A Longevity Recipe
Last week marked the passing of the oldest person in the world, Misao Okawa of Japan who, before she died at 117, credited her long life to “eating delicious things” (apparently in Japan that doesn’t include Cinnabon and bacon-wrapped pizza). Her passing conferred the oldest-person status on 116 year-old Gertrude Weaver of Arkansas who said that she believes that kindness is the key to longevity, “I’ve always treated others the way I want to be treated.”
Eating well can certainly improve health and might make us live longer, and treating other people kindly improves social connections, which also has powerful health benefits. But those two philosophies got me thinking about a story my mother often told.
It was during the Great Depression that my mom, who was then just 12 years old, was stricken with rheumatic fever. Treatment consisted of bed rest and excruciating therapy by a dedicated family doctor who came several times a week to stretch her arms and legs so that the muscles wouldn’t draw and atrophy. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be so young and so ill during a time of such shortage and want. There was no extra money to buy her a new doll to clutch during the painful manipulation of her aching joints or little sweet treats to lift her spirits, and so each new day dragged by in a monotonous gray haze of pain and waiting to get better.
When summer finally came, the doctor suggested that she get some sunshine, so every sunny day, my grandmother helped her to the chaise in the backyard. Beyond the back fence lived Mrs. Gaffney who kept a stern watch over her carefully tended garden where she raised a few vegetables and a thick patch of strawberries and the kids in the neighborhood all knew better than to think about scaling her fence and poaching her crop.
But one bright, warm day, when the first berries had turned a deep red beneath their green leaves, Mrs. Gaffney opened the gate between her yard and my grandparents’ and delivered to my mother a bowl of those first fruits glistening in a pool of fresh cream. Mom said, “It was the best thing I ever tasted in my life.” Until she died in 2012, I don’t remember Mom ever having a dish with fresh strawberries without mentioning a summer afternoon in the middle of the Depression, when she ate sweet berries covered with fresh cream provided by the kindness of a neighbor named Mrs. Gaffney who on that day noticed a sick little girl over her back fence and simply used what she had to do what she could.
What Mrs. Gaffney couldn’t have known was how that bowl of strawberries and cream would last for 79 years as that little girl became a mother and told the story to her children and now one of those children is telling it to you. That act of generosity outlived Mrs. Gaffney. It outlived the little girl. And if the story should capture your own imagination, it may also outlive me. That’s the power of kindness.
Is having a long life more likely by eating delicious things like fresh strawberries or by doing something kind like giving them to a sick child? Who really knows? What is certain is this: a single act of kindness can live indefinitely, and while it may not increase the length of life, it certainly increases its depth.