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Living the Longest

Are you gay?

If so, you may live longer than other people.

I was wondering why so many women and men in our small village lasted until their late 80's and 90's. So I went out and talked to them and their friends and relatives. I soon realized that a common thread ran through the anecdotal evidence I was collecting.

Time and again this is what I heard:

"Elle est très gaie." 

Yes, it was mostly women who were the gayest. And they were living the longest.

Our English word stems from gai, although of course its original meaning has largely fallen into disuse. For the French, however, "gai" remains the most popularly used term to describe someone with a merry or sunny disposition. No other word in their language captures an attitude toward life so perfectly.

Gay was what everybody said about Jeanne Calmet, a Frenchwoman who died several years ago at the age of 122, the oldest person who ever lived, based on authenticated records.

And gay certainly describes Alice Dalod (left, at 21), the oldest person in our village. Born in 1896, she has touched three centuries and is now 104.

Alice is taking part in Project Chronos, a French study begun nine years ago to try to establish why so many people are living longer. The country had only 250 centenarians in 1950. They project that in the year 2050 possibly as many as 750,000 people will live to be a 100 years old or more.

The French are looking for the answer in Alice's genetic makeup, examining her DNA. But maybe they should look for it in her laughter.

Alice Dalod, 104, our village's oldest person, with her stripling of a son, Jean, who is only 79.

Alice says: "I had a passion for work. I loved every minute of it." She was a dressmaker and an artist of crocheting and knitting. She's still at it, making gifts like these for her friends. At left, a hat used to conceal a roll of toilet paper for an outing to the countryside.

Obviously there is more to living longer than just being gay. Like everyone else I talked to over 90, Alice loved her work with a deep passion; she was a dressmaker. Like everyone else, too, she was moderate in her habits. She never smoked, drank wine sparingly, and ate without excess--but also without the worry that many people today invest in their diet. She still has for breakfast the same thing she has had every morning of her life: black coffee and toasted bread with real butter. She has never taken vitamins but has always eaten a green salad with olive oil every day and plenty of fruit. She recently took up a new addition to her diet--American iced tea, peach-flavored. (Iced tea has caught on with the French public in the last several years.)

Alice lives alone. Her son Jean, 79, moved to our village several years ago to make sure her needs were taken care of. He attends to her lunch each day, but respects her independence.

"In life, stress is everything," Jean says. "She has no stress, she's happy."

Angèle Perrin, who is going on 94, is almost a duplicate of Alice Dalod in her lifelong habits. She never smoked, ate and drank moderately, and loved her work. She ran the village hardware store for forty years, and gave it up only when her husband died. She lives by herself, does her own housekeeping and cooking. Not only did she always have a sunny nature, her woman friends say she was très coquette (a big flirt)--a charge she accepts with a smile.

Angèle Perrin at 20. Her friends described her as "a big flirt" when she was young. At nearly 94 she is still a handsome woman who lives alone and fully takes of herself. And she still has the same glint in her eye. I took her photo, but decided not to use it. Let's remember her like this.

This is how the street where Angèle lived looked when the photo at left was taken. It looks about the same today--and she still lives there, Rue de l'Eglise. You can see the church looming in the center background--a very fine example of 11th Century Romanesque.

Angèle has never been in a hospital or clinic in her life. The others I interviewed have enjoyed good health too, and studies have shown that a positive attitude leads to less disease. My wife Claude's medical school classmate, Annie Belaiche, is a top cancer specialist in Paris. Annie says that so many people get cancer after being overwhelmed by some emotional problem that the anecdotal evidence cannot be ignored.

Another reason people are living longer in France--an excellent medical system. I find amazing the health benefits the French take for granted. Americans debate whether senior citizens should have free prescription drugs. But the French already have a long-running Social Security program that picks up from fifty to a hundred percent of medicine costs for EVERYBODY.

In our village, people can walk into the pharmacy, produce the proper identification, and walk out without paying a cent for their medicine. The pharmacy is paid directly by the Social Security system. No fuss, no bother, it's all computerized. Oh, and I forgot to mention: hospitalization and surgery are completely free.

Of course, the big question is whether the French can continue with such generous benefits in future years. Where is the money coming from? Thirty years from now there will be only two workers for every one person living off social benefits. France is already one of the highest taxed countries in the world.

Back to real people

Jeanne Decorps, 94. Also lives by herself. Drinks a little wine every day. She's a bit deaf but she has a truly incredible memory. She can reel off the names of all 21 cafés that used to be open in the village. (There are only two left.) She laughs and slaps the table as her memories come spilling out. Her husband, who sold lemonade and beer, was a great cook, and they loved to give long, boisterous dinners.

Jeanne Decorps, 94, in the doorway of her home. She liked to eat, drink wine, and dance. She is still ready to play a practical joke.

Jeanne sent her brother this postcard on September 17, 1917, during World War One. It says: "We'll get the boches" (Germans). American forces had begun to arrive.

Several of my personal friends

Hemingway wrote of "The Lost Generation" after World War One. He was speaking about men. But in France there was a "Lost Generation" of women. These were girls who came of age at the time of the war or shortly thereafter and remained forever unmarried, because the war had taken such horrendous toll of France's young men.

Two of these women, Madeleine and Lily Lamoine, were our closeby neighbors, loving friends of Claude's father, Panou. They were classic examples of the Lost Generation. Their father was killed in the war, leaving their mother as one of 630,000 war widows in the country. By the end of the war nearly two million Frenchmen were dead, putting the ratio between men and women of marriageable age at 45 males to 55 females, where it was to remain for some years.

Madeleine and Lily were pretty and smart, but their future had been predetermined by the war. They began work early, embroidering in their home, then taking their wares by train to a nearby city to sell. There were boyfriends, but their mother took precedence over their own desires to establish a family.

After their mother died, the two sisters continued to live and work together. Madeleine, the older by three years, acted as the chief of the household. They were known in the village as "les soeurs Lamoine," and "sisters" in this case had a double meaning, because they were the mainstays of the church and as dedicated as nuns--"les bonnes soeurs"--to helping people.

Claude often told her father Panou, who was very beloved by the village, that only Madeleine would have more people at her funeral. When Madeleine died two years ago, at 92, I took a rough count in the church and called it a tie. But Madeleine may have edged out Panou by several chairs. I myself stood during the service, in order to free up a seat.

Madeleine and Lily at the time their father was killed in World War One. They were classic examples of the "Lost Generation" of French women--a widowed mother to take of and few men of marriageable age due to the horrific casualties of World War I.

Madeleine (left) and Lily, in their eighties, when they were our close neighbors. They had known and loved, Panou, Claude's father, since they were kids. As at Panou's funeral, the church was overflowing two years ago when Madeleine died.


We started to visit Lily, who is still in good health at 92, but discovered that she had checked herself into a retirement home without telling anybody in the village. Ever independent, she had no wish to be a burden on anyone, she said.

Jeannette, 92

I asked Claude to phone Jeannette and set up a time for a photo session. "Tell her to wear a dress, so she can show her legs," I said.

"Are you crazy," Claude said. "I'm not going to tell a 92-year-old woman that."

She didn't have to. When Claude phoned, the first thing Jeannette said was, "Does Zalin want me in a dress or a pants suit?"

Jeannette and I at her home. I say if you've got it, why not flaunt it--even if you are 92-years-old.

Jeannette is a good amateur photographer, and I knew she would make the setup herself. Sure enough, she suggested that she sit in a chair, with me behind her. Claude snapped the shot.

Jeannette and I share a love of oysters, and every Christmas and New Year's Eve I take her a dozen along with a bottle of white wine, and open them while we have a drink.

I was asking her about wine when we were doing the photo, and she said she now drinks a glass of red Bordeaux at lunch and in the evening. Her doctor, she said, had prescribed it.

"Only two glasses?" I said.

"Oh Zalin, you know I never got tipsy," she said.

No, but wow! could she knock it back when she was in her eighties.

That's not the final answer, I know, to living the longest. But let's pretend it is. A glass of wine twice a day keeps the doctor away.

Notes from the Summer II

"Your Letters sound idyllic," a friend was saying. "It must be fun living in a French village."

"Well, yes," I replied. "With the new technology you can live anyplace, if you do a certain kind of work. But life has a way of reminding all of us that nothing is perfect. Take this past summer, for example, it was lousy from start to finish."

France has been hit with weird weather, too. It was so cold in July that everybody wore jackets practically the whole month. Which meant that Claude's annual neighborhood party to celebrate Quatorze Juillet had to be held inside. And what could be more boring than a picnic-style party confined to a house?

Our friend Maurice (left) who used to be the village's preeminent charcutier before he turned into a farmer and raiser of mutton--which he shares with us. But not even Maurice's artistry could turn an inside-the-house picnic on a cold July day into a memorable event.

After the cold July came the haying season. I get the most terrible hay fever every year--runny nose, eyes, sneezing. This is not one rural tradition I look forward to.

More than anything, there was a weight bearing on us the entire summer. Not a morning, not an evening went by when we didn't discuss our dog Duquesa. Her condition had deteriorated to the point that I had to carry her outside in my arms. She was toothless, blind, deaf. Her back legs had given out, and she could hardly walk. She was becoming incontinent.

Claude gives Duquesa her final cookie. The veterinarian put her to sleep one hour later. She was 17.

"She has had a very good life," Claude would say.

"Yes, she has had a very good life," I would reply.

It was our mantra. We must have said it fifty times each day. And it was true. Duquesa had never had any medical problems. She was born in the very house where she was now passing away. She had lived in Paris, taken trips to Spain, Switzerland, other countries.

The vet was called, arrangements were made. I dug a grave at the end of the garden, and surrounded it with rocks that had been carved in the 15th century.

On the scheduled morning we had tea as we do every morning. Suddenly Duquesa crawled out of her bed and wobbled toward us. She wanted her final cookie. Tears filled our eyes. She was 17-years-old.

After I buried Duquesa we fled to a vacation south of Bordeaux, hoping to shake the depression we both felt. It was the last of August, and soon the resort would be emptying as people returned to their work in the cities at the beginning of September.

The house was located only a three-minutes walk from a tranquil beach and small port. The seafood was wonderful. Claude and I were content--et très gais.

A Parisian we knew, Elisabeth, was staying down the road but had left her cat with us because our compound was well enclosed. After our first week, Elisabeth was set to return to Paris, and she asked me not to feed the cat on Saturday, so she could come by and put it in its box for the trip home.

About midnight on Saturday I was awakened by the sound of a shrill, desperate voice: "Viens voir maman. . .Viens voir maman." ("Come see Mama.")

It was Elisabeth. She couldn't catch her cat.

I got up and went outside.

"Elisabeth," I said, "You'll never catch the cat like that. Just make noise with the food and it'll come after a few minutes."

She ignored me and continued: "Viens voir maman." It was a Paris cat that had turned wild.

She went home without the cat. I awoke at 6:20 the next morning to go to the bathroom. I heard the cat. I went to get the food.


September 20, 2000--an hour after I was discharged from the hospital. Claude says I look like a Mafia guy whose "hit" went disastrously wrong. After dodging bullets in Vietnam for 5 years, I was almost killed by a pussycat.

I wanted to help Elisabeth because I knew she was supposed to leave for Paris in three hours.

Anything else?

Yeah, I thought she was being a bit of an airhead on this point and that I could do better.

I know how dangerous cats can be if threatened. I've got two cats myself. I intended to grab the cat by the back of the neck, bring it toward my body, and flip it on its back, where it could do no harm.

What I forgot, until the last moment, was that I was completely nude. If I brought the cat toward my body it would scratch my heart out.

I hesitated. The cat sank its teeth into both of my hands. It happened so fast, the damage was done, no need to turn loose.

I was gushing blood.

I yelled for Claude, who was asleep. She arrived groggily and tried to open the door to the storeroom, where I could throw the cat.

But she had forgotten her glasses--and, nude too, had to get down on her knees to find the keyhole. The cat was snarling and spitting. What the neighbors thought, God only knows. Finally we got it inside the storeroom.

I rushed to find disinfectant, and later went to a local doctor. He said that I was suffering major cat-bite trauma, but that my hands didn't seem to be infected. Just in case, he gave me some antibiotics.

When I got back to my home in the country I realized that my left hand was improving but not my right. The swelling was moving up my arm. The pain was--well, interesting.

I went to see my surgeon friend, Odile, in a nearby city. I was in the hospital three hours later, hooked up to an IV stand with four separate bags of antibiotics. She operated the next morning, September 19, under general anesthesia. Behind the knuckle of my right index finger, the cat had bitten clear into the bone. I had two separate infections.

In the hospital, I was treated like the bearded lady of the circus. Americans are rare enough in my area--but an American mauled by a cat? Nurses came from all over to gaze at this oddity. I awoke at 2:30 a.m. to find one staring at me.

"Your cat bit you?" she said. They all assumed it was my cat, and I couldn't let this slander pass unanswered, so each time I went into my explanation.

"No, it wasn't my cat, my cats love me. It was Elisabeth's cat. You see, Elisabeth is the second ex-wife of my wife's ex-husband, Pierre, and she lives in Paris and I was near Bordeaux."

"She's what?" they would say, eyes widening, obviously thinking, "This guy is utterly crazy."

Right before I was discharged, a pretty nurse with long blond hair arrived to make a little speech. She said that they had enjoyed having me and concluded with the declaration that I was so unusual they would never forget me.

I'll bet.

I asked Odile later what would have happened if I had waited a little longer to see her. Would I have lost my hand? my arm?

"No," she laughed. "Your life." I was headed to Septicemia City.

So after dodging bullets for 5 years in Vietnam, I was almost killed by a pussycat.

And here's the sympathy I got: Bill Shachte, a former admiral and my college classmate, wrote to tell me how a guy he knew had died of a much lesser infection contracted when he fell during a Marathon; Joe Galloway, a former fellow correspondent in Saigon, advised me to "stop acting like a Boy Scout;" other friends weighed in with tales of lymph nodes ripped out, early deaths.

As for Elisabeth, when I gave her the cat, she said, "Merci, Zalin."

"Oh," I said, "it was nothing."

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