Here’s a story I liked about what might make a happy life. It’s by Michael Gartner about his family, in particular his dad and the things he did. I’ve shortened the story a little bit, I hope without losing the main points.
My father never drove a car.
I should say I never saw him drive a car.
My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walked the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.
My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938. Sometimes, my father would say, “As soon as one of you boys turns 16, we’ll get a car.” It was as if he wasn’t sure which one of us would turn 16 first.
But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet and it more or less became my brother’s car.
Then in 1952, when she was 43, my mother asked a friend to teach her to drive. For the next 45 years or so my mother was the driver in the family and my father appointed himself navigator.
When he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, “Do you want to know the secret of a long life?”
“I guess so,” I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.
“No left turns,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, we read an article saying most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”
“What?” I said again.
“No left turns,” he said. “Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer. So we always make three rights.”
“You’re kidding!” I said, and I turned to my mother for support. “No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”
But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”
I started laughing. “Loses count?” I asked. “Yes,” my father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”
I couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can’t be put off another day or another week.”
My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90. She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102. He continued to walk daily and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.
Once in 2004, he told my son, “You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred.”
Not long after that he said, “You know, I’m probably not going to live much longer.”
“You’re probably right,” I said.
“Why would you say that?” he countered, somewhat irritated.
“Because you’re 102 years old,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “you’re right.”
A short time before he died, my father said clearly and lucidly,”I want you to know that I am in no pain. I’m very comfortable. And I’ve had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.”
I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot.
I can’t figure out if it was because he walked through life.
Or because he quit taking left turns.
Michael Gartner has been editor of newspapers and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.