Copyright 2016 Mario V. Farina
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Mario V. Farina
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I was born at midnight on January 1, 1900. “Quite a magical time for a little girl,” my mother used to say as I was growing up. I don’t know about the magical part, but I did relish the uniqueness of my birth date and time. My age is one-hundred-sixteen now, but, in appearance, I am a young woman in my mid-twenties.
(The slim, horn-rimmed, attractive, middle-aged woman and I were seated on the veranda outside my home. Fresh breezes from the nearby Hudson kept us comfortable. She listened intently as I spoke. I noted that, legs crossed, she was conservatively dressed in a brown suit. There was a pad in her lap and a bright yellow pencil in her right hand. Her blond hair was moderately streaked with gray. Her expression gave no hint as to what she was thinking.)
I was 35 when I began to suspect that I had a problem with age. It didn’t bother me at first. Indeed, I hoped that what I imagined was true. I went to the Troy Public Library and searched in the medical encyclopedias until I found progeria, an insidious disease that afflicts children causing them to age prematurely. Ten-year-old boys and girls appear to be seventy. I had hoped the article would mention some sort of opposite disease characterized by extremely slow aging. There was no such mention.
Most persons would think that having an affliction like mine would be a blessing, but it isn’t. Seeming to be twenty-five when one is forty, fifty, and sixty can have its problems. This is especially true when one is my age!
Dr. Gilbert had braved a sleet storm to come on horseback to the little farmhouse in Brunswick, on the outskirts of Troy, where my parents lived. He had glanced at his timepiece at the moment that I arrived and remarked that I might have been the first baby in all the world to be born in the twentieth century. If true, what a distinction that would be!
I was named Matilda. I don’t remember much of my infancy except trying to climb out of my crib when I was a toddler, but I do have hazy recollections of life in the country. I remember the horse and buggies from my window as they made their way on the muddy, rutted roads near my home.
I remember, too, the one-room schoolhouse on Adams Road, now Burdett Avenue, where Mr. Quinn unveiled the mysteries of arithmetic, grammar, and geography. Today, I realize what an intelligent, well-rounded person he must have been for I learned these subjects thoroughly and never felt a twinge of envy for those who went to public schools in Troy.
As I grew up, people marveled that I didn’t fall victim to childhood diseases. I was not afflicted with whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, and the like. I never had so much as a sniffle throughout these years. If I fell while playing and was bruised, I would heal overnight. To this day, I have not seen the inside of a hospital. I have never required medical care, except for some dental work in 1978, that I’ll tell you about later. I had a sister, Mary Louise, who was born three years after I was. She did not enjoy the same good health that I did and died of scarlet fever when I was six. My parents mysteriously disappeared when I was ten and I was consigned to the care of the Cranstons who lived down the road. They became my real parents while I was growing up.
The Titanic sank when I was twelve. People were horrified upon hearing the news but it didn’t mean much to me. The Panama Canal was completed a couple of years later. Everyone thought this was a major accomplishment.
I was fourteen when I met Joshua Higgins at church. He was two years older than I, thin as a straw, had bright blue eyes, and wore a shock of red hair that could have set a haystack on fire. We spent a great deal of time together. On Sunday afternoons, he would take his family’s buckboard and drive us down to the Bijou Theater on Fourth Street in Troy. We’d pay five cents each for admittance and laugh uproariously at the antics of Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. He brought me home well before curfew. Somehow, it became understood that Josh and I would marry one day.
In 1915, the Germans sank the Lusitania. There was a fervor for bloodshed that frightened me, but Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war. Nevertheless, the United States did declare war on Germany in 1917 and Josh volunteered. He was slightly wounded in France. Almost immediately after he returned, we were married. We bought a Tin Lizzie for a bit over $400. For several years, we lived with my parents looking toward the day when we would be able to strike out on our own. Josh got a job at Simmons Manufacturing in Troy. For several years, he’d walk a mile to catch the trolley at Hugh and Wiley. He’d work ten hours operating a milling machine. Then he would begin the long journey home.
We had two children, Theodore and Abigail. They were educated in Troy public schools. At the movies they grew up with Laurel and Hardy, Flash Gordon, and Mickey Mouse. Josh advanced in his job and we were able to rent a flat on Second Street in Troy so that Josh could be closer to his job. We voted for Herbert Hoover because he asserted that the country was on the threshold of a prosperity unknown in the history of the world. Alas, Josh speculated recklessly in the stock market and lost the money that we had been saving for a down payment on a house. Soon afterward, he was laid off and we went on relief. From time to time, Josh worked at odd jobs.
Franklin Roosevelt became president and Josh got a job with the WPA. This enabled us to get off relief and begin reducing our debts. We were in the middle of a depression, but some of our privations were alleviated by a most marvelous toy, the radio. What fun it was for the adults to tune into WGY and visit with Ma Perkins, Stella Dallas, Lorenzo Jones, and Amos ‘n’ Andy. The kids tuned into the adventures of Tom mix, Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Armstrong! What a thrill it was to hear the world and local news every evening! We also followed the adventures of Amelia Earhart who flew across the Atlantic only five years after Lindy had. And who could forget listening to the World Series in the fall? (The Yankees always won.) And, to The Shadow on Sunday afternoons, sponsored by Blue Coal, hosted by John Barclay.
At the movies, we were spellbound with Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind,” Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz,” Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess,” and others. All movies had sound by now and many were in color.
When we got involved in the second world war, Josh got a job at the American locomotive company building tanks. Theodore was drafted and went off to war, and my daughter and I got jobs as assemblers at General Electric. The family moved to Sixth Avenue in Schenectady. From there we were able to walk to work.
Josh would be exhausted when he came home from his twelve-hour shift. He didn’t want to participate in outside activities, but my daughter and I would go to the USO and serve coffee and donuts to the servicemen and dance with them. Abigail was twenty. I was forty-four, but in appearance, she and I could have been sisters. Both of us were slim and brown eyed. We had clear complexions and glistening auburn hair. I was flattered that the young men would ask me to dance as often as they’d ask Abigail, but I knew something was wrong. Every day I would examine my skin and hair looking for those first wrinkles or strands of gray but they never came.
(The woman shifted in her seat and jotted something down on the pad. As I spoke a faint look of perplexity crept across her face. Was she beginning to guess?)
“Mom,” Abigail would exclaim, “I’m jealous of all the attention men give you. You’re my mother, but no one would ever know. Why do you come here? You’ve had your life, now you should step aside and let younger people have theirs!”
President Roosevelt died just before the war ended. Josh was almost fifty. Theodore had seen service in Okinawa. He came home with premature wrinkles on his forehead, otherwise, healthy and fit. He joined the Air Force intending to make a career in the Service. Abigail quit her job and married an Albany lawyer whom she had met at a dance only three months before. “Mother,” she said on her wedding day,“Donald and I plan to build a life as far from you as we can. I won’t compete any longer with a twin sister who was born a full generation before me.”
The remark both stung and puzzled me. Then I realized that Abigail was crying out in pain over something that she did not understand. I quit my job and resumed being a traditional housewife. Josh was elated when his name came to the top of a waiting list and he was able to purchase a 1948 Pontiac Deluxe for $2400.
The years after the war were prosperous ones. Harry Truman was president; there was a “Cold War” raging with the USSR, and there was a constant fear of the bomb, but as a family, we were doing well. Josh took a job at General Electric in Schenectady as a manager working in the Turbine Department. Because of his increased income, he and I were able to scrape together a down payment for a house and we purchased one on Fox Avenue in Colonie. Abigail and her husband were living in Arizona. They had a daughter and sent us an announcement, one of the very few communications we had with them over the years. Theodore stayed at home for a while, then he, too, got a job at General Electric. He was transferred to Cincinnati where he married, bought a house, and began raising a family.
Josh made no secret of the fact that my appearance bothered him. He looked for signs of aging even more diligently than I did.
“You look as young as you did when we were married, Mattie, he raged one day. “And I look like hell! I’m gray, bald spot on my head, flab on my stomach. But you never change. I swear, there’s something wrong with you!”
One day a year later, babbling like a baby, he told me that he had fallen in love with his secretary who was little more than half his age, and he wanted a divorce. There was something he had to do to find himself, he blurted through his tears. He left that night and was never seen again. The house fell into my possession by default since he never claimed any ownership. I sold it and rented an apartment on Caroline Street.
I received a picture of Abigail and her family at Christmas in 1958. Abigail was obviously older than the last time I had seen her. This dispelled any notion that, somehow, I had passed on to her some sort of youth gene.
(I handed the woman a bulky envelope. She took it and began to open it. I raised my hand and she stopped.)
In 1959, after having thought about it for over a year, I decided to start fresh and applied for a new Social Security card claiming that I had never worked. I moved to Mohawk Avenue in Scotia and Matilda Higgins disappeared as if she had never existed. I applied at General Electric for a job and was immediately hired as a file clerk. I had lied on my application stating that I was Jenny Jordan, twenty-one years old, and a graduate of Mount Pleasant High School. There was not a great deal of checking being done by this company at that time and it worked out. At times, I would run into someone I had known at General Electric, but nothing ever came of it.
The Korean War had started in 1950. It had gone badly at first then better. President Truman fired Gen. MacArthur. Eisenhower became president, the hydrogen bomb was tested, television came into people’s homes with the Camel Fifteen-minute news program. Also, Howdy Doody, and I Love Lucy. Jet travel became commonplace and Alaska and Hawaii became states. I had opportunities to meet men and to date but avoided long-term relationships. I had become resigned to the fact that my appearance would not change, and did not want to repeat the anguish that I had experienced when Josh left. One of the men I had dated spouted one day that I was a cold, mechanical woman, devoid of feelings. He was right.
In the sixties, computers were being used in business more and more. I recognized their future impact on human life much sooner than most and resolved to learn all I could about them. In 1962, soon after John Kennedy was elected president, I left General Electric and started at Union College studying computer science.
Every day I looked in the mirror and saw the same person, a slim woman of about twenty-five, attractive hair, mouth, eyes, ears, and nose seemingly positioned on her face with the skill of an artist. There was never a hint of a wrinkle or shred of gray despite the fact that I was now in my sixties. It wasn’t fashionable for a woman to dye her hair so I kept mine unchanged.
President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Lyndon Johnson became president. I received a BS degree in 1964 and joined IBM as a programmer at Endicott, New York. There was an unpopular war in Vietnam. Each night, on color television, people would see our servicemen dying in a far off land. The war brought down the president. He decided not to run for reelection.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Richard Nixon was elected president. Men walked on the moon. There was an incident at Watergate in Washington. I was now became seventy-two and people were asking embarrassing questions about where was I born, and how old I was. While those around me were aging, my appearance seemed carved in stone. I worried that these kinds of persistent questions would cause me to become an object of curiosity, and that I might have to submit to involuntary research. It was time to begin a new life.
Visiting Lawndale Cemetery, I found the grave of an infant and decided to adopt her name. I applied for and received a new birth certificate. It was surprisingly easy to say, and be believed, that I had been born in Binghamton in 1947. I obtained a Social Security card, a driver’s license, and credit cards. I became Helen Van Allen and abruptly left my IBM office one Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t bother even to put the punched cards away or clear papers from my desk.
I went back to Albany, and took a small apartment on S. Pine St. Feeling that medical training would enable me to learn more about my problem, I explored the possibility of obtaining a medical degree. Unhappily I found that, for this, I needed more personal history of Helen Van Allen than was available. However, Albany Med accepted me for nurse training. Personnel believed my story that records had been lost in a fire at Binghamton High School and agreed to give me a test in lieu of transcripts. The hospital congratulated me on my superb scores and the training began.
Jerry Ford was president when I obtained my degree in 1978. I went to work for Mendell Orwitz, a geriatrician, on State Street in Albany. There, during spare time and off-hours, I dug into the documentation that was available about aging. I also sought the council of Dr. Orwitz but, as Omar Khayyam had said, in the end, I went out the same door as I had gone in.
My attention was suddenly drawn to a spectacular occurrence in England where the first test tube baby was born. I read all I could about this but there was nothing that helped me. During this same year, I needed to have a tooth filled. It was a small thing, but this incident gave me hope that I was, after all, a mere mortal being.
I tried again for a medical degree and was accepted at Cornell University soon after Jimmy Carter became president and Voyager began sending pictures from Saturn. My nurse’s experience, plus the results of the test that I had taken at Albany Med, made up for my lack of transcripts. I did well and became a doctor specializing in psychiatry at about the time that Mikhail Gorbachev took control of the Soviet Union in 1985. After three years of internship, I opened an office on Greene Street in Hudson.
Having an office of my own partially solved one of my everyday problems. I could better hide from the prying eyes of those who speculated about my age. In my office, patients were much more interested in their personal problems than in what I looked like. No one cared. I could be eighty-five in real life, thirty-eight as Dr. Helen Van Allen, and still safely look Twenty-five.
My practice prospered but my life was unstable. Sooner or later, I would have to assume another identity. I would have to procure new documentation as proof of who I was. Doing this was going to be difficult next time because computers were controlling almost every facet of human activities. I could foresee the day when a person’s identity would be established at birth and remain with him or her as an unshakable companion for a lifetime.
I’d decided that salvation lay in the computer itself. With advances in its capabilities, I predicted that I could probably forge whatever documents I needed in the future. I obtained an IBM personal computer. Teaching myself, I learned MultiMate, then WordPerfect, and finally Microsoft Word with its huge array of fonts. As computer technology improved, I obtained a color copier and a sophisticated printer. No expense was spared for these devices since they would allow me to hold on to my independence and anonymity. At about the time that the Berlin wall came down and the USSR collapsed, I was prepared for any eventuality. The computer also assisted in a personal endeavor. Using CD ROMs with residential databases, I was able to follow the careers of my children, and grandchildren.
On January 1 of this year, I completed my 116th year of life on this earth. Over the years I have witnessed advances in automobile and plane travel, the emergence of electronics and advanced computers, space travel, wars, the comings and goings of a dozen presidents, skirts rising and falling like the tide and much more. I am frightened by the fact that there is no hint as to how much more there is ahead of me.
As Dr. Van Allen, I am now sixty-four and it is time to move on. However, before I do, I wanted to have a conference with you because you are a reporter. I’d like to have you tell the world about me and also express my speculation that some January 1, midnight might be another magical time. I want to alert the medical community that another person like me may be born. I invited you here because you are a widely respected journalist with many successes to your credit. If I called a press conference with the story that I just told you, people would say I was crazy. But you’re different. Not only are you honored in your field, but you play a personal part in this story that will lend credence to what you report. You see, my dear, you are Abigail’s daughter, Dolores. You are my grand daughter. Everything I told you can be verified. The envelope I’ve handed you contains photos and documents that provide irrefutable proof that what I have told you is true.
(The woman winced when she heard her name. She stared at me. A smile skirted across the edges of her mouth. She placed the pencil on her ear and folded her hands in her lap.)
If a disease, the opposite of Progeria exists, it could well be called Airegorp because this name is Progeria spelled backwards. Airegorp would need to be studied. But this would have to be done without me, for tomorrow, I will disappear again.