Author’s Note: This is adapted from a story that originally appeared in the L.A. Weekly, and was reprinted in the Utne Reader. The L.A. Weekly editor wouldn’t use the original title –Still Wet At 90 — and insisted we change it to A Very Passionate Girl. Decades later, I’m pleased to change it back to the original, and more frisky title. The editor also asked me to change Goldie’s name. At the time Golda Mier was prime minister of Israel, and he thought readers might make an incorrect Israeli association between Goldie and Golda.
My friend Goldie was having the most erotic, passionate love affair of her life.
“Isn’t that cute!” said one man when I told him.
It was a lot of things, but “cute” it was not. Although some people couldn’t believe it, and a few were even repulsed, most smiled wistfully. “You mean there’s hope for me?”
Yes, you see, Goldie was 94.
I’d met Goldie four years earlier, the week of her 90th birthday. A friend, who knew I was looking for an antique braided rug to go with an old quilt, said, “It’s hard to find antiques on the West Coast. But I know a woman who’s an antique who’ll make you one.”
From then on — once a month or so, as I drove the 20 freeway miles from my house in Pacific Palisades, California, to Goldie’s in Glendale — I’d wonder, Why am I, an ambitious, busy, 36-year-old, bicoastal television reporter, driving all this way to visit some old lady?
I would come to realize that my visits with Goldie had to do with eventually extracting myself from a bad first marriage, and with resolving a relationship I never got to complete with my grandmother. I understood this one day while I was buying Goldie a peignoir set for her upcoming amorous rendezvous. When I burst into tears in the lingerie department, I thought, Why am I getting so involved? If I phoned Goldie and she didn’t answer immediately, I didn’t think she was out in the garden raking leaves, or she’d driven her big black ’53 Cadillac to the grocery to get more of the vanilla ice cream she loved. My mind would race ahead: She’s gone and died on me. Just like my grandmother had.
My grandmother, Josephine, after whom I was named — Josie, Jo — was my best friend. From the time I was five years old, we shared a bedroom, a closet, a dresser, and a lifetime’s worth of feelings. My parents gave us the best bedroom — the one with the water view that looked out on Lake Washington — because they thought it was a hardship that I had to share my room. Far from it. I knew it was a special gift. Every morning as I lay in my twin bed next to hers, I’d pretend not to look as she slipped off her pink satin nightgown, and put her arms through the straps of a sturdy white corset that had a row of stiff hooks down the front. In fact, I studied her so closely that I knew every crease and line in her body. Professionally, she’d been a pastry chef, and I knew that her chocolate pudding pie, sticky cinnamon buns, and lemon meringue pie with the prettiest swirls on top, were made just for me, her roommate.
She made me pastries, and I gave her manicures. I wasn’t very steady with the clippers but it meant that I could hold her bakery-soft hands as long as I wanted.
She died when I was just 12, and 25 years later when I met Goldie, I got a chance to learn lessons my own grandmother had not lived long enough to teach me.
One afternoon Goldie and I were sitting in her kitchen with the pink café curtains, the crocheted tea cosy, and the walnut hutch that displayed plates from World Fairs. She brought out a lemon meringue pie still warm from the oven. Slicing the pie, Goldie told me about Fred, a retired railroad man who lived in a cabin on a lake in Columbus, Nebraska. Second cousins, they had met only a few months earlier at a family reunion. At 66, he was five years younger than her only son, and almost 30 years younger than Goldie.
“I wish every old lady would get herself a boyfriend. It does you a world of good!”
There was a new girlish giggle to her voice, and her white ponytail, which perched on the top of her head and fell in a corkscrew down to her shoulders, bobbed as she spoke. “The sound of his voice melts my heart. I never thought this would happen to me again.”
We helped ourselves to seconds of pie. “He’s a big man. Much bigger than Johnny [her husband who had died five years earlier].”
“How big?” I asked. I was licking sweet meringue off my fingers, and was not exactly sure to what she was referring.
“Oh, he’s at least six-foot-two.”
I pictured how large he must loom next to my diminutive four-foot-eleven friend.
“And he has such a handsome body!” As a flirtatious smile spread across her face, her powderpuff white skin turned rosy.
I dipped my tea bag in and out of a dainty, flowered china cup, and asked if she was scared about making love to a new man at her age. One might wonder about my boldness, but I was a woman of the ’80s and I wanted to know if my good friend — who was born well before the turn of the 20th century — and I are talking about the same thing. I bent closer so not to miss a word of her reply.
“No, I’m not afraid.” She spoke with the strength of a woman who had renovated houses for a living, and who still made her own ten-pound cement bricks. She had a confidence that came from knowing how. As she explained once, “It’s a blessing to know how. Sometimes I watch people staring at a broken light bulb or watching the car engine overheat or buying not enough nails at the hardware store. I watch them and laugh to myself because they don’t know how and I do!”
About Fred she said, “I’m experiencing feelings I’ve never felt before.” Her low Nebraska drawl forced me to listen closer. “ I went for years without sex before Johnny died because he lost the power of the erection. (This was pre-Viagra.) We had a good, companionable marriage and I loved him for forty years. Except it wasn’t like this terrible physical attraction Fred and I have for each other. I just want to fly into his arms.”
I drove home thinking about a fiction in our youth-oriented culture—that passion, whether sexual. intellectual, or creative, belongs only to the young. A recent dinner-table conversation came to mind where a friend, whose 14-year marriage had been monogamous, told me she wanted to have a last fling—soon. “Before I turn forty-five and it’s too late.”
Because of Goldie I knew it need never be too late. Although most of us will live longer than our parents, we are rarely encouraged to believe that life can be lived passionately to the very end.
So it was from Goldie that I learned the mysterious secrets of a passionate, creative, sensual older woman. She’d been unwelcomed child, an unwanted sister. At 40, when her first husband left her for a younger woman, she was so devastated she said that for two years couldn’t remember her name. It was her ability to overcome such hardships without ending up bitter that encouraged me. At the time I needed to leave a bad marriage. I couldn’t figure out why life was worth living one more day if I stayed married to that man, and being with Goldie, who had made it through more than 34, 310 days and still embraced each morning as a gift, gave me the inspiration I needed.
Goldie made me feel that maybe there was hope for me. If I lived long enough, maybe I’d finally get it right.
That summer Goldie decided to live with Fred for a while. I joined her in Nebraska, and drove her to the lake, and dropped her off at his small cabin. I wanted to see this scene with my own eyes: Sure enough Fred was as large as Goldie had described, he had a friendly face, and he seemed equally smitten. Goldie said she’d stay a week, or two. She stayed six.
When she returned home to California we had lunch. Because she couldn’t talk to her friends (“I’m getting accused of committing incest! Are they worried about a two-headed baby?”), or relatives (“They’re scared I’ll change my will.”), I was the only person with whom she talked about her lover. I waited until after she’d ordered her regular cottage-cheese-and-fruit salad before I asked, “So, are you still a virgin?”
She took a sip of wine. “I’m still a very passionate girl!”
Still wet at 94, I thought. Good for her. We should all be so lucky.