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This Old House

It's no surprise that a half-century-old structure has sprung a few leaks

The main thing you need to know, dear housesitter, is that the place is 54 years old. These days, you can expect a house like mine—barring any unnatural disasters—to last perhaps another 40 years. Still, you can't overlook some indices of wear.

For instance, the eyes. Still a creekside stir of brown (dad) and green (mom), but lately, not so keen at discerning medicine labels, fortune-cookie prophecies and instructions for the immersion blender.

You'll find reading glasses tucked in various places—bedside table, stereo shelf in the living room (yes, we still have a stereo, and a library of CDs you are welcome to browse)—but they never seem to be at hand exactly when you need them. Squinting doesn't help. So you can plan to hold the morning paper at arm's length while you read about the latest political meltdown.

No surprise that a half-century-old structure has sprung a few leaks. In this case, there's an occasional drip in the basement—generally triggered by a sudden sneeze or exuberant laugh. Not to worry: Pantiliners are in the bathroom, next to the nasal rinse and the gallon jug of salted, distilled water (more about that later).

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The other leak is more perplexing. The left eye seeps—in cold weather, for instance, or sometimes, unpredictably, in the middle of dinner with friends. The ophthalmologist diagnosed the problem as a blocked duct, like a drainpipe gummed with leaves, and offered surgery to cut a new bypass route for the tears.

I declined. So you should probably keep a tissue or two in your pocket at all times. When people ask if you're crying, you can just point to the front page of the newspaper (the one you're holding at arm's length) and nod. They'll understand.

Where was I? Oh, yes—the nasal rinse, another ongoing maintenance issue ever since I lost my sense of smell in 2005. One day, I could savor the coffee in all its caramel-bitterroot nuance, and the next, even a whiff of chopped garlic was undetectable.

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This disability has its blessings: I can inhale deeply while cleaning the cat box. On the other hand, I miss the world's aromatic bounty: crushed basil, warm brownies, Pinot Noir. It's like someone put the odor channel on mute.

And it didn't help to learn recently that dogs have stereolfaction—that is, they smell in three dimensions, each nostril functioning independently in the way that our eyes give us binocular vision. So a dog can not only sniff out a dead squirrel far more acutely than we can, she can tell whether the tempting odor is coming from near or far, left or right, low or high.

This is no comfort to me, half-century-old human, who most of the time can't smell in even a single dimension, my head dipped sadly over a pan of simmering curry or the rising challah, whose yeasty, eggy scent I barely remember.

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Are you getting apprehensive, dear housesitter? Are you thinking midlife is a cascade of dwindling faculties? It's true, no matter how many half-marathons you run, how much kale you gobble, your taste buds and your muscle tone and your libido will falter, eventually.

But other bonuses waft in, if you just prop open the casements. Gratitude, for one: that whole moon pinned to a carbon sky; the hand of your beloved vining into yours at the movie's start. The bank teller who remembers to ask how your mom is doing since your dad died. Breath, and the body to hold it.

When we bought our house (the actual house, not the metaphorical one) 17 years ago, the toughest inspector in town grimaced his way from third floor to basement, banging on pipes and listening to walls, then declared that the place had "good bones."

I hope for nothing less—though I know that even bones, in spite of those faux-chocolate calcium chews, will give way in time, that not only my house (now I'm talking about the metaphorical one), but the houses of all my friends, colleagues and cousins, my partner and my hugged-tight daughter, will also crumble in the end, until the whole neighborhood is underground.

And that's the trick, isn't it? To let life's temporariness lend urgency and gristle to your days. To remember, and forget, and remember all over again that the instructions for minding these bodies of ours, translated in any language or tradition, whittle down to the same terse counsel: Savor your own sweet life. Care justly and tenderly for others.

Oh, there's a bit more routine upkeep: flossing, brushing and the nightly application from a jar labeled "Africa's Secret," a potion containing so many bee products that I'm tempted to smear it on a biscuit. My mother, whose own house is still bright and vigorous at an age I'm not permitted to mention in public, swears by the stuff, and a friend told me that shea butter, one of the secret African ingredients, may prevent basal cell carcinomas, one of which I've had removed from the side of my nose.

Whoops. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned the C-word. It's really common, you know, especially if you've ever walked outdoors in a zone south of Scandinavia. It's unnerving, the first time you hear it connected with your own body, but a really good dermatologist can zip the offending cells right out and leave a scar so slender you can barely find it.

At least, not without your reading glasses.

Tags: memoirs
   
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