For most of us, getting old is just a part of life. But there are ways to do it well, as Lake Effect essayist Jackie Reid Detloff discovered:
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning a group of seniors gathers at the former YMCA building near the corner of 9th and Wisconsin. They have been swimming and stretching and doing aerobics at that location for over 30 years. They call themselves “MarqTimers” because their venue in Straz Hall is now part of the Marquette University campus, though they have no official connection to the Jesuits or the Catholic Church or the university.
Five years ago I had the pleasure of joining them. I am younger than the other MarqTimers and to tell you the truth, I like it like that.
“You are really good at those jumping jacks,” they tell me. Or “I wish I could do that spinal twist as well as you.”
“It’s not that I’m so athletic,” I respond. “It’s only that I’m 20 years younger than everybody else in the group.”
“The group” I say, though the gathering of people I meet at MarqTimers is unlike any other group I have ever known. There is no hierarchy. No power structure. No clique. What draws people together is a commitment to maintaining their own health. Ralph comes from Waukesha County, as do Trudy and Paul; Adela comes by way of van service for the handicapped, John and Lois from a high-rise residence along the lake.
Northside, southside, all around the town: there is no geographic restriction on membership. The only requirement is that people be over 60 and pay $5/day or $30/month for instruction and use of the gym, the swimming pool, and the locker room with sauna, steam room and whirlpool. Such a deal!
But I don’t go to MarqTimers because it is cheap. And I don’t go just to get exercise. I go because the people there teach me about growing old. As I’ve come to know them, the people at MarqTimers have become dear to me.
As I learn more about their lives, I am awed by their fortitude and spirit. I think of Rose, who has buried two of her three children. Or Dorothy, whose only son committed suicide, or Millie whose son died in a traffic accident or Hilde who lost one daughter to cancer, or Dolores who had her left breast removed, or Fran who lived for decades with a husband who could no longer speak. Mary has survived two heart surgeries, Tim has had one knee replaced, Jeannie has had two. Silvia tells stories of the overseas service she and her husband did in Africa; Mary still misses her husband who died 7 years ago. Marie raised 9 children after serving as an Army nurse and now takes care of her invalid husband. No one can live 80 years unscathed.
And yet, here they all are, coming downtown twice a week to get exercise and enjoy a cup of coffee afterwards. Sometimes on special occasions, Edith brings her signature Italian cookies. They speak of their children, their travels, they share recipes and jokes and they even sing.
I remember the December morning when I went with my friend Angela to check out the exercise group that she had spoken of so often. She guided me through the protocols of checking in, getting a locker, and then introduced me to Mary Joy, the trim and energetic young woman who led the work-out in the gym. I followed the sequence of cardio-aerobics then strength-building, then flexibility routines. OK. I could do all that, especially where there was music to move to. Mary Joy played vintage music: things like Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand” or Cole Porter classics or show tunes like “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.” This was the kind of music that soaked into me when I was growing up.
I was having much more fun than I would have counting reps on some boring treadmill machine. Then I followed everyone downstairs to the swimming pool. Mary Joy had different music for the water aerobics exercise, switching from standard oldies to songs of the season. I watched as people in the shallow end of the pool took up silly purple jugs and white Styrofoam noodles and followed
Mary Joy’s directions. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with that, so I swam laps at the deep end of the pool. Midway through the session, I stopped swimming because I heard the refrain of Jose Feliciano’s “I Want to Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The lifeguard and I exchanged glances. What was this?
As we looked on, the grey-haired MarqTimers became an aquatic chorus line, a Las Vegas review at the shallow end of the pool, all moving those silly purple jugs and singing in synch. Corny? Maybe so. But for me it was an outpouring of endorphins, a group of aged human beings being happy. I wanted to join up.
And I did. Now I get to swim regularly with good-natured people who have their nicks and scratches from going through life. They may have their wrinkles and loose skin but they are still singing. They inspire me.
Lake Effect essayist Jackie Reid Detloff lives in Riverwest and writes for the Riverwest Currents. She also leads tours to Mexico to track Monarch butterfly migrations.