The writer, Martha Tolles (center), at her Smith College reunion.


Photo by The writer, Martha Tolles (center), at her Smith College reunion.

This Is What It’s Like to Be 90

The good news: The secret to longevity doesn't involve eating raw eggs or porridge or even avoiding men. The less good news, says this children's book author: Getting older is kind of weird.

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Imagine my surprise when I saw someone ask this question about me on the internet one day: “Is Martha Tolles still alive?”

Well, of course! I wanted to shout. Just because I’m 90 doesn’t mean I’m not here.

But there are difficulties and I realize I must adapt and fit in to a changing world. It’s more high tech for example. Recently, I went to a small airport and asked to buy a ticket.

The man behind the counter said, “We don’t sell tickets.”

“What?” I was astonished.

“You have to buy them online or over the phone.” I stammered my protests. He offered me the use of a nearby phone booth, then suggested, “Can’t you call someone to buy you a ticket?” Eventually he let me come behind the counter and use a vacant computer to purchase my own ticket. While l stood there, I worried about what I would do if people lined up in front of me. I know, I thought, I’ll just sell them a ticket.

Another time I decided to sign up for a weight-loss program on the internet. I’d already given up most salt, sweets, fats, lactose, and maybe even gluten. What would be next—food? I answered their questions: How many pounds do you want to lose? How soon? How tall are you? What is your birth date?  

I typed it in and back came the answer: “This is not a valid birth date.”  

How can that be? I’ve been born, I swear. Here I am. It took several more tries and I finally had to explain that I was referring to the last century.         

Of course it’s a younger world I’m living in, too. So when a strange man smiles at me at the airport and tries to start a conversation, I know it’s because I remind him of his mother.

And when people tell jokes, I laugh even though I don’t hear the last line. That can be dangerous though. Once, I pretended to like off-color songs at a party and later found out how raunchy the words were. Another time, I signed up for a class in novel-writing for grown-ups (I wrote children books for years), and I felt like an antique among all these younger people. When I read aloud a passage I wrote, about something that happened just a few years ago—like World War II—you’d think I was writing about the Middle Ages.

“Oh, yeah,” one classmate said. “I read about that in history class.”

But there are benefits to old age if your health holds up at all. I recently went in for physical therapy, and as I checked in at the reception desk, the receptionist peered up at me and asked, “But where’s the patient?” I wasn’t in a wheelchair, or using a walker or cane, so I guess I looked pretty good. I must appear younger than my years, because when I went through security at the airport and didn’t remove my shoes, the guard reprimanded me, saying, “You have to be over 70.”   

“But I am,” I said proudly.

Or take the other night at a dinner: I was seated next to an old duffer like myself. His wife was on the far side of the table and I noticed he was having trouble cutting up his meat so I said, “I’ve raised six children and cut up a lot of food. Could I help?” He seemed grateful for the little pieces I sliced for him and at the end of the dinner he whispered to me, “We have to stop meeting like this.” I felt positively young!

It’s a little odd to be a survivor, like someone who got left behind by accident. I’m not quite sure why I deserve it. Maybe it’s because I gave up smoking early. (At first I tried to quit by smoking lettuce cigarettes, which tasted awful.) Someone rushed up to me at a party at my house and said, “Martha, I smell something terrible. I think your couch is on fire.” After that, I renounced the foul weed.

Maybe I’m still here because I ate a banana every day, or went for walks, or had a grandma who lived to be 97. Funny how I’ve begun to feel boastful about my age after years of desperately trying to hide it. Suddenly all my secretive friends are announcing their 90th birthdays too. Although, my uncle’s second wife claimed to be 95, but when she died we found out she was 98.

And so here I am, missing my loved ones and dear friends, trying not to feel lonely, especially without my husband of 63 years—yet sheepishly proud I’m here. Because I am so old, people don’t expect much of me either. When walking with a younger friend the other day, she said, “Look at you. Aren’t you amazing? You can still walk!” Well, yes, I can and I’m still enjoying it. Sort of.


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