattan Tower" record which I played and replayed many times over. Treacly it may be, but I absolutely LOVED it then--and still do. Until now, I was never able to find it again after losing most of my 78s in one of many moves. I tried for years, even in the nearly days of the internet, but finally gave up. It's so great to hear it again after all this time. Thank you!

Enjoyed this article very much. I had a similar experience of leaving my beloved Cape Cod, and almost the same time frame, eight years for me. I long so for that landscape, the friends I cultivated through the years, the special culture of the area. At least I am only five hours away even though sometimes visiting is hard because then i have to leave. I am glad you had so many years in the place you love.

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