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His grandpa was born before 1865. This writer notes a broad grin, humor shed years

·3 min read

My Aunt Mable Zaner was born in 1885 and, if alive today, would be 136 years old. So her father and my grandfather, John Marion Andrews, likely was born before 1865, maybe during the Civil War.

Aunt Mable had a little trick of peering down at me through her bifocals, opening her mouth wide and dropping her upper plate onto her lower teeth: clack.

“All right, now, Charles,” she would say, “you try that. See if you can make your teeth shake loose like I do mine.”

So I would yank and jerk at my solidly anchored incisors while my mother, Cora Alice Hammer, and Aunt Georgia Hogan giggled from the sidelines. How cruel, I might have thought, had I the slightest idea what was going on. That might have happened in 1941, the year of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Today I am only 87, not so old compared to the 92 of Nat, the guy who prances beside me in exercise class. Age impresses, even frightens, me. But isn’t this a different era, when 60 is the new 40 and 87 the new 67? Most optimists erase only 10 years, not the 20 I’ve awarded myself here.

I am awed at the span of my generations. I have two daughters in their 50s and four grandchildren. Carson, the youngest, is 15. With superb future medical care, he could live to 100, dying in 2205. So from John Marion, born maybe during the Civil War, and his bride, Mattie Bragg, our family’s generations through only four mated pairs just might cover 340 years — all that span with just four wives and four husbands. Carson could carry the line forward to infinity — a dynasty.

Age does have problems, one being that (full journalistic disclosure) nowadays I don’t look much like the chipper face that tops this column. What distresses me more are the collapsing faces of actors I admire: Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, and even Michelle Pfeiffer. A radiant smile still does wonders for Michelle, as it does for a talented Kansas City Star journalist I worked beside 60 years ago.

Leafing through an old photo album, I figured out her trick. In picture after picture, decade after decade, it’s as if someone dropped an ice cube down her back. Her mouth flies open, her eyes widen, and her face sheds 20 years of aging. What fun I’m having with this stupid jokester, she seems to be saying. I envy her radiant smile.

The good times will end, of course. I remember walking away from Grandad John Marion’s grave in 194l as clods fell on his coffin. I asked my parents whether we would dig him up. No, we never would. I didn’t even see the grave again until, six years later in junior high school, a chain link fence beside the ball field began to look familiar. I hopped over and found the graveyard with a twinned concrete marker, John Marion and Mattie side by side.

My 91-year-old best pal from the Kansas City Star years, J. Harry Jones Jr., now lives with his wife, Jo, in a Chicago retirement home. Harry was also memorable as a journalist, scourge of the hometown Mafia, winner of the American Bar Association award for his series on prisons plus an Overseas Press Club award for reporting on Africa. Doctors tell him he shouldn’t worry about his cancer, because his heart or lungs may get him first. His cancer support group asked him for a poem. Here’s a fragment:

So, cancer, try and get me/ You too, lungs and heart/

You seem in competition/to cause me to depart/

I’ll fight you all/ tooth and nail/ I hope I’ll win/ and you will fail.

But when I don’t/ It’ll be okay/ My life’s been good/ What’s more to say?

Contact the columnist at

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