My mother instilled in my brother, sister, and me the importance of hard work, equanimity, and integrity, but Mom used to lie about her age. At various points in her life, Mom was between 2 and 14 years older than what was recorded, reported, or otherwise divulged. Mom had one age on her birth certificate, another age on her driver license, yet another on her passport, and another in the media.
Growing up, we knew better than to ask her how old she was. As we got older, she preferred for us not to divulge our ages. Conversations about age turned into conversations about how older actors were passed over for roles. She was already black. She was already a woman. She wasn’t about to be old too.
When Mom needed a new driver license, and when Homeland Security got involved with visits to the White House, Mom had to align her documents. Even then, I still didn’t know her age. After Daddy passed in 2005, their attorney blurted out, “Oh Ruby, you know you’re the same age as me. Eighty-two.” When she didn’t correct him or deny it, I covered my mouth and gasped. It was the first time I knew for sure how old she was.
My mother did not claim her real age publicly until 2012 when we celebrated her 90th birthday with a screening of, Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee. It was then that she embraced her age and talked about galvanizing the elders to get their walkers and wheelchairs and roll against the injustices that never eluded her outrage.
Every once in a while Mom would say profound things. Once she turned 90, her pithy remarks were mostly about living and aging well. Noodling Ninety, she called it. Crumb Navigation features some of Mom’s quotes seasoned with her wisdom, courage, grace, and her inimitable sense of humor about aging and life in her nineties.
There was no one like my mother. She was a generous, selfless, hopeful, rough, and rusty street fighter who loved her family. Along with my brother, sister, and our families, I will always be humbled by her compassion for us as well as for the People. She was a true believer in the human spirit, and marveled at what she called the “God stuff” in every living thing. She was proof that life is an incredible set of circumstances.
Photo by Anthony Barboza