Older, Wiser, Hipper

headshot-hummelIn my family we call it “Uncle Herman’s Hip.” It probably got its start generations ago, in Germany, but my grandfather and his brother Herman made The Hip famous when they brought it to Long Island.

The brothers were always slightly off kilter, veering left of center when they walked. They winced on their way out of a chair and groaned on their way down. Once one of them got to his feet, he would say, “I just need a minute to get my balance.” Balance was sometimes there, sometimes not. But they were made of stern stuff and saw The Hip as one of those inconveniences they could live with. So they did.

My mother’s generation played wait-and-see with The Hip. Her brother turned out to be a Yes. Her cousin got lucky and landed in the No column. When my mother started walking gingerly, we knew. She finally gave up denying it and went to the doctor, who gasped when he read the X-rays. She had a hip replacement the following week.

I didn’t take The Hip lottery too seriously when it was my generation’s turn.  “Don’t worry,” my mother told me, “you have your father’s genes, and his hip is fine.” I was happy to align myself with the genetics of my father’s side of my family. Plus, my great-grandfather on that side lived to be 103. I was definitely going with them.

Now, at 63, I think I may have lost the lottery after all. Mine might not be Uncle Herman’s Hip, but it barks a little now and then. Maybe it’s just normal wear and tea – or perhaps The Hip DNA has been laying in wait all along. The good news: I don’t earn my living running the 50-yard dash or walking a runway. And a hip replacement, if I do need one down the road, is no big deal anymore. If my number is called, I’ll be as good as new in a few weeks.

The bad news: I’m not ready for any of this to happen.

So I call my friend Nan and say, “Want to have dinner?” which is what I do when I need to talk something out. In the 26 years we have known each other, between us we have had four careers, six kids, five grandchildren, and our fair share of triumphs and heartbreak. We have never known an awkward silence. We don’t reminisce much, and I like that about us. We don’t talk about our aches and pains much, either, and I like that, too. We focus on the present – not bad for two women with a long history.

If that sounds a bit smug, we’d be the first to admit it. The phrase “aging gracefully” slips out of our mouths a lot. We pride ourselves on our approach to growing older. On one hand, we still want to look good: We get expensive haircuts, eat well (enough), exercise (enough) and try to laugh a lot. If we don’t wear this year’s shoes, we at least know what they look like. What we don’t do: Botox, hours at the gym or plastic surgery. We don’t try to look our daughters’ ages. Most of the time, we embrace our curves and laugh lines. We like to think we’ve turned being comfortable in our own skin into something of a cottage industry.

Tonight Nan meets me at our favorite restaurant and I say it to Nan – the first time I’ve said it out loud: “I think I might have The Hip thing after all.”

“Uncle Herman’s Hip?” I love that she knows the name of my family’s ball-and-socket misfortune.

I nod. Then I smile. It’s my intentional grin, meant to say, “No big deal.” But this is my first moving part that may be off the rails, so it is a big deal. So we discuss The Hip: Maybe it’s not that at all; what if it is. She’ll text me the number of a good orthopedist when she gets home.

When it’s time to slide out of the booth, I use a system that I’m getting fairly good at. I take my time and then brace just slightly for that first second when my weight will be firmly over my hips. Usually at this point I’m good to go, but tonight a long-ago memory grabs me. Mrs. Clark. Or more specifically, her hip.

In college, I took babysitting jobs through the school’s placement office. One day the secretary said, “We have an unusual request. It’s for a 98-year-old man.” The pay was a whopping $2 an hour. I was game.

Mr. Clark and his wife, also in her 90s, lived in one of the town’s last surviving mansions. She had a luncheon to attend, and her husband’s nurse would be driving her. My only job was to make sure Mr. Clark did not try to sneak out of bed for a smoke.

I had never been in a home so grand. A maid in uniform let me in. I stood in an entrance hall and looked up to see Mrs. Clark begin her slow descent. Radiant in a tailored black pants suit, her face framed by perfect white hair, she stood on the curved mahogany staircase and smiled at me below. “I’ll be there in a bit, my dear,” she said, never letting her smile fade as she gave her hip preferential treatment with each step. “As you can see, I move with all the grace of a lame camel.”

I think about Mrs. Clark all the way home. I wonder when she felt her first twinge. I wonder if it was the first big thing that went wrong. Maybe she said, “Well, no one does cartwheels across the lawn forever,” and got on with the rest of her life.

I’d like to think I have 30 years to become more like her. I’m going to work on that, hip and all.

Linda Hummel’s work has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many women’s magazines. 

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