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Nifty Ninety



When it comes to staying young, a mind-lift beats a face-lift any day. — Marty Bucella

My laptop sat atop the piano, two windows open: one displayed sheet music for an advanced, chord-heavy version of “Happy Birthday”; the other, a picture-guide to help me remember which notes corresponded to which keys. I once gave a recital of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor, and now I was struggling to locate A-flat. Playing an instrument, like speaking a language, requires practice, and, like my Spanish, my piano-playing is muy mal.

“That’s sounding great,” said Marianne, David’s second cousin and owner of the piano my clumsy fingers had been insulting.

“It’s coming along,” I said. “I should have it down by tonight.” I wasn’t the only one preparing for the occasion — every member of the family had assumed a role in preparation for Marianne’s mother’s 90th birthday celebration. David had been helping out in the kitchen; Marianne’s daughter and nieces were learning a dance routine; her brother, husband, and son were being taught how to drum; and Kathy, Marianne’s sister, was busy putting the finishing touches on a photo slide show and assisting her performance-artist friends with a special, top-secret, pre-cake presentation that involved black lights and incantations.

I had yet to meet the matriarch, whose florid reputation preceded her with the pomp and majesty of the Rose Parade. I knew she spoke four languages (English, Hungarian, German, French). I knew she was a survivor — when her husband passed away in the ’70s, she got a job and continued raising three children on her own. I knew she could sew, but that’s an understatement: Marianne’s house is decorated with pillows upon which her mother had embroidered portraits of the family using a variety of materials from string to suede. She’d completed the most recent — a striking likeness of Judith’s Yorkshire terrier — that week for her niece’s 70th birthday, which we were also celebrating. I knew she was clever — David’s father, a bridge aficionado, is often in awe of the older woman’s mad skillz. I knew she was strong — the invitation to her soiree had featured a triptych of the dowager doing a push-up on the beach with a caption that read, “88…89…90!” Apparently, the photo had been her idea, and the push-up was not faked. I’d eaten her cooking, as each fall she makes a factory’s worth of almond wafer biscotti and sends tins to every family household.

But despite my familiarity with the woman, my only direct contact with her had been answering the phone at my in-laws’ place and hearing her cheery voice call out the Hungarian greeting (szervusz, pronounced sair-voos), after which I would say “Hold on” and pass the receiver to the closest relative. I had just learned the spelling of her name, as it was scrawled on the label that arrived with a bouquet of flowers that morning: B-u-c-k-o (pronounced boots-ko).

Marianne lives in Potomac, Maryland, an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. Bucko was transported from her home in Philadelphia (a two-story house she maintains herself) by her neighbor and friend, a car fanatic around 20 years her junior. “Bucko takes care of my baby,” he said shortly after I met him in the kitchen. “My Porsche,” he clarified. “It lives in her garage.” My eyes glazed over as he continued to speak of cars and engines to the men in the room.

An elderly woman with cropped, champagne-colored hair and thick bifocals appeared. She couldn’t have been taller than 5 feet. That must be Bucko, I thought. “You must be Barbarella,” said the woman with a Hungarian accent that made my name sound like a song. She lunged forward, and I met her halfway to exchange kisses. Her voice was shaky, but her body was sturdy and solid as we hugged. “You’re the youngest person here. That’s how I knew,” she said, punctuating each sentence with a low, staccato laugh.

It was strange to have her before me. Until now, Bucko had been like a unicorn — part of me didn’t believe she existed. She deftly moved around me to the counter, where, while chatting with her friend and daughter, she sliced dates and spread them open on a board so that they could more easily be filled with goat cheese. Sally, Marianne’s yellow Labrador, was at Bucko’s side, staring in full puppy-dog-eyed force.

“She wants one of those dates,” I said.

“No,” Bucko laughed. “She doesn’t want to eat; she wants to learn how to prepare this.” Now I understood what David had meant when he described his great-aunt as a “pip.” I added “funny” and “quick-witted” to the list of adjectives that described the birthday girl.

For the first hour of the party, family and friends arrived in a steady stream. A violinist and an accordionist played Eastern European classics and Gypsy music as people sipped wine and nibbled on appetizers in the salon. When the musicians increased the tempo, Bucko sprang to her feet and started to dance — not a reserved old person’s dance, like the common shuffle — her hands were high in the air, her feet were kicking, and after a man half her age stepped in to join her, she moved even faster, allowing herself to be twirled and dipped. I stared at Bucko in awe. This woman defied every stereotype of people over 70. She’s more full of life than half of the 30-somethings I know.

Bucko got her groove on for three songs in a row and then sat on the couch to chat with her grandson. While seated, she noticed one of her teenaged granddaughters tottering by in super-high heels. No one seemed surprised when Bucko asked to try them on. Her granddaughter was quick to oblige, slipping off her heels and handing them over. Bucko added the shoes to her ensemble (black pants and shiny silver top) and twirled for us. I realized that she could rock those heels if she wanted to — certainly they helped bring her up to everyone else’s eye level. After some laughter and exaggerated posing, she returned the stilettos and donned her sensible slip-ons.

After a while, everyone went downstairs for the big performance, which turned out to be a Burning Man–esque show, replete with drumming, “the stroking of auras,” and spoken word. Throughout the production, Bucko accepted the artsy accolades with laughter and smiles from her “throne.” The celebration segued into the slide show, during which Bucko grew quiet and misty as she watched images of her extensive life.

When it was time to sing “Happy Birthday,” I sat at the piano and froze after the first two notes. As the voices trailed off in confusion, I begged for a do-over and tried again. No one seemed to mind or notice when I flubbed a chord; their singing drowned out the music. When the song was finished and I turned around, I could see in each admiring gaze that everyone, including me, wanted to be like Bucko.

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