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Friends teach 'What's Worth Knowing'

SEATTLE — Mrs. Brown, otherwise known as "the lady with the stroke in room 208," gave brief, listless answers to the questions put to her by the University of Washington social-work student.

Where are you from?

"Kansas."

How long have you been in Seattle?

"Since I retired."

And there the conversation stalled until the student, Wendy Lustbader, remarked how dull it must have been, growing up on a farm with nothing but fields to see.

Indignant, Mrs. Brown sprang to life and said, "That's not how it was. We had a lot of fun. We chased butterflies, made up adventures, dug in the dirt — we didn't stop playing for a minute, from dawn to dusk."

That was the start of a lively, three-hour conversation.

Lustbader, now 46 and a nationally known expert on aging, has learned much in the intervening 20 years.

Some of her deepest insights have come from her white-haired compadres in nursing homes, on buses and even at her own dinner table. What's the key to a good life? What counts at the end? What's it all about, Alfie?

Lustbader distills those lessons in an enchanting new book, "What's Worth Knowing" (Tarcher, 243 pages, $22.95). A quick but thoughtful read, it presents the reflections of more than 100 of the most profound elders she has met — people whose insights changed Lustbader's life long after she jotted their thoughts into her journal. The book re-creates their thoughts, in their own voices, if not their exact words.

"All these elders were guides to me," said Lustbader, an energetic woman who vibrates like a tuning fork as she speaks of her old friends. Her dark eyes light up behind her glasses and she laughs in a delight of reminiscence. Kind of like the older people she has come to know so well.

"I've been preparing to be an old lady for so many years," she said with a laugh, sitting cross-legged on the couch of her Montake home. "Inside, I am already an old lady, and I say that proudly. I picture my own aging, if I've listened to my guides, as not having many regrets."

Lustbader is an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington and works one day a week as a counselor at Seattle's Pike Market Medical Clinic. She travels extensively to lecture about aging. Her previous books include "Counting on Kindness" and "Taking Care of Aging Family Members."

She hopes the vignettes in "What's Worth Knowing" will inspire younger people to look beyond the wrinkles into the hearts of elders in their midst.

Catch the wisdom in these brief excerpts from "What's Worth Knowing." Some of the elders are identified by pseudonyms, others by their real names. Entries reflect their ages at the time Lustbader recorded their comments.

Betty Seville, 76: I always wanted to go to Paris. Harry would say, "Wait till next year. Wait till the kids are done with college. Wait till after we get a new roof." Wait, wait, wait, that's all I ever heard. Then he went and had his stroke, not a week after he retired.

You'll always have plenty of reasons for putting things off. Waiting makes good sense at the time. But later you'll see things differently. Trust me.

Martin Degeorge, 99: What makes a good marriage? Hard work. We should know. Harriet and I have been working at it for over 75 years. Young couples today think it's a piece of cake. Then, when it's rough, they give it up.

Sure, there have been times I wanted to walk out and never look back. Now I have to help her to the bathroom. You think that's fun? Half the time, we don't even get there in time. But she's still my sweet bride. We've had at least 10,000 misunderstandings, 10,000 hurts and another 10,000 apologies.

Dorothy Bobrow, 86: (Lustbader's grandmother grew up on New York's Lower East Side, the 11th child of immigrant parents. She died four years ago.)

My mother was pushing 90, but she still wouldn't let us give her a hand with anything. "I'm fine." That's all she'd say, but we knew she wasn't. And look at me! I've been pushing everyone away, just like she did. It's my pride. . . But it's hard for me to carry my laundry basket and use my cane at the same time. The other day, I let my granddaughter do a wash for me. You should have seen her face, so proud to be helping her grandma. I know this is the way it should be.

Jerry Hersch, 70: (Hersch shared these regrets the day before his death from cancer.)

I was too good at keeping grudges. If somebody crossed me, that was it. Finished. You could get down on your knees and I wouldn't bat an eyelash. I dropped friends right and left. No one could live up to my standards. Then my daughter wrote me off. I didn't come through on a promise, and zap, she was done with me. She wouldn't let me explain. I got a taste of my own medicine. It's been more than 20 years now and we haven't said a word to each other. I've been wanting to call my daughter, but it's too late. I let too many years go by.

Edna Whitman Chittick, 101: (As a young graduate student, Lustbader visited Chittick at her nursing home every Saturday for three years. "You're my last friend," Chittick told her.

One day, as the white-haired woman lay struggling to breathe, she told her young visitor, "I'm going to miss you." Startled, Lustbader replied, "I'm not going anywhere." But Chittick only repeated the remark. As the visit ended, Lustbader said gaily, "See you next Saturday."

When she arrived home, she learned that kindly "Mrs. Chittick" had died moments after saying goodbye to her "last friend.")

You spend half your life worrying about things that won't concern you in the slightest at the end. When you're lying in bed dying, you want people to sit by your side. That's it.

It's easy to get tricked by dreams of money and success, but all the money in the world doesn't buy you kindness. You get that because you gave it.


Excerpts are reprinted from "What's Worth Knowing" by Wendy Lustbader with permission of Jeremy P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. © 2001 Wendy Lustbader